Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

The 11th edition of Stagecoach is a wrap—and there was no better artist to close out the festival than Kenny Chesney … even if his fashion choices on Sunday were rather suspect.

Chesney made his fourth appearance at the festival—and it was his third time as a headliner. Considering that his Blue Chair Bay rum is selling well, and he writes songs with which every Stagecoach attendee can relate (Beer! Trucks!), he was probably the most anticipated headliner of the weekend.

When he took the stage on Sunday evening, he started off with “Beer in Mexico,” which was loud and electrifying. Chesney probably has more guitarists in his band than he needs, given most of the song consisted of guitarists trading solos.

While Chesney likes to portray an image of a true-blue country musician, he performed in a pair of shorts and what appeared to be skateboard shoes, as well as a baseball cap that said “SURF MAUI.” I was not aware that country boys surfed so much.

There were rumors circulating that Chesney would bring out pop artist Pink for a song or three, but it didn’t happen. Still, the crowd loved Chesney—and he seemed happy to be back at Stagecoach.

Other highlights

• While the Hillbenders were blowing a decent-sized crowd’s minds by performing The Who’s Tommy, bluegrass-style, in the Mustang Tent, actor and musician Kiefer Sutherland packed the Palomino Tent.

• Late in the afternoon, the Cowboy Junkies closed out the Mustang Tent with their honky tonk-meets-psychedelic rock sound, and were well-received. Front woman Margo Timmins remarked that Stagecoach was probably the best-maintained festival she had ever seen. “Everyone is so nice, even in this heat,” she said. The band played a fantastic cover of the late Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane,” which seemed to get those in cowboy boots dancing around and swaying.

• Ever since the lineup was announced, I was curious to see how East Los Angeles’ legendary Latin rockers Los Lobos would be received by the Stagecoach crowd—especially since the set preceded Palomino Tent headliner Travis Tritt’s set.

Los Lobos has built a career on Latin-meets-rock music, with some jam-band covers thrown in. The group’s sets often vary; they can be heavy on jams, or they can be heavy on rock and Latin songs, often sung in Spanish.

What happened? Well, Los Lobos turned in a performance that included some of their most well-known material, such as “One Time, One Night,” which I was personally thrilled to hear—but the only song from the band’s Latin-music repertoire was the always-saved-for-last “La Bamba.” Los Lobos was generally well-received, but the band didn’t exactly pack the Palomino Tent. I was hoping for some Latin music diversity to hit Stagecoach—but alas, that did not really happen.

The Who played Desert Trip at the Empire Polo Club back in the fall—and selections from the band’s rock opera Tommy were some of the most popular songs.

At Stagecoach, much of Tommy was once again played at the Empire Polo Club—albeit in a much different fashion.

The HillBenders on Sunday played a bluegrass version of the album in its entirety—minus four or so songs, given the group had to trim things down to fit into an hour-long set. It’s worth noting that the band pressed on sans bassist Gary Rea, due to flooding in the Ozarks.

After the performance, frontman Jimmy Rea discussed where the idea came from to record the entire Tommy album.

“It was actually a friend of ours’ suggestion,” Jimmy Rea said. “He had been wanting to do it for 25 years and was messing around with it. His name was Louis Meyers, and he was a banjo player. He was one of the guys who started South by Southwest and Folk Alliance. He was winding down, getting ready to turn 60 years old, and quitting his spot as director of Folk Alliance. He said that he had been wanting to do this for a long time and thought of us because we were enough rock ’n’ roll and bluegrass. I said, ‘Well, I love the record.’ The other guys didn't know the record too well; we recorded the demo and sent it to him. He said, ‘Let’s do it!’ It was a simple twist of fate.”

Jimmy Rea explained his love for the original album.

“It’s the music, not the story so much,” he said. “I think Pete Townshend was in a spot, and The Who was in a magical spot at the time. Pete was young enough; it was the right time, and it just caught on. He was furiously prolific and still is. He writes so many fucking songs.”

We talked about how the original was apparently inspired by Meher Baba, a guru from India who put a focus on silence and living a clean lifestyle.

“I remember reading Pete Townshend’s autobiography, and he mentioned him. It’s kind of an escape from the life of being a rock star,” Jimmy Rea said. “There were a lot of disciplinary things in Meher Baba’s world and in his teachings about eating and speaking and abstaining from drugs. I think it was something (Townshend) turned to that gave him stability in a crazy world.”

When it came time to record the HillBenders’ version of Tommy, the band turned back the clock, technology-wise.

“Many of the songs were easy, but there were a few problem children that I had to flip the rhythm, grass it up or keep it authentic to the album feel,” Rea said. “For the most part, it kind of flowed. We didn’t want it to be too bluegrass, but to have the album’s original feel. When we recorded it, we went to 2-inch tape. That was a big priority for Louis—to make sure we recorded it on tape. … It was a different experience for us. When that analog tape is rolling, whatever you get is what you get. There isn’t any clipping, posting or dragging. You have to get it right the first time.”

Rea said the reaction to the HillBenders’ Tommy has been largely positive.

“If people are familiar with the record, it really helps,” he said. “If people are traditionalists with bluegrass, it’s probably harder for them to grasp. It depends on how die-hard they are. For the most part, you don’t hear the negative criticism too often, but we have gotten a lot of good feedback from old fans of The Who who have matured and have listened to Americana, folk and bluegrass—old couples who have their kids with them and their kids who grew up on the record being played in the house. I was really surprised today by how many people were singing along.”

He added that the Stagecoach crowd was the Hillbenders’ ideal audience.

“Playing a festival crowd is much cooler,” he said. “The energy is there versus a theater setting where people are just sitting and listening.”

Rea said he was not aware that Kiefer Sutherland—yes, that Kiefer Sutherland—was playing in the Palomino Tent next door at the same time.

“I didn’t know that, but I love The Lost Boys!” he said. “I was really happy with the crowd, even though we didn’t have our bass player. But I was proud of the crowd, because I heard that two or three years ago, Del McCoury was here, and there were only three people watching. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know what bluegrass meant around here. It looked like people were really digging it, though. It wasn’t blaring down sun, either, like some of the festivals we play; it was nice to be covered, at least.”

I had to ask: Will the HillBenders record The Who’s second rock opera, Quadrophenia?

“We get asked that a lot, but I don’t think so,” Rea said, “unless Pete Townshend himself wanted us to do it, and then we might do it. We’re trying to think of what’s next on the agenda on our own vibe. We have a lot of new material, so we’d like to get it recorded.”

I also had to ask: What do the members of The Who think of the album?

“Louis Meyers, who actually passed away last March at 60 years old, was really wanting Townshend to hear the record and get some feedback,” Rea said. “He reached out to people over the years, and one guy who used to manage Pete Townshend still had his contacts, and Pete wrote the guy back saying he loved it. He’d already heard it through the Internet. … He invited us to The Who’s show in Nashville. We watched the show, were invited backstage, and got a vote of confidence from Pete. I was really surprised he took the time.

“A few months later, we got to meet Roger (Daltrey), who was at a teen cancer charity; Roger came to do a speech. We played Tommy at the pre-party. At the actual ceremony, we did one song for Roger and The Who’s manager, and had everyone on their feet singing and clapping along. We got a picture and got to meet Roger. Both were super gracious and very friendly.”

If you were at the Smokey Barrel Stage at Stagecoach, you might have caught a set by Tarzanaland—which marked the first public performances by this band made up of music-industry veterans.

The lead singer of Tarzanaland is Kelly Kidd, also of the Podunk Poets, a band which has performed at Stagecoach in the past. Joining Kidd in Tarzanaland is Thomas Gallmeier. Bassist Grady Hutt and guitarist Jake Kelly, both members of the Podunk Poets, backed Kelly and Gallmeier at Stagecoach—and at least one of those Podunk Poets may be increasing his involvement in Tarzanaland.

Kidd and Gallmeier explained that Tarzanaland was created to fill the gaps in between Podunk Poets’ performances and recording sessions.

“I’ve known Thomas for years and years, and we’ve been in and out of different projects.” Kidd said. “Thomas comes from the (electronic dance music) world, so I thought it would be fun to throw some country ideas at him—something that was a bit more adventurous than what we were accustomed to.”

Despite his background, Gallmeier said there isn’t really an EDM element to Tarzanaland.

“There are some elements in terms of production stuff, but it’s very traditional country,” he said.

Kidd said Tarzanaland has provided him with an opportunity to explore territory both old and new.

“It’s a different journey,” he explained. “I got more and more inspired by other people and a different kind of energy. I wanted this to start off as a bit more of an experiment, which is why I brought in Jake (Kelly), because he can combine the traditional elements.”

Jake Kelly said he’s gotten more involved with Tarzanaland because he loves Kidd’s songwriting.

“A lot of the time, you hear songs from another writer who you’re not familiar with. You come to realize that there are some red flags and think, ‘I wouldn’t have done this,’” Jake Kelly said. “But Kelly (Kidd) was the first songwriter I came across who played songs where there was no red flag, and no ‘I would do this a lot differently.’ I was a little apprehensive about (Tarzanaland); it’s a little outside of my comfort zone, but I have tremendous faith in what Kelly does. If he thought it was going to work, and what I was going to do would be a fit, I went with it. It’s been a lot of fun.”

I talked to Kidd two years ago at Stagecoach when the Podunk Poets performed. He talked about how both Stagecoach and country music itself have grown in just the two years since then.

“I think the festival has grown,” Kidd said. “The last time I was here, I told you that country music was waiting for its Nirvana, and I still remember that. But most people don’t know what that means. Sam Hunt is bringing in hip-hop or some of these grooves that are a lot more urban. I think that it allows people to bring in different forms of media into the traditional genre. I think that could be the change.”

We talked about Elle King’s Friday performance, which made waves at the festival due to what some considered its vulgarity.

“I think country music can celebrate dirtiness,” Kidd said. “We can all relate to those songs, sort of. What’s that best self-proclaimed country song ever written? David Allan Coe’s ‘You Never Even Called Me By My Name.’ Flirty can be fun.”

Jake Kelly agreed.

“What’s more fun than being seduced? I don’t think there is anything,” he said.

Despite Tarzanaland’s increasing popularity, the Podunk Poets have not broken up. Kidd said co-vocalist Caitlin Eadie is currently touring and was performing in the Pacific Northwest during Stagecoach.

Jake Kelly explained the hiatus.

“We’re going to be in Minnesota over the summer, so that project still has wings,” he said about Podunk Poets. “We have people in different places right now. Everybody has multiple things going on at the same time, but we’ll pull it back together, and it’ll snap.”

So, how did Tarzanaland’s first public performances—in the same area as Stagecoach’s cooking demonstrations and barbecue contest—turn out? They were rather well-received.

“It’s been great,” Gallmeier said. “The people were enthusiastic about it.”

For more information on Tarzanaland, visit

On Day 2 of Stagecoach 2017, two music legends celebrated their birthdays.

In recent years, Goldenvoice has booked some psychedelic rock bands with 1960s heydays to play the festival. On Friday, the Zombies played to a large crowd in the Palomino Tent; on Saturday, it was Tommy James and the Shondells.

When Tommy James and the Shondells took the stage, they started with their 1971 hit “Draggin’ the Line.” I immediately noticed was how tight the band sounded—and how well James can still sing and play his guitar; it appears he’s taken care of himself over the years. James told the audience that in their time slot, they couldn’t perform their standard repertoire, but he promised everyone a good time with as many songs as possible. The band then launched into “Crystal Blue Persuasion.”

At one point, the band endured some technical difficulties that went on for a few minutes. James told the crowd, “What can I do for the next five minutes?” before telling a joke that intentionally fell flat. It appeared they couldn’t get an acoustic guitar that James intended to use for a song to work. In the midst of this, the man who introduced the band came back out and informed the crowd that it was James’ birthday, and asked the crowd to sing “Happy Birthday.” James was turning 69.

Eventually, they gave up on the guitar and started playing “Crimson and Clover.”

If you grew up during the 1980s, you probably heard Tiffany’s awful cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now” at every roller-skating rink, school dance and shopping mall in America. Well, hearing the rock version played live by the band that originally performed it makes you forget all about that horrible cover.

During the last song, “Mony, Mony,” James hopped into the photo pit below the stage and walked the entire line, shaking hands, kissing ladies on the cheek, and posing for some selfies as the band repeated a portion of the song. James then hopped back up onstage and finished the song and the set.

The Palomino Tent was already swelling toward capacity when Jamey Johnson took the stage and opened with “High Cost of Living.” Johnson announced during his set that it was Willie Nelson’s birthday, and led the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday.”

Before Willie Nelson—84 as of April 29—performed, Bradley Cooper appeared onstage and informed the crowd that they had seven minutes of time to film a scene for the upcoming movie A Star Is Born, which will star Lady Gaga, and that Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real were going to come out and pretend to play a song that couldn’t actually be played “due to legal issues.” (Lukas is one of Willie’s sons.) He asked the crowd to show enthusiasm and excitement.

Willie Nelson finally took the stage after 8 p.m., well beyond his 7:45 p.m. scheduled start—and the crowd was massive; people were appropriately wondering why Nelson wasn’t appearing on the Mane Stage. The audience quickly learned Willie Nelson didn’t have his full band with him; instead, Lukas backed him with a couple of other musicians.

As was the case with Jerry Lee Lewis’ performance on Friday, the sound was hard to hear at times, especially when the crowd sang along to songs such as “Whiskey River,” “Still Is Still Moving To Me,” and “Good Hearted Woman.”

The end of Nelson’s set had a surprise: Neil Young came out and sang “Happy Birthday,” after Nelson had asked the crowd to sing “Happy Birthday” along with him. It seemed sort of odd to have Willie asking the audience to sing to him for his own birthday … but, hey, when you’re the Redheaded Stranger, and it’s your 84th birthday, you can do whatever the hell you want.

Other highlights

• John Doe of the punk band X performed in the early afternoon in the Palomino Tent to some of the edgier—and older—members of the Stagecoach crowd. DJ Bonebrake, the drummer of X, played as part of his band. Things got political for a couple of moments when John Doe told the audience that if they’re eating fruit, it was picked by someone else’s hand—and to try to think about that. While tuning, he told the audience that California was in a drought, and added, “There might be 10 feet of snow on Mammoth Mountain, but it’s still happening.” This enraged a man, wearing a cowboy hat, near me, who screamed: “CLIMATE CHANGE IS A HOAX!”

• Robert Ellis played an afternoon set in the Mustang Tent while decked out in an awesome colorful suit—with planets and other extra-terrestrial objects on it. It was definitely the best outfit I’ve seen at Stagecoach this year so far.

Stagecoach kicked off on Friday with a whole lot of interesting things going on—and I am not even talking about the happenings on the Main Stage.

Son Volt played in the Mustang Tent in the afternoon—which created a schedule conflict for those (like me) who also wanted to see the Zombies play in the Palomino Tent next door.

While the Zombies’ 1960s psychedelic rock ’n’ roll won over a crowd that nearly filled the Palomino Tent, Jay Farrar and the rest of Son Volt also put on quite a show, holding most of the crowd as the band played.

Son Volt, coming off of a lengthy hiatus, actually played at the first Stagecoach in 2007. The group sounded magnificent, producing a stellar show that included edgier, rock-influenced stuff, as well as more country-sounding songs that included slide guitar.

After the Zombies and Son Volt, “The Killer” himself, Jerry Lee Lewis, finally enjoyed his Stagecoach debut. He’d been booked at Stagecoach before—only to drop off the schedule soon after being announced.

While it was great to finally see Lewis grace the Palomino Tent and play for the Stagecoach crowd, it wasn’t a perfect performance, production-wise. His intro was a video of his contemporaries such as the late Johnny Cash, the late Chuck Berry, Keith Richards and Steve Allen talking about him over archive footage—but the audio only played for a portion of it, as Jerry Lee Lewis walked to his piano with some assistance. He got a very welcoming and warm ovation.

After the botched intro, Lewis finally began—but the sound levels were off. Lewis’ piano sounded faint, unless you were standing up close. The tent was full, but it was obvious people were not hearing it—and were trying to give him a pass anyway.

Still, as a rock ’n’ roll fan who hadn’t yet had a chance to see Lewis, it was still very pleasing to watch. Yes, he did play “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On.” However, his set list was visible on his piano, and it included more than the eight songs that he played. He was scheduled for close to an hour, but he played for only about 30 minutes—before he stood up and walked off stage to a standing ovation.

The first Stagecoach Country Music Festival was back in 2007—meaning this is the 10th anniversary of the country companion to Coachella.

There are a lot of familiar names on the bill this year … and there are some serious oddities, too. To help attendees plan, I’ve come up with a list of acts I certainly won’t be missing.

Friday, April 28

John Moreland

I interviewed John Moreland in advance of his 2015 appearance at Stagecoach after hearing about him in the underground alt-country forums. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow spoke highly of him on her show, in part because he’s modest, down to earth and soft-spoken. Oh, he’s mega-talented, too: This singer-songwriter who spent his teenage years playing and touring in punk-rock bands is truly special. Even though he stays seated during his entire performance, Moreland offers folk/Americana songs that enter the depths of your soul. He’s mesmerizing as a performer and a songwriter; you truly won’t want to miss John Moreland.

Son Volt

This is one of my personal favorites. Front man and singer-songwriter Jay Farrar spent seven years playing in Uncle Tupelo with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco before they went their separate ways. While Tweedy and Wilco went on to become famous, Jay Farrar’s Son Volt received more critical acclaim (if, alas, not more record sales)—because Farrar’s songwriting evolved into something truly great. Farrar is of the same ilk as Woody Guthrie and is a purist when it comes to Americana music. Son Volt recently released a new album, Notes of Blue, and not long ago toured playing debut record Trace in its entirety. It’s great to see Son Volt finally on the Stagecoach lineup.

The Zombies

This is one of those aforementioned Stagecoach lineup oddities. The Zombies were part of the British Invasion during the ’60s, and had a sound that was very psychedelic—even for that time. Hit song “Time of the Season” is a psychedelic-rock staple, as is the band’s other big hit, “She’s Not There.” The Zombies broke up in 1967, and the only remaining original members are lead singer Colin Blunstone and organist Rod Argent. It will be great to see The Zombies … and it will be interesting to see how the band is received at Stagecoach.

Jerry Lee Lewis

Jerry Lee Lewis, now 81 was, announced as part of Stagecoach’s 2013 bill—before he cancelled without explanation. Hopefully he will be there this year. While Jerry Lee Lewis is most remembered for the scandal surrounding his December 1957 marriage to his 13-year-old first cousin, there is actually much more to talk about than that. Jerry Lee Lewis has recorded some of the best songs in rock history, such as “Great Balls of Fire,” “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On” and “Breathless.” He’s also the last man standing of the Sun Records legacy. I’m still laughing at the joke Beavis made in Beavis and Butt-head about how he “did the piano and kicked his cousin.”

Saturday, April 29

The Walcotts

I love the fact that I can picture The Walcotts (pictured right; photo by Max Knight) playing in some smoky honky-tonk with chicken wire to protect them from flying objects. However, this group throws in some rock ’n’ roll0, too. This Los Angeles outfit should be a treat for those who arrive at Stagecoach early. I also highly suggest checking out the album Let the Devil Win, because it’s quite good.

John Doe

John Doe of the punk band X is also a solo artist—and like his X bandmate Billy Zoom, Doe is a fan of country music. Doe is actually quite multi-faceted; he’s also dabbled in acting and poetry, and just released a book, Under the Big Black Sun, about the Los Angeles punk scene from 1977 to 1983. You won’t want to miss John Doe—because he will definitely put on a great show.

Tommy James and the Shondells

One has to wonder what Goldenvoice is thinking with all of these psychedelic rock bands from the 1960s on the bill. Don’t get me wrong, though; I am not complaining. Tommy James and the Shondells can be heard on oldies radio quite often with “Crimson and Clover,” “Mony Mony,” “I Think We’re Alone Now” (which was covered by Tiffany in the ‘80s) and “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” It will be interesting to see how this group is received, too.

Sunday, April 30

The HillBenders (Performing The Who’s Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry)

OK, things keep getting stranger here. The HillBenders are a relatively new bluegrass band from Springfield, Mo., and the group is going to perform The Who’s Tommy, a rock opera … but in a bluegrass style. The band released a recording of this in 2016, and has been touring with it recently, so arrive early to check this one out. It sure is odd to hear bluegrass versions of “Do You Think It’s Alright,” “Fiddle About” (no pun intended), “The Acid Queen” and “Pinball Wizard.” I’m wondering if we’re going to see bluegrass versions of the characters performing in the background as the band plays.

Cowboy Junkies

This one isn’t all that weird: Stagecoach is actually the perfect place for the Cowboy Junkies, who have been putting the “alt” in alt-country since 1986. Cowboy Junkies has made some downright dark originals and some haunting covers; in any case, Margo Timmins’ voice is just beautiful. The band has recorded numerous albums, and put out a series of four albums known as the Nomad Series from 2010 to 2012. If you’re a fan of alt-country, make sure to check out Cowboy Junkies.

Los Lobos

Because a lot of people love Los Lobos (below), myself included, I think this performance will go over well at Stagecoach, and the fact that a Latin band from Los Angeles will be performing at Stagecoach is fantastic. One of my favorite albums of all time is Los Lobos’ By the Light of the Moon, and the band’s live shows are always interesting—because you don’t know if you’re going to get a lot of originals, or if you’re going to get a lot of jam-band-style covers. Having seen Los Lobos before, I can say you’ll walk away at the end very happy.

Published in Previews

A poet at Stagecoach? Yes, indeed.

Renowned cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell will be returning to Stagecoach to serve as the Mustang Tent’s emcee for the entire weekend, April 28-30. Mitchell, who has recorded eight albums, is known for his poems such as “Story With a Moral,” “The Bristlecone Pine,” “The Rawhide Braider,” and “Night Before Christmas on the West Texas Plains.”

During a recent phone interview, he discussed his love for poetry that goes back to his childhood in Elko County, Nev.

“It was just always there for me,” Mitchell said. “I grew up on a ranch that was really remote. We were 60 miles from town and about 30 miles from a dirt road. We were 14 miles away from the nearest neighbor. We didn’t even have electricity, and we did the strangest things at night: We sat around and talked to each other. People have forgotten this, but it was very common practice when people would come to visit for (hosts) to be playing a musical instrument, singing a song or reciting poetry. I got into kind of the last of that, I think.

“Some of the old cowboys my dad hired would actually recite a poem or two. If you want to get a kid’s interest, give him a rhyme and a meter. Look at Dr. Seuss. That was something special when they would just tell me the story of ‘Casey at the Bat’ or ‘Cremation of Sam McGee,’ and all those things just resonated and became part of my life. I started reciting early, and by the time I was in high school, I was changing very nice and pleasant lyrics in songs of the day to silly, lewd kid stuff. I found I could write in rhyme and meter if I thought about it.”

Mitchell explained what his poetry is all about.

“It covers life; it covers who I am; it covers what’s around me, and hopefully people realize that cowboys are semi-human, so we have a lot of the same concerns,” Mitchell said. “There are only so many experiences humans can have, and they can get them from a wide variety of situations. … Each story has been told millions of times. What I try to do is make it interesting in the words of the language and try to make it part yours.

“We can all watch a Steven Spielberg movie … but we’re all voyeurs in that. We are watching. If you watch little kids watch movies like that, they get a dumb kind of look on their face and don’t react. But if you read kids stories, you’ll see physical reactions, because it takes them away from being a voyeur and puts them more into: ‘This is what’s happening right now to me.’”

I mentioned to Mitchell that poetry seems to be, frankly, a dead or dying art form.

“I think that it’s died more than once,” he responded. “I think human nature and human experience is like history repeating itself. I think one time, I premiered a book at City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, which is owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He and I got to sit down for a long time. Lawrence Ferlinghetti is one of the great beat poets of the time. We visited, and he said to me, ‘I’m really glad you guys are coming along and giving poetry back to the American people. I’m afraid I was part of a movement that actually removed poetry from the common person.’ Many people who love beat poetry are going to argue about that. If you think about it, the few surviving poets of that time were the Robert Frost-type of poet. Robert Frost was asked about this free-verse poetry, and his answer was great. He said: ‘Very interesting, isn’t it? It’s like playing tennis with the net down.’ I thought: That is part of poetry. Poetry doesn’t have to make you feel sorry for the poet or sorry for yourself, or let you know how bad the world or humankind is. It doesn’t have to do that. It can bring joy and comedy, and can touch all facets of life. We need poetry to tell us the politics of the day and remind us of feelings.”

Mitchell made one additional point about the state of human communication today.

“We don’t even rely on newspapers anymore,” he said. “We still rely on storytelling, no matter what media. No matter what media you go to … you have to go back to basic human communication. Music, arts and poetry are needed media staples in our life.”

Mitchell said he has enjoyed the wide variety of acts he’s encountered in the past at Stagecoach.

“For a guy who completely dreads crowds, and for a guy who is fairly uneducated as to who’s the newest big shot in Nashville, I still love it,” he said. “I still think that the people who put it on are good at what they’re doing—very good. They make it very comfortable for people to be there and make it very comfortable for you to find the type of entertainment you want. You can have the biggest of the modern Nasvhille stars on one stage, and the greats of yesteryear on another stage. Then you can come to my stage and have everything from the greats of bluegrass to the upcoming types of music that are bluegrass and the old-Americana type. But we’ve had Garrison Keillor up there, too.”

If you’re expecting a full cowboy poetry set from Mitchell this year … sorry, but you’re out of luck.

“It’s a funny thing: This year, they are bringing me in strictly to emcee the stage, just because they’re good people,” he said. “They didn’t want to leave me out and had filled the roster. They realized that my name wasn’t on it, and they hired me to come and be the host of the stage. I generally know the artists and get to introduce them in a way that the people who are there are actually introduced to them.” 

Published in Previews

Blending country music with jazz and pop is not easy—but for Robert Ellis, it seemingly comes naturally; just check out his latest (self-titled) album.

Ellis will be making his second appearance at Stagecoach on Saturday, April 29.

During a recent phone interview, Ellis said he did not use a specific formula while recording his latest album, which was his fourth.

“As much as I’d like to take credit for every decision and say that it’s all premeditated and conscious, a lot of what happens in making music is pretty accidental,” Ellis said. “You just chase down a vibe, and you go in a direction of things that excites you. At the end of the process, you can turn around and say, ‘I intended to make it this way,’ but in reality, it’s not always like that. It’s more about what your boundaries are and what your parameters are. If you have decided that you want to make a very Americana album, and the only instruments you want on it are acoustic guitar, stock electric guitar and harmonica, you sort of (have) a narrow window as to what can happen. But we didn’t have any of those boundaries when we started recording. We ended up with this weird thing.”

As far as the Americana genre goes, Ellis isn’t really a fan, and doesn’t consider his music to be a fit.

“I find most Americana music to be pretty boring,” he said. “It doesn’t interest me. I understand the reason why what I do is grouped into that genre; I get it. I think people tend to have superficial reasons as to why they group things together. I am from the South, and I write songs that are sort of story-based. At least in the past, there were some country and folk elements to what I was doing. So I can see why I was thrown into that category, and it makes perfect sense. But I don’t listen to that music. I like a lot of music that is described as folk music, like Joni Mitchell, but I think what she does is weird and progressive. If you look at the players on her records, like Jaco Pastorius and Michael Brecker, these are not big names in folk music; they’re jazz players. Everyone remembers Joni Mitchell as this flower-power folk artist.”

Ellis talked about a specific artist on his current playlist.

“I just bought the Joanna Newsom record. I was listening to that this morning,” Ellis said. “I really love that she’s not on Spotify, because you just can’t fucking go listen to her music for free. I thought, ‘I really want to hear that new record.’ I had to go on iTunes and buy it for $11. It’s not like I have a ton of spendable income, but her album is worth the money. I felt really good about spending money on her album. I think there are very few artists who do that, and it felt rewarding, because I don’t know the last time I bought a record.”

Ellis explained how he approaches songwriting, and what he thinks makes a good song.

“It could be anything. I like a lot of different music for a lot of different reasons,” he said. “What I try to do in my songs is communicate a story and choose the music to go along in telling that story. We listen to a lot of jazz, and a lot of rock ’n’ roll, and we just improvise.”

Ellis spends a lot of time each year on tour.

“Three hundred days,” he said. “I have good days and bad days. Generally, the time onstage is the best thing in the world. It feels right, and I feel time passing effortlessly while I’m getting to play music. It’s all the other shit that gets old. It’s all the driving and the other bullshit you have to do to make this work—like figure out how to sell music. It feels pretty tacky and time-consuming. But the actual performing and improvising never gets old, especially after you’ve been driving for 8 or 9 hours. All I want to do is be in the moment, improvise and play music.”

Ellis said he’s consistently writing, too.

“I have a lot of records in me that I really want to do,” he said. “I guess if I get enough coffee in me, I have 10 albums I wish I could do in the next five minutes. I’d love to do a record of jazz standards. But I have no idea what the next record will be like—but it definitely won’t sound like the last one.”

Stagecoach’s lineup is usually weirdly diverse. Ellis said that he finds Stagecoach to be inexplicable—but in a good way.

“A lot of the artists at Stagecoach are these weird left-of-center artists,” Ellis said. “I know Phosphorescent played Stagecoach a few years ago. The last time, I played Stagecoach, Toby Keith was the headliner. Nora Jones’ country band was there, and so was Old Crow Medicine Show. There’s a wide variety of artists that play that thing. I definitely don’t think Toby Keith and Old Crow Medicine Show play the same genre of music. I don’t feel out of place at all, because I don’t know the identifying quality all of the bands have. I haven’t been able to wrap my head around that. Last time I played, people seemed to really dig it, and I had a good crowd. It’s California, so it’s all kinds of different people.”

Published in Previews

The name Justin Townes Earle tells several stories. The middle name pays homage to Townes Van Zandt, and his last name … well, yes, he’s Steve Earle’s son.

But Justin Townes Earle has made a name for himself; his music is truly his own. Like his father, he’s a country musician who frequently strays from the Nashville mainstream. Like both his father and his father’s mentor, Townes Van Zandt, he’s battled drug addiction.

He’ll be returning to Stagecoach on Friday, April 28.

His most recent albums, released in 2014 and 2015 respectively, were titled Single Mothers and Absent Fathers. During a recent phone interview, Earle talked about the differences between the similar albums.

“I ended up getting frustrated with the first record, Single Mothers,” Earle said. “I ended up writing Absent Fathers during (a) second year. They ended up coming together, because they were written really close to each other. I wouldn’t haven’t written Absent Fathers if I didn’t have that second year of frustrations I had with Single Mothers.

“I think, as an artist, I listen to a lot of different types of music. I think my records definitely have more of an Americana sound or whatever it is. … I paid more attention to my Replacements records and things like that. The new record I’ve made is more of a blues record, more along the lines of the Harlem River Blues album. Nobody should ever expect me to make the same record twice, or (for the records to) even to be in line with each other. I’m a whimsical motherfucker.”

As for that new record, just a couple of days after our interview, it was announced that Kids in the Street would be released May 26.

“During my early career, I would take a year between records,” Earle said. “Then I started taking two. It’s definitely time (for a new record).”

I asked whether taking more time between records helps or hinders his creative process.

“Really, I found it more frustrating to wait more than a year,” he replied. “I get a group of songs done, and I have time to second-guess them. I end up doing rewrites, edits and all kinds of things that maybe needed to be done, and maybe didn’t. But that’s up to the individual song. I do prefer the faster pace of work, but life doesn’t allow for that too much anymore.”

While he respects his father’s political music, Earle said he’s not a big fan of mixing politics and music.

“It’s not that I’m not interested in it; it’s something I think for me, personally, I would approach it very carefully,” he said. “I’m not happy about either political party. It’s been, ‘I’d rather vote for Jeffrey Giraffe instead of this person.’ It’s been like that my whole lifetime. I’ve always seen music as the Grand Ole Opry, the Louisiana Hayride, and this thing where everyone can go, which is a high for society. I want my music to be where you don’t have to believe what I believe to feel comfortable at one of my shows. I think we have very few bonds between Americans today.

“I don’t disagree with my father’s music, because that’s what he does. He’s really good at it. But it’s just not what I do. I feel like it works its way into my songs, but I tend to use more social ideas, and it tends to be buried. I write about people issues, everyday life issues and local issues.”

Earle said his father pays a price for his politics.

“I think that after years, you can’t go to a Steve Earle concert expecting anything different. But recently, it doesn’t go over very good for him in the South,” he said. “People will get up and leave one of his shows pissed off. It does happen, and that’s only because they didn’t do their homework, and they only remember ‘Copperhead Road’ and nothing else. But I wonder how big his crowds would be had he not gone that direction. Those people don’t come to the shows anymore.”

Justin Townes Earle now lives on the West Coast, after living in New York City. However, Earle said he misses the South.

“I’ve always missed things about the South, no matter where I’ve lived. It’s what I grew up with,” Earle said. “People aren’t as communal anywhere else as I’ve seen growing up in the South. I don’t know what it is, but there’s a certain niceness to Southern people that doesn’t exist anywhere else, and it’s a certain kind of nice. It’s just familiar to me.

“I miss Nashville—and that’s not anything you can see anymore. It’s gone. It’s buried, and the rate at which Nashville gentrified is just astounding. It’s not that it was a better place when I grew up. It was rough, and it was a dangerous city in the ’80s and ’90s. There was no industry; most of the inner city was poor and rough. … But my mom always got to take me back to the place where she got a burger when she was a little girl and the toy store where her dad bought her toys. I got to do all that stuff with my mom when I was growing up, and I can’t do that with my kid.”

As for his addiction days, Earle said they are behind him.

“I was 24 years old when my first EP came out, and I’m 35 now. There’s a drastic difference,” he said. “I’m also a married man now, and definitely a lot more stable of a human being than I used to be. I guess the self-destructive bomb found its way out of me. I do believe it has a lot to do with my wife, and if we’re happy with life, we’re not going to try to alter it. But I’m also not going to start writing songs about walking on sunshine and things like that.”

The last time Earle played Stagecoach, in 2013, his tour bus was parked right next to the Palomino stage. He said he enjoyed the diversity of the festival.

“For as big of a festival as it is, it’s laid out very well,” he said. “I’ve never played a large festival like that where I could put my bus right by the stage. I love that about it. It’s set up very well, and it’s very easy to get around. It’s really interesting how that festival is evolving in a big way. There’s definitely been this new look in the past several years of looking at the popular country vibe and doing that because people love that, but also bringing in some obscure acts that sound different. I think that it’s become a very progressive festival; a lot of other festivals get stuck in their ways.”

Published in Previews