Country Superstars, Good Vibes Ride Shotgun at California’s Stagecoach Festival

The Eagles, Rascal Flatts, Tim McGraw, Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift and Judds Perform

INDIO, Calif. — If I could sum up Stagecoach 2008 with just one lyric, I’d choose this one: “I want to sleep with you in the desert tonight with a billion stars all around.” Of course, that’s from the Eagles’ “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” and that iconic California band headlined Friday (May 2) during the first night of the Stagecoach country music festival at the Empire Polo Field in Indio, Calif.

Plenty of people slept in the desert, too, with dozens of decorated RVs filling up a big parking lot behind the grounds. True, there weren’t a billion stars, but close enough — with Tim McGraw, Carrie Underwood, Rascal Flatts, the Judds, Trace Adkins, Taylor Swift, Dierks Bentley, John Fogerty, George Jones, Trisha Yearwood, Dwight Yoakam, Big & Rich, Gretchen Wilson and many others all on the schedule.

As much as I can identify with “Desperado,” my favorite performer on Friday was John Fogerty. The California native blazed his way through a ton of Creedence Clearwater Revival classics, like “Bad Moon Rising,” “Who Will Stop the Rain,” “Looking Out My Back Door,” “Have You Ever Seen the Rain,” “Down on the Corner,” “Fortunate Son” and “Proud Mary.” Bonus points for singing “Broken Down Cowboy,” my favorite song on his new album, Revival. Another big treat was hearing Glen Campbell sing “Rhinestone Cowboy” — which I could probably sing at karaoke without ever looking at the screen.

Singing along is so much fun at festivals, and so is watching a shirtless drunk dude belting out “How Do I Live” along with Trisha Yearwood. Michelle Branch (formerly of the Wreckers) could have used some harmony help, after she flubbed Jessica Harp’s part on “Leave the Pieces.” Branch admitted that it was the first time she’s ever sung it by herself, but the crowd loved it anyway.

Shelby Lynne lives just up the road in Palm Springs, but she didn’t quite feel at home at Stagecoach. The VIP ticket holders hadn’t arrived yet, so she essentially sang (and dropped several verbal F-bombs) for 40 rows of empty chairs. The place wasn’t empty, though. It’s just that the non-VIPs weren’t allowed access to the front of the stage, so we all leaned against the fence or found relief in the shade tents. Nevertheless, she delivered a potent mix of Dusty Springfield covers and highlights from her last few albums.

On Saturday night (May 3), Rascal Flatts sang all their new hits and employed some pretty cool stage effects, like the massive LCD screens that must have cost a fortune. Personally, I preferred the simple harmonies of the Judds. Wynonna and Naomi fawned all over each other and traded the usual banter (“If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother,” “I did my mother’s hair for 10 years,” etc.). And everybody over the age of 30 was singing along — “Love Can Build a Bridge,” “Mama He’s Crazy” and so on.

The younger set was probably more excited to hear Dierks Bentley and Taylor Swift, who worked overtime to engage the audience in their show. You can tell they’re not just showing up for the paycheck. I also greatly appreciate the fact that Luke Bryan doesn’t find it necessary to cover ’80s rock bands in his set, choosing instead from the catalogs of Conway Twitty (“Love to Lay You Down”) and John Anderson (“Money in the Bank”).

Despite the star power on the main stage (aka “Mane Stage,” keeping with the horse theme), the Palomino Stage drew hundreds of people with Dwight Yoakam, Cross Canadian Ragweed and even the Kentucky Headhunters. Ryan Bingham and Hayes Carll, who are both gaining national recognition for their latest albums, surely won over some new fans with their rugged musical influences. Meanwhile on the nearby Mustang Stage, Earl Scruggs, Dan Tyminski and the Greencards brought out the bluegrass followers.

Trace Adkins sang in the middle of the day on Sunday (May 4), but since I had just caught his show a few weeks back, I decided to wander the festival grounds. (You could still hear him though, even way across the field.) With two remaining tickets in my pocket for the barbecue competition, I returned to the AZ Barbeque stand: Thai chicken wings, chili, sausage wrapped in bacon, etc. If they didn’t win, they should have. That’s some mighty good meat. (I made up for it later with a heap of fresh guacamole and a roasted sweet potato. It’s easy to remember you’re in California with vendors like these.)

Back on the Mane Stage, Gretchen Wilson kicked off her set with “Here for the Party” and previewed some new songs. She told the audience to expect a new single in a few weeks called “Growing Up Down South” — another one of those “we-like-grits-and-country-ham” songs. She brought out John Rich to harmonize on “Come to Bed,” offered a new song about truck drivers and expensive fuel costs and then wailed through Journey’s “Separate Ways.” As a guest of Big & Rich, Cowboy Troy did his “hick hop” routine for five songs, and then finally Big Kenny and John Rich came out and did their thing for a while. After a song or two, I bolted for Jerry Douglas (amazing), as well as a few songs from George Jones and Ralph Stanley.

I think even the coyotes in the desert heard Carrie Underwood start her set with “Flat on the Floor” before she moved on to “Wasted” and “Get Out of This Town” — two of my favorite songs from her albums. This was my first time to see her in concert, and she’s certainly a powerful vocalist on stage.

As a chill fell over the night, Tim McGraw opened his set with “Still,” a new mid-tempo song I really liked. Lately, he’s finessed his talent for picking meaningful songs that aren’t preachy, yet he’s smart enough to know that if thousands of people show up in the desert, they want to hear the hits, too. So another lyric comes to mind that could sum up my Stagecoach 2008 festival: “I like it, I love it, I want some more of it.”

View photos from the Stagecoach country music festival.