Kenny Chesney and Brad Paisley Captivate Stagecoach Festival Crowd

Reba McEntire, Kid Rock, Miranda Lambert Also Grab Attention at California Event

INDIO, Calif. — If anyone still requires proof that country music is a big tent, consider the penultimate performers on the main stage each night at this past weekend’s Stagecoach Festival in the southern California desert.

On Saturday (April 25), Oklahoma redhead Reba McEntire was family-friendly enough in a post-dusk slot, never getting any racier than “Fancy” or any stranger than “Strange.” In the same spot Sunday (April 26), self-proclaimed urban redneck Kid Rock alternated his metal-meets-hip-hop riffage of old with unabashedly obscene honky-tonk ballads, sending many parents with young children fleeing as if for their lives.

But what was most notable wasn’t who was going, but who was coming. Neither extreme desert wind gusts nor the recession nor fear of the swine flu could keep country fans from their appointed rounds with the third annual gathering, which reached new attendance heights at the sprawling polo grounds in Indio over the weekend.

“This is the greatest festival in the history of music!” exulted Saturday night’s headliner, Brad Paisley. Maybe Paisley says that to all the buoyant country gatherings, but there is certainly a shared feeling among many artists that Stagecoach might already be the nation’s premier live-twang blowout, having grown from a curious experiment to a country music institution in just a couple of years.

Promoters for the festival won’t reveal actual ticket sales figures until later in the week, but 2008’s 40,000-a-day figures were clearly eclipsed — and why wouldn’t they be, with the biggest touring draw in any genre of music, Kenny Chesney, as Sunday’s headliner? With the sea of lawn chairs now backing up about as far as the perimeter concession stands in any direction, it’s hard to know where Stagecoach could squeeze any more patrons in … unless it would be in the two massive tents along the site’s eastern flank, where an admirable lineup of bluegrass and Americana legends had the usual trouble siphoning fans away from the main stage’s mainstream stars.

Among the other booking quirks that lend Stagecoach serious cred points, festival promoter Paul Tollett clearly has a fondness for California’s role in the development of country-rock. This year, that led to a historic reunion of Poco with three members who left at various points in the 1970s — Timothy B. Schmit, Richie Furay and Jim Messina — joining longtime mainstays Rusty Young and Paul Cotton.

“I would be surprised if it ever happened again,” said Young, the only founding member who’s been with Poco for all of the band’s 40-plus years. “Timothy hasn’t played with the band since 1977, and he’s got a day job.” (Schmit left Poco to join the Eagles, who headlined Stagecoach last year.)

Young saw Poco’s legacy reflected throughout the festival, whether the younger performers acknowledge it or not.

“What the Kenny Chesneys and 90 percent of these artists are doing is basically the same music that we started in 1969, 1970 — rock ’n’ roll using country instruments as color,” he said. “That’s pretty much what country music is these days: a country singer with a rock ’n’ roll band and maybe banjo or steel guitar. A lot of this came from what the early California country-rock scene was like — the Burrito Brothers, Eagles, Poco, Pure Prairie League [who also played Sunday’s bill], Firefall, all those acts. So there’s definitely the heritage there. But us old-timers get the small stage, and the new kids get the big stage.”

However, Young isn’t myopic enough to let the Golden State take sole credit for today’s country: “There’s a lot of Lynyrd Skynyrd in it, too, and you can’t ignore that.”

Kid Rock certainly hasn’t, playing the “Sweet Home Alabama”-sampling “All Summer Long” early in his set. The other influences on today’s acts came through clearly in their choice of cover material — mostly rock of a decidedly post-Poco (but pre-Nirvana) vintage. Chesney sang John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane.” Lady Antebellum covered another Mellencamp tune, “Hurts So Good,” along with AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” and the Doobie Brothers’ “Long Train Runnin’.” Miranda Lambert also found time for three covers: Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll,” the Faces’ “Stay With Me” and a Motown classic, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Little Big Town opened with Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.” Even the bluegrass and string-band outfits got into the act, with Greensky Bluegrass doing Prince’s “When Doves Cry” and the Duhks closing their set with Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” Hey, some souls might have been asking, “Would it kill anybody to cover a country song?”

But be careful what you wish for, because it was Kid Rock keeping things real and down-home by crooning an, um, classic by — uh-oh — David Allan Coe, the unprintable lyrics of which have to do with how the singer wants to … well … make love to an ex-girlfriend one more time. That provided the ideal entrĂ©e into the countriest song in Kid Rock’s repertoire, the famously Pam Anderson-dissing “Half Your Age.” In the time-honored tradition of country “answer songs,” the Kid had his drummer, Stephanie Eulinberg, come up front to sing a gender-reversal version of the tune in which she boasts that her new guy’s genitals are twice as … . And, suddenly, having the kids out this late on a school night seemed even more foolish than it had a few minutes before.

As polarizing as Kid Rock’s set was, most among the tens of thousands of largely inebriated twenty- and thirtysomethings the fleeing parents left behind seemed to regard his appearance as a festival highlight, particularly eating up his duet on “Picture” with Miranda Lambert (who threatened to shoot him when he threw her off-guard with some typically risible improvised lyrics).

It was far from a rock-averse crowd. A show of hands during one set even revealed a sizable number of fans who’d also attended the indie-rock-oriented Coachella Festival on the same grounds the previous weekend. Immediate differences were apparent for any returnees from Coachella, though. The preceding weekend, the first thing anyone encountered upon entering the front gates was a disco dome. In the same spot this weekend were the Budweiser Clydesdale horses. At Coachella, lawn chairs aren’t allowed — it’s a free-range festival. At Stagecoach, nearly everyone brings a chair or blanket and plants it in front of the main stage early in the afternoon.

While wandering from stage to stage is the main endeavor at the rock fest, it’s the exception here, and nomads who don’t stake a claim in the main field may later find that just about the only spot left to get a view of the superstar action is from behind the counter at a barbecue booth. Speaking of which: At Coachella, Morrissey, an artist who is a vegan, complained about the stench of cooked flesh. This weekend, the closest thing to a vegetarian sentiment was someone wearing a PETA T-shirt … which, upon closer inspection, turned out to stand for “People for the Eating of Tasty Animals.”

Coachella also had a procession of movie and TV stars backstage, while Stagecoach had to settle for the daytime soap cast members who introduced bands and signed autographs in a nearby tent. Oh, and Kevin Costner, who played with his country band, Modern West, on Saturday afternoon. Costner did mention, a la the other Oscar winner who’s trying to forge a career in country, that “I did music before I did movies,” but otherwise there was no Billy Bob Thornton trip going on. Costner even acknowledged that half of those in attendance probably had to be dragged to see him, saying, “Thank you, men, for coming with your women.” At times, Costner seemed almost too eager to fulfill every country music trope, whether it was singing about having a “NASCAR dream” in “Backyard” or picturing angels carrying dying soldiers to heaven in “Southern Rain.”

Later Saturday night, Charlie Daniels drew the biggest crowd of any act playing in a side tent, getting some of his biggest cheers for “Simple Man,” which calls for lynching dope dealers. Note to self: Do not invite Daniels to the same party as the Zac Brown Band (who encouraged the audience to “sit in the sun and roll a big fat one”) or Kid Rock (who repeated his famous lyric about how he “met the president when I was half-stoned”).

Two awards for special merit go to the Knitters, who played to one of the healthier tent crowds on Sunday afternoon. One is for being the only musicians to appear at both Coachella and Stagecoach and play the same song at both festivals. The previous weekend, John Doe, Exene Cervenka, and DJ Bonebreak played “In This House That I Call Home” as a punk song with their other band, X, before reviving it as a country song at Stagecoach. Their other significant accomplishment? Being the only act all weekend to cover someone who was playing simultaneously. In honor of bluegrass king Ralph Stanley, booked into the same time slot in the adjacent tent, the Knitters played the classic “Rank Strangers.” (The competition wasn’t always so kind: When Stanley was singing his a cappella “O Death” for a couple of hundred sober souls in the smallest tent, he was being all but completely drowned out by the massiveness of Lambert’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.”)

As headliners, Paisley and Chesney left few doubts why they are currently two of the most popular acts in country music. Paisley is the only guy alive who can credibly evoke Jimi Hendrix and Little Jimmy Dickens in the same song, as his “Better Than This” name-checked the latter legend on top of incorporating a few guitar licks from “Purple Haze.” If only his repeated promises to pay overtime fines and play till the middle of the night didn’t end with the star playing a standard-length set that ended 45 minutes shy of the festival’s midnight curfew on Saturday.

Chesney went on a half-hour late Sunday for his festival-closing set, thanks to some preceding acts going overtime. (Here’s looking at you, Kid.) But he did benefit from his warm-up act in at least one way: While Chesney has been accused of not hewing close enough to his rural roots, after Kid Rock, he suddenly seemed like Hank Williams reincarnate. There were no Yoo-Hoo concessions in sight, but this didn’t stop the star from performing a full contingent of his hottest warm-weather hits: “It’s almost … ,” he began before stopping himself. “Hell, it’s always summertime in California!”

This was wishful thinking: Wind gusts of up to 45 mph that had seemed so refreshing earlier in the day suddenly seemed almost wintery, causing everyone to bundle up — except, of course, for Chesney, who’ll wear shirt sleeves on stage the day Reba covers Kid Rock’s “Bawitdaba.” Should it be any surprise that the guy who made tractors sexy can do the same thing for goose pimples?

View photos from the Stagecoach festival.