INDIO, Calif. — The old gag about people who brag about loving both kinds of music — country and western — gets a twist at Stagecoach. Out in the Southern California desert, the annual festival serves up both kinds of country music: that which sells, and everything else.
Fest-goers generally fall into one camp or the other, and even though it often feels that the gap between is a great divide, there’s not a hint of rivalry among these groups that otherwise rarely intersect.
The majority, predictably, plop down their blankets and lawn chairs — the kind with the built-in, beer-friendly cup holders — in front of the Mane Stage, where on Saturday the lineup was topped by a couple of contemporary country’s more pop-driven acts, Keith Urban and Sugarland, and Sunday by the hard-charging likes of Toby Keith and Brooks & Dunn.
Far across the Empire Polo Field grounds in Indio, tradition-loving fans ensconced themselves in front of the Palomino Stage, where standard bearers such as Merle Haggard, Ray Price and Bobby Bare held forth on Saturday, while Sunday’s offerings extended from the searingly dark folk country of Mary Gauthier to the Band-influenced Avett Brothers to those country-gospel hit makers of yore, the Oak Ridge Boys.
And in between, at the Mustang Stage, fans of the fringe were served by boundary-blind Americana musicians including Victoria Williams, Trampled by Turtles, Truth & Salvage and Black Prairie, Grand Ole Opry stalwarts Bill Anderson and Little Jimmy Dickens and cowboy poets Waddie Mitchell and Baxter Black.
It’s a catholic mix that draws no distinction between acts that just want to party and those more concerned with the inner workings of the human heart. But the difference is there for anyone attuned to it, and for many, the gift of Stagecoach is the ability to experience both schools in the same place.
And plenty turned out to savor that gift: Preliminary estimates put the average attendance at 50,000 each day, a significant uptick from last year’s record of 40,000 per day, Paull Tollett, chief of promoter Goldenvoice, said Sunday.
Bobby Bare got Saturday off to a rousing start with several of the Shel Silverstein narrative tales he’s recorded over the years — sterling examples of detail-rich songwriting that avoids cliche at every turn. Silverstein excelled in the tradition of tall tales from the American frontier going back to poet Robert W. Service and beyond, this one concerning a chump who’s had one too many and decides to pick a fight with the toughest guy in the bar, only to get a lecture on what it really means to be “The Winner”: “He said, ‘You see these bright white smilin’ teeth, you know they ain’t my own / Mine rolled away like Chiclets down a street in San Antone.’ “
Gauthier, one of the most powerfully incisive songwriters of the last decade, achieved no less than musical transcendence in her show-opening set Sunday. Boldly offering several new tunes from her upcoming autobiographical album, “The Foundling,” she dug into her own past as an infant placed for adoption because her single mother was shamed into it. “Mama kissed me one time and said goodbye / I still believe in love.” Music doesn’t hit any harder than that.
And although a fuse blew and the power failed mid-song, she and her two band mates stepped to the front of the stage and finished it literally unplugged. This on the same day that promised Brooks & Dunn’s mindless line-dance anthem “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” later that evening.
In an early evening set on Saturday, Haggard also exhibited the expert use of a pen as he turned in a classics-heavy set that was carried live on satellite radio. But he included one of the tunes from his new “I Am What I Am” album, “Pretty When It’s New,” a number that implies as much or more than it says each time he sang the hook “Love is always pretty,” paused for just a moment to give listeners a chance to think, then finished the thought, “when it’s new.”
The 84-year-old Price touched on the Kris Kristofferson songbook that he helped introduce 40 years ago and that gave a second — or was it third? — wind to his long career, wrapping his performance with the exquisite ode to parting gracefully, “For the Good Times.”
Such moments seemed to have little in common with Sugarland, for instance, back at the Mane Stage, coaxing a crowd that needed little coaxing onto its feet with a beat-driven medley that blended the band’s own hits with selections from the stash of its classic-rock and R&B influences. “Everyday America,” with its chorus suggesting that “everybody’s dreaming big,” weaved its way, as the sun set on Saturday, into Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On,” the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” and Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).”
Urban likewise kept the energy flowing with his pulsing country rock, giving equal time to his sensitive-guy lyrics and his expansive electric guitar work. As Saturday’s headliner, he loaded up the set with his hits, even the few moments of introspection subservient to the party atmosphere that kicks into full gear after sundown.
It’s the difference between holding the attention of a crowd that numbers in the tens of thousands versus a couple of thousand that can jam into the Palomino tent, or a few hundred that made it to the Mustang Stage at the beginning of the day Saturday for one of Victoria Williams’ typically ethereal, loopily meandering but endearing performances.
But that’s the great thing about Stagecoach: There’s room enough in this town for both of ‘em.
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