It seems like just yesterday that the Stagecoach Festival in Indio, California was a scrappy newcomer, the twangy little sister to Coachella, the major rock fest that takes place at the same site a weekend or two prior every year. But you know it's well established when Kenny Chesney can't even remember how many times he's headlined the thing. "I think this is the third or fourth year playing this thing—I'm not sure—but we're proud to be back!" Chesney told the crowd. (For the record, it was only the third, since he seems to be booked during odd-numbered years, following the inaugural fest in 2007.)
Since there aren't as many country superstars as rockers to go around, there was a bit of deja vu for returning Stagecoachers, as the other two principal headliners have also made the trek to the desert before, albeit not quite racking up the same frequent-traveler points as Chesney. Rascal Flatts and Carrie Underwood lead the second and final night tonight, and they were both around for the second edition of the festival in 2008. But you'd have a hard time finding too many attendees among the 55,000 estimated daily happy campers who mind recycling of the lineup.
Darius Rucker was the penultimate act on the main stage (or "mane stage") last night, and this might be a time to pause and reflect on his graduation to co-headliner. There are apparently still a few casual country fans who never got the memo that Rucker is a bona fide country star now, judging from all the comments and tweets saying "What is Hootie doing here?" once he broke into some of his hugely familiar pre-solo '90s hits.
"This is the very first country song I ever wrote, in 1988, and it's still my favorite one to play," he announced before performing "Let Her Cry," one of three Blowfish oldies in the set. He was less self-complimentary toward "I Only Wanna Be With You," saying, "This is the cheesiest song I ever wrote." (Maybe he regrets that "dolphins make me cry" line as much as we would imagine he does.) He did countrify the latter number with mandolin and bottleneck guitar solos. But these days, earnest songs like "Alright" and "It Won't Be This Way for Long" are just as recognizable to country radio listeners. Rucker alternated between contemporary pop-country sounds and a slightly more traditional honky-tonk sound, and his splitting of the difference was evident in his two cover choices: Hank Williams Jr.'s "Family Tradition" and Prince's "Purple Rain."
(On Twitter, festival goer Logan Abbott made this amusing observation: "Irony of the day: 2 girls in confederate flag bikinis jumping up and down and screaming 'I love you Darius Rucker!' #stagecoach #dumbhicks")
For his night-capping set, Chesney stuck mostly with his summer/beach/party/pleasant nostalgia anthems, eschewing the couple of more personal records he's put out in recent years. He did get modestly downbeat, however, for "Anything But Mine." "Did you ever fall in love with somebody for a week?" he asked the crowd, admitting that in some circles that's "called a fling." (And in other circles, that's called Chesney's marriage to Renee Zellweger.)
The highlight of the set was "Young," which Chesney is performing this tour with a never-before-heard third verse that he jettisoned from the hit before recording it. "I felt at the time maybe it grew me up a little more than I wanted to be grown up," he said, adding that he felt okay including the more mature stanza now. Said verse describes being at a reunion where everyone is "a little thicker in the ass." As anyone who saw his tight jeans on the big screen can attest, Chesney hasn't grown into that particular line yet.
Kris Kristofferson was the headliner in the larger of the two adjacent tents, filling in for Loretta Lynn, who had to cancel on account of illness. His voice was rough, even by his standards, as he frequently admitted. "Help me make it through tonight!," he pointedly blurted, at the end of "Help Me Make It Through the Night." But his solo acoustic set proved a master class in songwriting, shaky pipes and all.
Preceding Kristofferson in the tent were fellow Hall of Famer Mel Tillis and future Hall of Famer Rodney Crowell, providing a study in contrasts between the former's countrypolitan tendencies and the latter's rock & roll sensibility. Crowell mostly ignored his early run of mainstream country hits in favor of his post-stardom run as an Americana hero, climaxing with a rip-roaring cover of Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone."
But, lest this mainstream audience lack for anything else familiar-sounding, he played "Making Memories of Us," which was a hit for a current superstar. "This is a song I wrote for my wife on Valentine's Day," he said. "I wanted to get in her pants that night, so I had to get some kind of romance going. I didn't even know it was Valentine's Day." Having forgotten to get a gift, flowers, or a dinner reservation, Crowell quickly came up with one of the most honestly romantic songs in the recent history of country. "Keith Urban found it, and then I got a big check in the mail," he said, ensuring many make-up baubles for Mrs. Crowell, no doubt.
Earlier in the day, Chris Young and Steel Magnolia played the primary stage. Over in the tents, ruby-lipped T Bone Burnett proteges the Secret Sisters provided fantastically nostalgic harmonies on songs by the Everly Brothers and Bill Monroe, while the Punch Brothers, Chris Thiel's latest band, did a sort of art-bluegrass. Junior Brown, who was supposed to play on Sunday, showed up a day early because of a miscommunication and was slotted into Saturday's bill at the last minute.
But even if it was witnessed by only a few hundred attendees, the real highlight of the day—sorry, Kenny—may have been the Cleverlys, a comedic bluegrass faux-family who have some original material but specialize in string-band covers of songs as far outside the genre as Cee-Lo's "Forget You." You'll never hear Beyonce's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)" the same way in your head once you've heard their take on it. Check out this Beyonce-meets-Bill Monroe performance video from the festival: