INDIO, Calif. -- What was Sheryl Crow doing on the bill at the sixth annual Stagecoach festival in California? That's not a question that has so much to do with genre -- after all, other primarily rock acts like the Eagles, John Fogerty and Kid Rock have also played the country fest -- as much as timing.
Crow wasn't added to the bill until early April, and it wasn't as if they needed her name value to juice ticket sales since Stagecoach sold out its entire supply of 55,000 passes back in early January. Why the bonus?
It became clearer Sunday evening (April 29) that it probably had something to do with the closing night's headliner, Brad Paisley. Perhaps, you could conjecture, there was a recommendation on his part that Crow do something to say howdy to the country audience again in advance of ... yes, finally, her long-threatened country album.
"I've been trying for years to make a country record," Crow told the vast crowd at the main stage during an instrumental breakdown in the middle of "Can't Cry Anymore."
"I get closer and closer in my own weird, strange way of making country music," she said. "I'm getting ready to [really] do it, though. I've got the best friend a girl could have in country music. I've got Brad Paisley, who's gonna help me do it. Does that sound good?"
A few numbers later, Crow brought "good friend" Paisley onto the stage to play a blistering lead guitar on "Real Gone," a tune she recorded for the 2006 Cars film soundtrack that was the only semi-obscure number in her otherwise hits-filled set. Paisley seemed to want to use the moment to diminish expectations about his role on the Crow album. (The P-word, "producer," was never mentioned, although that seemed to be what Crow was implying).
"Sheryl's in the studio finally making a country album. I am a small part of it," Paisley told the cheering throngs, before seeming to regret using the word "small" in any context, adding, "No, I shouldn't have gone like that."
"Large part!" countered Crow, cheerfully contradicting Paisley. And then they were off to the races, as it were.
Crow wasn't just in a collaborative mood when it came to Paisley. Early in her set, Crow bowed to the performer who preceded her on the main stage, saying, "I've got a lot of nerve following up Martina McBride. She's a badass."
Making good on her reverence, Crow ended her set by bringing out "one of my favorite singers on this whole planet" -- McBride, that is -- for a house-bringing-down duet of "You're No Good" that paid homage to Linda Ronstadt, the Cali/Arizona desert girl who was one of the biggest inspirations for both the Southern gals onstage.
You might've expected Crow would come back out again to join Paisley for his festival-closing set, but you would've expected wrong. There were no communal moments to rival the ones from Stagecoach's previous night when Miranda Lambert first brought out husband Blake Shelton and then the entire lineup of main stage performers for a group singalong.
Paisley did duet with a female country star, Carrie Underwood, but only a pre-recorded video of her singing with him on "Remind Me" -- a moment in Paisley's touring show that has replaced the former video projection of Alison Krauss singing "Whiskey Lullaby." Paisley has Sheryl Crow and Martina McBride hanging out backstage, but he thinks the audience would rather see a giant video of Underwood than a real live superstar duet partner? Talk about missed opportunities.
Still, for anyone who hasn't seen the standard iteration of Paisley's touring show in recent years -- complete with a laser light show, a steady stream of elaborate background videos and still more prerecorded collaborations with Alabama, Andy Griffith and William Shatner -- his set was surely a sight to see -- and also to hear as Paisley channels whatever improvisational instincts he might harbor into a steady run of unassailably exceptional guitar solos. He even got off one lead while wandering into the crowd, holding his guitar neck uncomfortably high lest it become a three-or four-handed affair. However disinclined he is to mess with his tightly reined-in set list, he's still as exceptional of an entertainer as country music has.
Fest-goers were faced with a tough choice earlier in the evening as Crow's performance mostly overlapped with one by Kenny Rogers, who drew the biggest crowd that any of Stagecoach's side stages have ever seen. And he wasn't in any more of a mood to gamble with a successful formula than Paisley was.
"I'm so excited to be here tonight because every song I'm gonna do is a hit," Rogers promised. "So you can expect that."
Anyone partial to Kenny Rogers' deep album cuts was surely crestfallen at that moment, but everyone else thrilled to the notion, even if some of the smashes would end up being performed in truncated versions.
Rogers did actually break from the nothing-but-hits vow to sing one non-smash he said had been requested backstage -- "The Greatest," a 1999 single about a baseball-playing little boy that only made it to No. 26 on Billboard's country chart but was the top video on CMT in its time.
Rogers is so enduringly beloved that he can even get away with insulting the crowd, as he did when a singalong of "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town" failed to meet his expectations.
"I will not soon forget that," he said, singling out one portion of the crowd that was apparently particularly out of tune. "To put it in perspective, they sang that better in Quebec. They don't even speak English in Quebec."
But, hey, the audience in Quebec probably wasn't wrapping up three solid days of drinking, as many of the attendees at Stagecoach were.
Rogers was preceded on his stage by another sentimental favorite, Roy Clark, who at age 79, was the second-oldest artist to play this year's festival. (Ralph Stanley, who performed the previous day, is 85.) Clark seemed a little slow on his feet coming out but was more than up to the task of keeping his legend as a picker alive, and he clearly basked in the audience's effusive love, saying, "Bless your hearts" after nearly every number.
Setting up the climax of his set, the multi-instrumentalist Hee Haw star put down his guitar and announced, "Now I'm gonna do something that's gonna hurt me a lot more than it's gonna hurt them," referring to his band. "The main reason I do this is to let these young people up here know that I can still get it done. It may take me three trips, but I can still get the load. Bring me my fiddle. I know you've heard this a million times, but you've never heard the complete, unabridged version of 'The Orange Blossom Special.'"
Indeed, that bluegrass standard had been played at least twice before at this year's Stagecoach during Steve Martin and Ralph Stanley's sets, but Clark's epic, virtuosic version took the prize. "Charlie Daniels, ha ha!" Clark proudly blurted as he set down his fiddle at set's end.
The Palomino Stage where Roy Clark and Kenny Rogers played wasn't only reserved for veterans. Preceding Clark was unlikely crossover star Aaron Lewis, who also drew one of the larger and more appreciative side-stage audiences. Early in his set, in which he played acoustic guitar accompanied only by a pedal steel guitar player, Lewis sang a 2001 hit from his other musical life -- Staind's "Outside" -- complete with its alienated lyrics: "Inside you're ugly, ugly like me." It was quite a contrast between that and his current solo country songs, like "Lessons Learned," which advises listeners to "take time, rewind, appreciate the little things that life provides to you."
Lewis also sang his new single, "Endless Summer," which just premiered on CMT and arrives in advance of his second country album. "Aldean's on the radio... Sand castles and fishin' poles/What a way to save my soul." He also sang a Rhett Akins song paying affectionate tribute to "Granddaddy's Gun," further establishing that, no, Dorothy, we're not in grunge-land anymore.
While Lewis played that side stage, The Band Perry were rocking the main stage, mostly reprising familiar material from their one-and-only album to date -- including the fifth single, "Postcard From Paris" -- and also the inevitable "Fat Bottomed Girls" singalong. They did bring out one new song, "Night Gone Wasted," from their upcoming sophomore album, a very effective '70s-style rocker that's their heaviest song yet. Maybe the Queen influence is more pervasive than we'd imagined?
But '70s rock continues to be the major touchstone of modern country as we know it. McBride closed her set with a rollicking, raunchy "Stay With Me," however hard it is to believe she would kick a conquest out of bed in the morning if he told her he loved her. Of course, "Stay With Me" used to be a nightly staple in Miranda Lambert's set, as well as Steel Magnolia's. Do country stars have backstage brawls over who gets to cover the Faces?