“California is the best state!” In most country music climes, them might be fightin’ words. Cam, the artist who announced them, was expressing some hometown pride, as she’s one of the few modern country stars to hail from the Golden State — but she was also on unusually safe ground at California’s Stagecoach Festival, the biggest and best country gathering outside of the CMA Festival. With roughly 80,000 fans showing off their year-round tans, it was easy to believe Cam and the other 75 acts were playing in an alternate universe where Bakersfield, not Nashville, had always remained country’s hub.
The 11th annual edition of the fest on the Coachella grounds had a bill with as much of an embarrassment of riches as ever, from formidable main-stage headliners Shania Twain, Kenny Chesney, and Dierks Bentley to tent revivalists Willie Nelson and Jerry Lee Lewis, along with new-blood favorites Maren Morris, Jon Pardi, and Margo Price and a smattering of classic rock acts like the Zombies and Tommy James & the Shondells. It was impossible to catch even half the overlapping acts, but here are 10 standouts we wouldn’t have missed:
Most performers work their Stagecoach gigs in while they’re working the touring circuit, so this one-off from Twain, who already did her (supposed) farewell trek around the country two years ago, became something of a news event. Representing her status as both a pop and country superstar, she had a couple younger luminaries from each genre — Nick Jonas and Kelsea Ballerini — out as guests, for “Party for Two” and “Any Man of Mine,” respectively. (“You’re such a good girl. I like you,” she told Ballerini. “He does impress me very much,” Twain said of Jonas.) Even more newsworthy was the premiere of a new single — only her second piece of new studio music since 2004 — that won’t be out till June: “Life’s About to Get Good,” a sing-song-y anthem of inspiration with some darker verses that seemed to allude to her marital strife at the turn of the last decade. Surprisingly, there were no costume changes, let alone on-stage horses. Along with blonder hair that made her look a little like Faith Hill from a distance, her makeup and the typically midriff-baring black ensemble Twain had on made her look, improbably at 51, like a perfect replica of Ann-Margret at her peak, even as her friendly, borderline goofy stage patter made her seem like the kitten-with-a-whip next door.
Nelson chose to spend his 84th birthday performing, which is probably no surprise to anyone who’s followed this “On the Road” warrior. The question was, would someone as un-loquacious and humble as Willie tends to be on stage even acknowledge the occasion? Earlier in the Palomino tent, opener Jamey Johnson had encouraged the crowd to sing “Happy Birthday to You” loud enough so that Nelson could hear it on his bus (which seemed unlikely, given the sort of air filtration equipment you know he must have running 24/7). When Willie finally took the stage for a long and relaxed set, it seemed like he would ignore the milestone… until he suddenly asked the crowd to sing “Happy Birthday to Me.” Some of the performers who’d graced that stage earlier in the day, including Margo Price and John Doe, came out for the closing group-sing of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” but only after Nelson left the stage during the band’s vamping did we notice Neil Young standing there, too… and that birthday party guest suddenly engaged in a harmonica duel with Nelson’s own legendary mouth harpist, Mickey Raphael. It was a delightful way for Willie’s set to end, but not even half as charming as Nelson’s version of his new album’s “Not Dead Yet,” maybe the ultimate birthday anthem.
In not so very many years, Morris will probably be headlining Stagecoach, instead of facing squarely into the afternoon sun… although that did afford her the chance to augment her new asymmetrical bob haircut with a very stylish pair of round shades. Country music could hardly ask for a finer exemplar of its past and future rolled up into one superior package: She has her roots enough in a kind of classicism that she can cover John Prine’s (by way of Bonnie Raitt’s) “Angel from Montgomery,” telling the audience, “I’ve been singing this song since I was 10 years old, so I figured I shouldn’t stop now.” She can also adopt a style of hip-hop phrasing into a song like “Company You Keep” without ever sounding like she’s abandoning country for greener pastures. Speaking of which, she did sing “Greener Pastures,” the pro-pot anthem she co-wrote for the Brothers Osborne, figuring she was on safe ground since “weed is legal in California.” But the highlight was her sober new single “I Could Use a Love Song,” a ballad that had her expressing a slight touch of nerves, since, she said, “I’ve never released anything vulnerable before.”
Jerry Lee Lewis
Lewis had to be helped to his piano, never the most encouraging sign of vitality for a performer in his 80s… but, once seated, he had no problem killing the upper part of his keyboard, or even planting an emphatic fist on the keys, as is his nearly seven-decade custom. No one will accuse Lewis of having suddenly achieved perfect pitch at this late stage in his career, but the chance to hear one of the architects sing “No Headstone on My Grave” as well as the more familiar “Whole Lotta Shakin’” is one of the great privileges any rock or country fan could have. After a half-hour, it was all over — Lewis hasn’t played sets lasting longer than 35 minutes in a long time — but it was just long enough to establish just where any hellfire country might still have came from.
The side tents, where the alternative and heritage artists perform at Stagecoach, tend to be filled at least as much with inebriated seeking a shady afternoon refuge from the main-stage sun as hipsters or intelligentsia. So sometimes, when a performer with as much finesse as Giddens shows up in the Mustang tent, you might fear for whether her class will be lost on the room. Not to worry. As Giddens belted out the a cappella parts of “Waterboy.” a traditional America folk song that in her hands sounds closer to an operatic passage out of Porgy & Bess than any boot-scootin’ boogie, a hat-waving drunk bellowed out, “Hell, yeah!” The appreciation only grew greater when she busted out her fiddle for one of the string-band bluegrass jams she became famous for as a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. If you could measure sheer vocal and instrumental talent, Giddens might have been tops at this year’s Stagecoach, and that wasn’t even lost on those who just happened to wander in.
No one needs to be told that the country pendulum has swung toward the redneck-y and the bro in recent years, so Cam is as much of a breath of fresh air amid that as the giant sunflowers with which she decked out her stage. Wearing colorful bell bottoms that might have been out of the ‘60s if they weren’t also so 21st century skin-tight, Cam came out to the sampled strains of “California Girls” — a nod to her being of the genre’s few current non-Southerner stars — before launching into a series of narrative tracks that make it clear she’s all about story-songs as well as sunshine.
Introducing an angry tune about bitter relationship aftermaths, she urged the crowd, “Let’s have a country mosh pit!” Then, looking at her stage setup, she added, laughing almost sheepishly, “a mosh pit with bubbles.”
The HillBenders’ bluegrass Tommy
Fun fact: The Who’s original double-album version of Tommy runs 75 minutes. But if you’re playing it frantic bluegrass-style, as the HillBenders do, you can wrap it up in 45. It sounds like an impossible conceit, performing Pete Townshend’s 1960s rock opera as if it’d actually been conceived by Flatt & Scruggs, but the HillBenders’ epic cover version works more gloriously than it has any right to. (And the quintet managed to pull it off without their bass player, whose flight had been canceled amid the Midwestern storms over the weekend.)
Rhett sings about girls in trucks, just like virtually every other dude in contemporary country, so it’s easy to write him off as part of the bro-country pack. Maybe a little too easy, since he’s got more going on than just back roads, like a serious appreciation for R&B styles past and present that made his Sunday night set seem at times more like a soul revue than just another Southern-rock-disguised-as-country set. If you’ve been missing the saxophone lately, in any or all genres, be aware that Rhett employs the most sax solos in his show anywhere this side of a Curtis Stigers concert.
While other performers were covering the Chainsmokers (we’re looking at you, Cole Swindell), Price was covering Commander Cody. Of course, her rendition of “Seeds and Stems” went over quite well even with an audience that was largely unfamiliar with either her or the commander, since, at a modern country show, weed references are kind of the universal language. But Jack White’s protégé, for all her alt-country cred, is essentially a throwback whose “Hurtin’ on the Bottle” is the greatest traditional country stomper of the 2010s, and proved as effective a Stagecoach set-closer as anyone’s on the bill.
Stagecoach’s organizers throw a lot of non-country acts onto the side stages, including an increasing amount of oldies acts with no ostensible connection to American roots music, like this year’s Zombies and Tommy James & the Shondells. Los Lobos are a different kind of booking, and though they fit right in on the Palomino stage with some oldies of their own — covering the Allman Brothers, the Temptations, Neil Young, and the Spencer Davis Group in addition to their own familiar “La Bamba” — there was a slight bit of incidental subversion, if you looked for it, in hearing them play an original as politically charged as “One Time, One Night in America” at a festival with its fair share of xenophobic T-shirts on display. They happen to be America’s greatest party band as well as one of its most artistically refined, so why be surprised that you could see a (presumed) out-of-stater in Confederate flag garb shaking his fanny to the wolf pack that is the pride of liberal L.A.?