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Toby Keith, Trace Adkins Salute George Jones at Stagecoach

Our Country

George Jones died the same day that the West Coast's most prominent country music festival, Stagecoach, began. And while it would hardly be accurate to say that Jones's passing cast a huge pall over the rowdy, beer-fueled proceedings, a couple of the opening-day performers did attempt to play Possum, as it were.

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Toby Keith and his red Solo cup salute George Jones [Christopher Polk/Getty Images]

Friday's headliner, Toby Keith, honored Jones's death "at 81 party-ass, no-show years old!"--with his indelicate choice of eulogistic language perhaps influenced by his being "hammered," as he put it. Keith urged the mostly twentysomething festival attendees to spend "24 or 48 hours on your way out of here" compiling their own Jones playlists, and cited "how important he was to our industry, because none of us would be here today if we didn’t have four or five cats like George Jones starting it for us."

Would there be covers? Yes, there would. First Keith sang the signature Jones ballad "She Thinks I Still Care," with his female backup singers adding the properly lush country-politan touches. Speaking of "lush," Keith changed the second verse's lyrics to "She thinks I got drunk and I went to California/Where did she get such an idea?"

Then: "Let’s do one more Possum song! It’s about drinking!" That would be, of course, Jones's first big smash, "White Lightning," with Keith attempting some but not all of the vocal tics that made the song a novelty hit more than 50 years ago. As the band brought that barnburner to a close, Keith tipped his red solo cup to the crowd and said, "Godspeed, George. Rest in peace. You already did your part."

Then he said, "Let's talk about me, baby!"--and launched back into one of his own signature hits (which, ironically, perhaps, was written by Bobby Braddock, who crafted some of Jones's biggest songs).

Of all the acts on the bill, Trace Adkins was the one who was closest friends with Jones, from all indications. He'd been described earlier in the day as pretty torn up about his friend's death, which may explain why he seemed to have his heart less in the badonkadonk-shaking parts of his show than his personal salute to Jones, a cover of "The Grand Tour."

"That's how I got woke up this morning--the phone rang," a subdued Adkins said in an interview with radio station K-FROG before his set. "I was not expecting that. I'm at a loss for words when I talk about George. He and [Jones's widow] Nancy both meant so much to me and my family. About nine years ago now, I remember when Nancy threw a baby shower for [my wife] Rhonda when she was pregnant with Trinity. I remember going over to George's house that night to pick up all the stuff that she'd gotten, and I remember pulling up in front of his house and just sitting there for a while and thinking, 'Man, 25 years ago if somebody would have told me that I was gonna pull up at George Jones's house because my wife was having a baby shower...' It was just this surreal moment where I sat there for a while and the gravity of it was almost more than I could bear. Through the years, he's just been so good to me. Singing with him, hanging out with him.. just being in his presence was a real thrill for me. I was always a fan when I was around him."

Joe Nichols also sang a Jones cover, "One Woman Man," during his afternoon set on the Mane Stage.

"I woke up to that news and I cried my eyes out. It hit me like a truck," Nichols said. "I don't live in Nashville...so I didn't know he was feeling sick...It was completely a surprise to me. For the first half of the day I was walking around in a daze. As I was trying to describe to my wife, as she's trying to understand why I was crying so much this morning...It means to me like my grandfather died...It's the end of something special, not just for me but all of country music."

Robert Ellis, who performed early in the day in the alternative tent, had toured recently with Jones. As he told the Coachella Valley Independent, "I would hope that people would be honoring his memory today. I think there’s a chance that the younger folks here at this festival might not know who he is, which is kind of a shame. I mentioned it onstage, and a couple of the older guys 'wooed' really loud. But most of these people are probably 18 or 19 years old; they’re going to see Toby Keith, and they don’t have any idea who George Jones is. You would hope at a country festival that it would be earth-shattering news."

Another alternative group, the Haunted Windchimes, also saluted Jones onstage, albeit not with a cover of one of his songs, but with a version of Leadbelly's "Old Ship to Zion." But some of the other acts on the bill left Jones's passing unmentioned.

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Hank Williams Jr. at Stagecoach [Kevin Winter/Getty Images]

Hank Williams Jr. might have been expected to honor Jones, but he didn't, beyond the namechecking the singer gets every night in the lyrics of "All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down." To be fair, maybe Hank Jr. hadn't had a chance to process the death yet. But it did seem odd that he spent so much of his set paying tribute to other artists: doing a song of his dad's in the style of Fats Domino, doing a Jerry Lee Lewis impression, even covering "Walk This Way" complete with his version of the Run-DMC rap.

Hank Jr. also did his implicit anti-homage to President Obama with "Keep the Change," which drew whoops and hollers with lines like "I’ll keep my freedom, I’ll keep my guns,” and “We know who to blame: United Socialist States of America,” even though it was hardly a certainty that those sentiments would go over as well in Southern California as they might in the middle of the country.

In case you're wondering what Hank Jr. is doing with Confederate imagery in the wake of his buddy Brad Paisley's "Accidental Racist" song: No, there was no Southern flag-waving onstage. But you could still buy a Hank Jr. T-shirt that has the words "the original bad ass" surrounding an image of the flag.

At other concession stands, unrelated to Williams, you could also buy a Confederate flag bikini, if you wanted to be a really sexy accidental racist.

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Jeff Bridges at Stagecoach [Frazer Harrison/Getty Images]

On the other end of the political scale, perhaps, was Jeff Bridges, who used his set to give a pitch for his charitable organization, nokidhungry.org. The actor has just ventured out on his first real tour as a performing musician. The actor drew a sizable crowd to one of the side stages in the afternoon. Besides his Crazy Heart soundtrack songs and material from last year's T Bone Burnett-produced solo album, he also did a cover of "Lookin' Out My Back Door"--"a little Creedence for the Dude," as he put it, referring to his Big Lebowski role.

And both Bridges and the performer who preceded him onstage, Roger McGuinn, performed separate versions of the latter's Byrds composition "So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star," in one of the more interesting apparent coincidences Stagecoach has seen.

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Norah Jones and Little Willies at Stagecoach [Chris Willman]

One of the day's best sets belonged to the Little Willies, which saw co-frontperson Norah Jones doing a terrifically spooky cover of Dolly Parton's "Jolene," as well as material from the catalogs of Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Bobby Bare, and Kris Kristofferson (but no George Jones, alas).

"So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star" definitely won't be the only song played twice at Stagecoach this year. Americana faves Old Crow Medicine Show drew the biggest crowd to a side stage Friday, thanks largely to the longstanding popularity of their "Wagon Wheel," which is suddenly a big hit for Darius Rucker, who's set to perform Sunday.

Among the performers slated for the rest of the weekend: Lady Antebellum, Zac Brown Band, Dierks Bentley, Thompson Square, Dwight Yoakam, Florida Georgia Line, Charley Pride, the Charlie Daniels Band, Justin Townes Earle, Don Williams, Marty Stuart, and actor John C. Reilly.

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