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Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line Grab Stagecoach Reins
Mainstream Country Stars and Music Legends Appear at California Festival
Luke Bryan
Luke Bryan
Photo Credit: Christopher Polk/Getty Images
INDIO, Calif. -- Pretty much every college has had its spring recess come and go by the time Easter rolls around, but you wouldn't know it from attending the Stagecoach Festival which took place here Friday through Sunday (April 25-27).

"Y'all got me feeling like spring break out here in southern California tonight!" Luke Bryan said Sunday night, declaring the obvious -- which is that Stagecoach has come to feel like one big bonus bacchanal for tens of thousands of twentysomethings every late April.

At other country festivals, you'll see more families. But you know that American dream which is perpetuated by a lot of the party-centric country music of today? The one where everyone is young and hot, and it's possible to down endless amounts of six-packs and still take off your shirt and display a flawless six-pack? At Stagecoach, that's not just a fantasy cooked up in some Nashville writers' room but an actual reality.

No wonder the fest sells out months in advance every year. It's "Cruise," "My Kinda Party," and every other rowdy anthem brought to life, minus the catfish, but with plenty enough dust blowing in the desert air to evoke Southern back roads.

If there was anyone who embodied what young country is today, it might have been Dustin Lynch, who preceded Bryan and Florida Georgia Line on the main stage late Sunday afternoon. He's the rare newcomer coming up who's a "hat act" in this ball cap age, but he made a nod to hip-hop with a snippet of Trey Songz's "Say Aah," then did a medley that had verses of "Friends in Low Places" bookending bits of "Walk This Way," "Cat Scratch Fever" and "Back in Black." (It was the second time the AC/DC song had been performed on the main stage over the weekend, with Easton Corbin having beaten him to it.)

And if there was any doubt that Bryan is the most popular guy in country music right now, you'd have given up that misconception Sunday night, not so much from watching him as from watching the exits. There weren't hordes of people heading out to make the three-hour drive back to L.A. or further -- and that's unheard of for a Stagecoach closer. This was even more remarkable given how he'd been preceded by Florida Georgia Line, who could have easily headlined on their own at this point in their young career with an audience response to "Cruise" that probably woke up every rattlesnake over in Twentynine Palms.

But if there's one national anthem of young country that can trump "Cruise," it might be "Country Girl (Shake It for Me)." Earlier in the day, we'd seen girls in bikinis with "I want to shake it for Luke" written out over their torsos, a promise that could hardly go unfulfilled once proclaimed.

The main stage bill provided an accurate reflection of where country seems to be headed, dominated by hard rock-influenced, occasionally rapping rowdies like Brantley Gilbert and Tyler Farr, with Hunter Hayes seeming like the odd, relatively wholesome man out as he embodied the Keith Urban tradition of sweet guitar-slinger.

As for the big discussion about women in country music, the female artists were there but primarily in early afternoon slots. Jennifer Nettles was the only femme booked to play the main stage as late as dusk, and she sang mostly material from that under-heard solo album, somewhat puzzling a hits-craving crowd that did respond when Nettles sang Sugarland's "Baby Girl" and a cover of Imagine Dragons' "Demons."

Ashley Monroe and Holly Williams struggled while trying to connect with still-settling crowds on Saturday afternoon, but it was encouraging that Stagecoach even put these "cred" performers on the main stage, rather than relegating them to one of the tents.

As always at Stagecoach, those two tents were under-attended but provided a rich feast of great American music for the minority of attendees who did wander over. Most of the acts booked for the Palomino and Mustang stages fall into the categories of alt-country, bluegrass, Americana folk-rockers or venerated country legends. One exception Friday night was Lynyrd Skynyrd, the first act ever to not only fill the hangar-sized Palomino tent but have fans 10 deep outside the entrances.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's closing set in that space Saturday was also a surprisingly big draw for a veteran outfit. The youngish crowd didn't seem to remember "Mr. Bojangles," which they noted they'd been playing for 40 years. But when the Dirt Band got to the 1987 No. 1 "Fishin' in the Dark," it didn't seem to matter that even that tune pre-dated most of the crowd being born. The singalong and fist-pumping were so great, you had to think "Fishin'" had somehow been grandfathered in as an honorary bro-country anthem while we weren't looking. If you imagine that today's youth have no knowledge of any country that predates "She's Country," the reception for the Dirt Band was a heartening moment.

Less heartening were the empty tents that other veterans played to at various points.

Wanda Jackson proved to be a healthy draw in her second Stagecoach appearance (and seemed none the worse for wear from having shoulder surgery two weeks ago). But legendary guitarist Duane Eddy started out with about 100 people in attendance -- almost all of whom, you'd guess from overhearing conversations, were fellow guitarists who play his oldies in cover bands. However, the audience swelled to about double that by the time he played the "Peter Gunn" theme. ("Big crowd we got here today," he dryly observed before giving it his whammy-bar all.)

On the other hand, Michael Nesmith started out with about 200 and lost half of those along the way, despite significant attention the local press had afforded his appearance with the promise he had tailored a set focusing on his early '70s country-rock material just for Stagecoach. When the eccentric Monkee finished his set by saying, "So outta here! Goodnight," there seemed to be an understandable edge in his voice.

Then again, Americana duo Shovels and Rope -- an act you wouldn't necessarily expect to gel with the Stagecoach ethos -- went over like gangbusters. For anyone not familiar with them, think of the White Stripes if Meg White were the real live wire of the group. They drew a whooping and hollering crowd which you'd have to guess was comprised about half of diehard fans and half of mainstream attendees who'd wandered over in search of shade and just found themselves enthralled by something that primal and rocking.

John Prine also drew an appreciative throng for his closing set Sunday night. His appearance has changed a bit as a result of the operable lung cancer that was announced in November, but he appeared to be in nothing less than his usual form and seemed as encouragingly chipper as anyone who writes songs as odd and sad as "Lake Marie" is ever going to be. He and his band even rocked out to a main stage-suitable degree on "Iron Ore Betty" before he preceded the oft-covered "Hello in There" by quipping, "We're gonna slow things down here. We don't want you older people to get out of breath."

Prine's most rapt fan appeared to be actor Ashton Kutcher, who sat on a speaker at the edge of the photo pit for most of the set, with his pregnant fiancee Mila Kunis seated out of sight on the ground below him. Kutcher clapped along and waved his cowboy hat in the air at appropriate moments, as he had during numerous performances all three days.

Earlier in the afternoon, the Two and a Half Men star had been particularly taken by a show by the Sleepy Man Bluegrass Boys, an act fronted by three teen or pre-teen brothers, the youngest of whom is a phenomenal 11-year-old banjo prodigy. Out in the crowd for that one, Kutcher started square-dancing with Kunis, who had that "I can't believe my fiancee is making me do this" grin on her face. Then he started engaging all the folks around him in a do-si-do.

Kutcher came in for some flack after he appeared in a cowboy hat and shirt at the 2012 ACM Awards, and some accused him of indulging in a kind of insincere appreciation of country music. But now that the actor has enjoyed his second year in a row at Stagecoach and been not just a shadowy presence but a boisterous one, it's clearly time to invite him back into the country fold as one of the best advocates the genre could have, particularly when it comes to the more obscure acts he seems to favor, like the bluegrass band Trampled by Turtles (which also drew a healthy crowd Saturday).

As much as a few of the acts in the side tents struggled to find patrons, you couldn't help but notice a bigger presence in general for these alternative and classic performers. Maybe that's just because it took a few years for some Stagecoach attendees to even realize there was an area besides the main stage. Or maybe it's because word got out that these tents were the only place to catch a glimpse of Ashton and Mila, and some celebrity evangelizing was all that was needed to get people over there. Hey, whatever works.

But you have not experienced musical whiplash until you've left a show where Prine is performing a heartrending ballad about the elderly and, within two minutes, had a woman grinding up against you in a frighteningly chaotic aisle as Florida Georgia Line is performing "Cruise."

But that is what is so simultaneously vexing and encouraging about Stagecoach -- the hope, if not always the reality, that country music can be a truly big tent.

View photos from the Stagecoach country music festival.
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