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Stagecoach has always offered attendees a lot of variety in terms of country-music subgenres—but this year, the lineup seeks to skimp on alt-country, Americana and old-timers (like Willie Nelson).

Still, there is a lot to see. Here are my Stagecoach recommendations.

Friday, April 27

Jade Bird: It’s shocking, yes, but this young woman who excels at Americana … is British. Regardless, she has one hell of a voice. Her music would perhaps better fit a Coachella crowd, but she’s likely going to be awesome at Stagecoach. Her main showcase is her vocals. I highly recommend her single “Lottery” and her song “Something American.”

Joshua Hedley: It’s no surprise Joshua Hedley was named one of the “10 New Country Artists You Should Know” by Rolling Stone in 2016. He’s a throwback to the era of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. He’s a purist, thank you very much, and does not wish to change anything about his vintage sound. Jack White’s Third Man Records will be releasing his debut album, Mr. Jukebox, on April 20, which will make this show pretty sweet.

Molly Hatchet: For country fans who have a bit of a rock edge, Molly Hatchet can’t be missed. The band is certainly one the edgier Southern-rock bands with an extensive history, but it is down to only one original member, bassist Tim Lindsey. If you’ve ever longed to hear “Flirtin’ With Disaster” or “Gator Country” live, here’s your chance.

Saturday, April 28

Tyler Childers: Country music has long had a dark side, and Tyler Childers is continuing that tradition by telling the stories of hardships and day-to-day challenges in his native Kentucky. Fun fact: Sturgill Simpson produced his album Purgatory. Considering storytelling via songs that were darker in nature made the careers of Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and many others, Childers should be a hit at Stagecoach.

Ronnie Milsap: Here’s one of the relatively few old-timers! Ronnie Milsap had one hell of a ride in country music in the ’70s and ’80s, when he took Nashville by storm. His sound was a hit with both pop-music and country audiences. The music from his heyday was absolutely unique for its time, and there is not anyone like him. The good news is he’s still going strong. His set will definitely be a highlight of the weekend.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: One of the most-recognized songwriters in the alt-country music scene, Jason Isbell found new life after leaving the Drive-By Truckers in 2007. He found sobriety in 2012 after an intervention that included his management, his wife and singer-songwriter Ryan Adams—and he’s made three fantastic records since. Isbell has played Stagecoach before, and he’s always been welcomed by a large audience.

Sunday, April 29

Colter Wall: He’s from Canada … but there’s a lot of great country music coming from Canada these days. Colter Wall (below) has a rough-and-tumble voice, but his songwriting is top-notch. He has a lot of high-profile fans, from professional wrestler Brock Lesnar, to Shooter Jennings, to Lucinda Williams.

Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real: I must have caught Lukas Nelson on a bad day last year when I interviewed him before his show at Pappy and Harriet’s. Regardless, he’s one of the best young artists in country music. Yeah, he’s Willie Nelson’s son, but he and his band have accomplished a lot on their own—including backing Neil Young, and doing so marvelously. He’s sure to have a big crowd waiting for him.

Gordon Lightfoot: One of Bob Dylan’s most-comparable contemporaries is Gordon Lightfoot—a true folk-pop icon. Bob Dylan has even covered some Gordon Lightfoot songs, so that says something. Lightfoot has put out more than 200 recordings, and he’s a legend in the business. If you go to Stagecoach and don’t take in Gordon Lightfoot … what was the point of going in the first place?

Published in Previews

If you saw Jack White perform at Coachella in 2015, you couldn’t miss his violinist, Lillie Mae.

Well, Lillie Mae is an accomplished musician in her own right; she has released two country albums on Jack White’s Third Man Records, her most recent being last year’s Forever and Then Some.

She’ll be performing at the Stagecoach Country Music Festival on Sunday, April 29.

During a recent phone interview, Lillie Mae—her full name is Lillie Mae Rische—talked about her humble beginnings growing up, including busking around the country with her family, traveling in an old RV.

“You can’t set the bar too high,” Rische said with a laugh. “I’ve had a very unique life, growing up and traveling in a motorhome. We were playing music in new places every day. I’ve been steadily gigging forever. … I’ve done the same thing in different forms. I’ve had a lucky layout. Our family band—it was my father’s dream, and it was the family’s income. It was no picnic, and it was rough. But as time has gone on, I’ve become truly grateful for it, and I love that way of life so much. I still prefer to sleep in the car—and I sleep better in the car. When you grow up traveling in a motorhome, you’re willing to accept such things later on.”

Rische learned how to write songs at an early age by performing—but it wasn’t until her teenage years that she truly discovered she was a songwriter.

“I knew that it was always in me, because I remember coming up with melodies when I was like 4, 5 and 6,” she said. “I didn’t know then it was writing and that I would later do something with that. … I didn’t start finishing songs until I was about 14. It didn’t click until then.”

When Jack White came to Nashville to open Third Man Records’ physical location in 2009, Rische didn’t even know who he was.

“It took me a long time to find out who he was. I was out of the loop like I still am now, and even when I was playing music with him,” she said. “I hadn’t been turned on to his music yet at the time.

“My sister worked at a hot dog restaurant called Hot Dog Diggity Dogs, and I was over there all the time; I also worked there for a very short time. Jack White had bought a building on the street over from there. It was in a rough part of town, and so was the hot dog stand. It was a big deal when he came to town, because it was going to clean up the neighborhood. That’s how I first knew who he was—by buying that building.

“They called me in when they were recording, and I did a bunch of session work over there, and when it came time for him to go on tour, he asked me if I wanted to be a part of it. My family band had broken up not long before that, and so I went out with them, and I’m so glad that I did. I had the time of my life. It was a very special gig.”

Working with Jack White has also given Lillie Mae a sense of artistic freedom, she said.

“I love working with him so much. I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” she said. “People have a tendency to walk into a studio and be like, ‘I’m going to do this, this and this,’ but then you realize you don’t work so well with people. For instance, with my personality, if you tell me to do something and be like, ‘Hey, can you play this?’—I can’t do it. I’ll say that ahead of time: If you ask me for a specific thing, I can’t do it. I do what I do, and it’s a comfort thing. Jack has created this atmosphere where he lets you be yourself. It’s so important. There’s a room full of instruments, and you have the freedom to play them.”

Lillie Mae’s songs are emotional and hard-hitting; there’s no way to describe with words how well the vintage bluegrass and gospel sound comes through her lyrics. She talked about her songwriting process.

“I don’t see what the point is in hiding something or sugarcoating it,” he said. “We’re sugarcoating all over the place, and it’s everywhere. When I write music—I’m blessed to have grown up in a creative atmosphere, and the way that my brain works, I’m grateful for it. It’s an emotional thing. I saw a friend of mine where a situation happened with a relationship. They aren’t together anymore. I just saw this girl heartbroken; it hit me like a freight train. Within two minutes, I’m writing something about this. I had to leave and write this thing down. All these words came pouring out. It’s our obligation as writers to bare all.”

After being onstage most of her life, Lillie Mae said it’s one of the few places she feels totally comfortable.

“I’m playing constantly. I can’t not play,” she said. “If there’s a gig happening, I’m there. Am I going to sit at home? No! The people I play with are very influential to me, and I always look forward to it—every song, every day, I look forward to it. I’m constantly influenced by people who are around me, and that’s why I’m here.”

Published in Previews

When you hear the word “Banditos,” perhaps you think of the Frito Bandito. Or maybe you think of the Bandidos Motorcycle Club.

However, you really should be thinking of an awesome rock ’n’ roll band—because that’s exactly what the Birmingham, Ala., six-piece is. See for yourself when Banditos play at the Stagecoach Country Music Festival on Friday, April 27.

I was blown away by how many different things I heard in the sound when I listened to Banditos’ self-titled record from 2015. You hear the Rolling Stones in slower songs, ’60s rock with a kick in the ass on others—and all the songs have an Americana/outlaw country vibe, including banjos. The band’s newest release, last year’s Visionland, sounds as if the members were channeling Ty Segall and the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.

During a recent phone interview, vocalist and banjo player Stephen Pierce said the band’s varying styles provide a lot of great songwriting opportunities—and fun recording sessions.

“I think it makes it easier at the end of the day, especially with having different influences,” Pierce said. “We all kind of have the same influences, too, which makes it all over the place. One of us will say, ‘I want to do a boogie kind of thing,’ or, ‘I want to do a Bobby Darin smoother kind of jam.’ We all kind of get the same language that we’re speaking when we don’t really have the right words to say to each other, and we just come up with abstracts--and we know what we’re talking about. I think we’d sound even crazier if we were just one style of music, and only played country or something like that. We’d go insane, and the well would run dry real quick.”

Banditos quickly became known for the band’s marathon of tour dates—600 over three years—before putting out the 2015 self-titled debut.

“It was grueling, but totally fun,” Pierce said. “It was a time when we were rarely home, and we had places we kept our stuff at, but not anything really set up; we didn’t own animals or plants or anything like that. That was just out of the picture. It was a lot of time in the van, a lot of meeting a lot of people—and it was a lot of highway, for sure. It was a lot of hitting places for the first time and being a big question mark, and being surprised, because we had a big team behind us pushing these shows as well. It was great to see the returns we would get. We played the Southeast a ton, and we had gone up through New York and out toward Austin, Texas; those places were really good to us. Colorado and California have been great as well. One of our stronger markets is probably Oakland.”

The band has also had the pleasure of touring Europe.

“It was overwhelming. It was so cool, and people really appreciate this music over there,” Pierce said “We’ve really only been in Scandinavia, but this next European tour we’re going on (this fall) is more spread out through Europe. But as far as Scandinavia goes, they are the most respectful crowds, and everyone is pretty quiet—still rowdy, but quiet when you’re playing. We didn’t feel like we were animals in the zoo; we felt like they were really appreciating this stuff and taking it in. I think they have good taste, for sure. I’m sure we’re interesting to them, being a bunch of Alabama folks getting out there and freaking them out.”

An endorsement from Taco Bell’s “Feed the Beat” campaign helped get the band food while they toured—and also gave the band a little promotion. John and Bridgette Seasons of Haunted Summer also took part in the campaign, and told me that Taco Bell did not make for good band food. Pierce laughed when I told him this.

“I would certainly agree! But we just can’t get away from it,” he said. “You always feel like the dog that got in the trash afterwards and think, ‘Oh, God, why did I do this?’ But it was so good at the time.”

Like many musicians, past and present, the members of Banditos moved to Nashville.

“It was not that hard of a decision. It just was a kind of thing that happened,” Pierce said. “We had been living for a year in Birmingham; we’ve known each other since we were kids, and we were all living in one house. Things got a little too easy in Birmingham. We were comfortable in our home, comfortable in the bars, and we knew everyone in our town. We wanted to have things to do and make it a bit more difficult, to light a fire under our asses. Nashville was the most obvious choice. … It’s been a fantastic move for us.”

Pierce said there is one type of venue where he and his bandmates don’t like to play.

“There have been a few shows in our earlier years when we would play those sit-down dinner kind of places—where you play for three hours, and you’re the band,” he said. “Those felt more difficult to get rolling, because they’re sitting down eating, and you could be anyone up onstage, and they just want noise going on. We haven’t had much of those in the past couple of years, though.”

While Banditos have a “T” in their name, and the Bandidos Motorcycle Club a “D,” the band members are asked quite a bit about the motorcycle club’s feelings about the name.

“We’ve come across a few of (the Bandidos) at shows in El Paso and Laredo, and some in California, too,” Pierce said. “We, for sure, try our damnedest not to act like we’re affiliated with them, because that’s never our intention. But they’ve had a pretty positive response to us and have bought a sticker and a shirt. One guy put one on his bike and was like, ‘THIS IS PRETTY COOL!’ They’ve been pleasant, and we hope to keep our relationship with them that way. We’re definitely not out to step on their toes.”

This will be the first time Banditos are playing at Stagecoach.

“It’s going to be wild,” Pierce said. “We’re really looking forward to it, because we’re huge ’90s country fans, and fans of country music in general. A lot of names on there we’re excited about, for sure. It’d make my world to meet Garth Brooks.”

Published in Previews

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 www.tarzanaland.com.

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.” 

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