Hollywood trekked to the desert for a surreal meeting of reality and fantasy at the 2017 Stagecoach country music festival in Indio, Calif., demonstrating how the younger, twangier sibling of the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival has come into its own during the last decade.
It happened a few minutes before Willie Nelson was due to take the stage for his marquee performance. Nelson agreed to delay his set for a few minutes so that director-writer-actor Bradley Cooper and his crew could film a shot intended for his forthcoming remake of “A Star Is Born” — a concert scene featuring Lukas Nelson and his band, Promise of the Real.
The surreal part was that a couple of thousand fans who’d just been singing along with Tommy James and the Shondells’ 1968 garage-rock classic “Mony Mony” heard nothing from the stage except the occasional crash of a cymbal or the thump of a bass drum.
And yet a star has been born in the world of music festivals: Stagecoach has grown from a scrappy, smaller, countrified answer to Coachella when promoter Goldenvoice launched it in 2007 to what last year was the fifth-highest-grossing music festival of any kind.
What also was evident this year was a maturation of Stagecoach’s identity and drawing power, which manifested in more guest appearances during performances by the scheduled artists.
Pop-R&B singer Elle King joined Friday’s headliner Dierks Bentley for a live rendition of their hit country duet “Different for Girls” before rising California singer-songwriter Jon Pardi also turned up on stage with Bentley for a Twitter-ready musical meeting.
Willie Nelson welcomed several of his musical admirers, first singer-songwriter Jamey Johnson, who co-wrote the title track with swamp rock king Tony Joe White for Nelson’s just-released album, “God’s Problem Child.”
For the finale of a show that coincided with the Red Headed Stranger’s 84th birthday on Saturday, a wagon full of guests ambled on stage during Nelson’s performance of the Carter Family country-gospel standard “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” They included veteran punk rocker John Doe, Americana singer-songwriter Margo Price, L.A. roots-country-folk singer-songwriter Cindy Wasserman and the biggest surprise of all, Nelson’s Farm Aid co-conspirator Neil Young, who blew a mean harmonica duet with Nelson’s harp player, Mickey Raphael, to the fans’ delight.
Shania Twain got a little help from her friends Kelsea Ballerini and Nick Jonas during her headlining performance on Stagecoach’s Mane Stage on Saturday.
Behind the scenes things were no different. Sir Tom Jones arrived quietly backstage to catch Friday’s performance by his early rock ‘n’ roll hero, Jerry Lee Lewis, who turned in an impressively fiery set at age 81.
All those took place before country kingpin Kenny Chesney was to close out the weekend.
“That’s always been my dream,” said Stacy Vee, Goldenvoice’s director of talent, who lines up Stagecoach acts while her boss, Goldenvoice chief Paul Tollett, focuses on Coachella.
“That kind of thing makes a show special not just for the fans but for the performers too,” she said early Sunday in her air-conditioned trailer.
“I just got the sweetest note from Jamey Johnson, thanking me and saying that getting to join Willie and sing with him on his birthday was something he will never forget.”
Festivals are places where fans look for good times and celebration, but occasionally musicians attempt to dig a little deeper.
One of the weekend’s most moving performances came from North Carolina-reared singer-songwriter Rhiannon Giddens, who employed a carrot and just a little bit of the stick while introducing one song.
“We’re all beautiful people,” she said with a broad smile, introducing folk singer Richard Farina’s riveting ballad “Birmingham Sunday,” about a 1963 bombing of a Baptist church in Alabama that left four girls dead and injured 22 others.
“But sometimes we do things that aren’t beautiful,” Giddens said, “and it’s important to remember events like this so we can work together toward the things we all believe in.”
Little else in the way of political commentary emanated from Stagecoach’s stages during the three-day festival. The biggest issues for most fans were whether to miss Kip Moore on the Mane Stage to see Nelson across the lengthy Empire Polo Field on Saturday or whether to make it to the festival grounds early enough each day to check out up-and-coming acts such as singer-songwriter Aaron Lee Tasjan, country-pop singer Bailey Bryan or Minnesota’s winsome male harmony-centric band the Cactus Blossoms.
And where does Stagecoach go next?
With the sounds of Garth Brooks’ honky tonk standard “Friends in Low Places” echoing across the grounds through the festival PA system, Vee smiled at the thought of one of the few contemporary country superstars who has yet to play her festival.
“We’d take Garth in 2018,” she said. “Or 2019, 2020 or any other year he wants to play. I’m not sure he’s ever done anyone else’s festival. And I like to kind of drop hints once in a while like, ‘Dolly — have you seen what we’ve got going on here?’”