INDIO, Calif. — Visitors who took in the Honky Tonk Hall of Fame exhibit at the Stagecoach country music festival here Saturday (May 5) faced a major trivia question. They were asked if they could identify a slick-haired figure in a rhinestone suit.
It’s a good bet that many — probably most — could not, but one guy who could’ve easily done it is George Strait, the last of more than 25 acts to play across four stages at the festival during a 10-hour stretch. Strait inserted into his set list the honky-tonk classic “There Stands the Glass,” throwing a shuffle beat onto the song made popular by the trivia answer — Webb Pierce.
A large part of the crowd camped out at the Mane Stage, attempting to guarantee they’d have the best seats for the night’s final acts, Strait and Alan Jackson. In fact, had they not waited in their spots and settle for a late-evening location at the back of the crowd, they would’ve had to watch from more than a football field away.
They did not make a bad decision by staying in one place. The Mane Stage lobbed seven acts with heavy radio presence, providing a steady stream of current and recent hits.
But the other stages — named the Palomino, Appaloosa and Mustang (notice a bit of horseplay at work?) — added a huge amount of diversity to the proceedings and helped establish a sense of the genre’s history.
As an example, on one of the side stages, Richie Furay reprised “Pickin’ Up the Pieces,” a still-infectious song from his years as an early member of Poco, one of the groups that created the genre now known as country-rock. The performance gave an extra bit of context to a Mane Stage effort when Eric Church covered “Ophelia” by The Band, another early-’70s act that eschewed stylistic barriers. Mane artist Miranda Lambert likewise revved up The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek.”
Willie Nelson, veering little from his standard set, dovetailed historically with the Honky Tonk Hall of Fame exhibit. He offered a three-song medley of songs he wrote for other artists, including “Crazy” (made famous by Patsy Cline) and “Night Life” (first recorded by Ray Price). Both of those artists were represented in the display with stage clothing.
Nelson, as always, played with the phrasing during his one-hour show, alternately rushing and delaying lines, sometimes flattening the melodies into quasi-conversations. He fitted songs together thematically on several occasions, playing a pair of Kris Kristofferson compositions (“Help Me Make It Through the Night” and “Me and Bobby McGee”) back to back and linking four songs from his 29-year-old standards album, Stardust.
In another era, Nelson would have been a prime figure on the Mane Stage, but his current stature as an against-the-mainstream country act placed him on the Palomino Stage, which embraced alt-country artists who tend to play looser with the stylistic rules of the genre. Among those who worked the Palomino successfully were Robert Earl Keen (who applies his grainy vocals to a raucous musical package and themes of literary hijinx), former Mavericks vocalist Raul Malo (who laced his material with varying degrees of Latin influence) and David Serby (who kicked off the entire day at 1 p.m. with barroom songs featuring his psychobilly phrasing).
Banjo legend Earl Scruggs led a stellar band that had frantic sounds pinging, flying and sputtering off the strings. But fans could also witness the evolution in bluegrass. Nickel Creek, which — like Nelson — also played last week at the Coachella rock festival at the same venue, matched its layered and intricate bluegrass instrumentation with a haunting pop melodic sensibility. One of the day’s best surprises came in Old School Freight Train, a Virginia band with anarchist solos that injected its brand of bluegrass with meandering instrumental breaks.
Still, the day’s best performance belonged to Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen, whose acoustic set was out-shouted by the volume of Jamie O’Neal’s Mane Stage act, a fact Hillman brought up repeatedly between songs.
“We used to play just as loud as them,” he laughed, referring to the period in the late ’80s when Hillman and Pedersen, along with Saturday’s bass player Bill Bryson, were members of the Desert Rose Band, a West Coast act with rhythmic drive and attractive harmonies. They played several songs from that period, including “Love Reunited” and “Story of Love,” but they also pointed up their individual credits.
They tossed up an inviting rendition of the Louvin Brothers’ “If I Could Only Win Your Love” (Pedersen sang background on Emmylou Harris’ hit version), added minor chording to “Turn! Turn! Turn!”(made famous during Hillman’s tenure in the Byrds) and turned in “Sin City” (which Hillman co-wrote with Gram Parsons when both were in the Flying Burrito Brothers). The song was an appropriate choice: It struggles with temptation, and Parsons died from chemical abuse in 1973 in Joshua Tree, barely one hour from the Stagecoach site.
Those who stuck it out at the Mane Stage might not have gotten as much variety for their buck (tickets were $167 for both days’ shows), but they heard lots of familiar songs performed by some of today’s most prominent country acts. Jason Michael Carroll offered a steely resonance and throaty growl that makes him a sort of 21st century Tracy Lawrence. He filled out his set with “Alyssa Lies,” his first Top 10 hit, and “George Strait Cover Band,” a clever barroom tale that invokes the titles of numerous Strait hits, including “The Fireman,” “Marina Del Rey” and “Ocean Front Property.”
O’Neal used her powerful voice for female-slanted material such as “When I Think About Angels,” “Trying to Find Atlantis” and “Somebody’s Hero.” Sara Evans was as solid as her recordings as she belted out “I Keep Looking,” “Suds in the Bucket” and “A Real Fine Place to Start.” And Jackson balanced the family-values themes of “Livin’ on Love” and “Remember When” with party-time material such as “Summertime Blues,” “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” and “Don’t Rock the Jukebox.”
Strait closed the evening with a hit-dominated set that cherry-picked material from his own three-decade run (“I Just Want to Dance With You,” “She’ll Leave You With a Smile,” “The Chair”), one that owes much to his solid sense of workable songs. Strait is neither the genre’s most expressive singer nor one with a particularly wide vocal range, but he’s got a knack for finding distinctive hooks, deceptively strong melodies and lyrics that fit his laidback demeanor.
Strait also picked up the history-lesson thread that ran through some of Stagecoach’s first-day performances. He sang “Give It Away,” written by Bill Anderson, who is — like Strait — a living member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. He sang a pair of songs, “Take Me Back to Tulsa” and “Milk Cow Blues,” associated with Western swing legend Bob Wills, and performed “Wrapped,” a song with a wrapped-around-the-finger theme that recalls his own first hit, 1981′s “Unwound.” And, of course, he dropped in that Webb Pierce surprise, “There Stands the Glass.”
While much of the day’s audience is probably unaware of Pierce, most would inevitably agree that his music, grounded in the 1950s honky-tonk era, is vastly different from the fare that dominates the genre today. Nevertheless, the roots are still there if you choose to search for them, and they were definitely on display yesterday in — of all places — the desert in California.
The Stagecoach Festival continues Sunday (May 6) with performances by Kenny Chesney, Brooks & Dunn, Sugarland, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Gary Allan and many others.