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Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

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

There were two rules for Stagecoach 2013’s third day, spelled out on video monitors and texted to attendees who downloaded the Stagecoach app: Drink water, and find shade for your health and safety.

While water was supplied by vendors and free refill stations, shade is limited at the Empire Polo Club.

The official sponsor of Stagecoach—Toyota—offered a bit of shade inside their exclusive tent on the right hand side of the “Mane Stage.” The Toyota tent became the “Toyota World of Wonders” this year, featuring an interactive vintage carnival theme, with a milk-jug throw, a ring toss and even a professional palm-reader—seated, of course, in a 2013 Rav4.

Over the weekend, Toyota revealed the brand new 4Runner model, which featured an acoustic performance in the Toyota World of Wonders from Dierks Bentley.

Around 1 p.m. on Sunday, the Budweiser Clydesdales—who made an appearance on El Paseo in Palm Desert earlier in the week—trekked through the lobby area of the festival, making their third appearance at Stagecoach.

“We enjoy a big crowd,” said Budweiser representative Dennis Knepp.

As far as finding shade was concerned, fans were finding it in the Mustang and Palomino tents.

Waddie Mitchell, a “cowboy poet,” offered a reading to a large group of attendees—some of whom sat with their backs turned, uninterested and conversing among themselves. I spotted one woman sleeping on one of the bales of hay. When he ended his 70-minute act, he said, “I think I’ll go start some supper now. Thanks for the ride.”

Riders in the Sky followed Mitchell at 3:50 p.m. Riders in the Sky’s performance at Stagecoach was their 6,419th performance over 35 years, as well as their third appearance at Stagecoach. The group’s performance had a diverse, interested audience of all ages, including children.

During the performance, Fred LaBour and the rest of the group performed solos—slapping the sides of their face making “clacking” noises. Paul “Woody” Chrisman dumped cornmeal on the stage and performed a fiddle solo while dancing on it.

The part of their performance that stood out the most was a cover of the theme to Rawhide, which had many of those in the audience singing and clapping along. Children in the audience got to hear “Woody’s Roundup” from the Toy Story 2 soundtrack, along with “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.”

In a way, the Riders in the Sky are the cowboy Rat Pack. Consider Douglas “Ranger Doug” Green’s vocals slightly echoing Frank Sinatra’s during “Trail Dust,” as well as the group’s comedy, which never stops during their performance.

Fans of John C. Reilly—known for his roles in Boogie Nights and The Aviator—were treated to the actor’s musical performance after Riders in the Sky (who took a few comedic shots at Reilly during their set). During sound check, Reilly addressed the large crowd who packed the front half of the Mustang Tent.

“It’s called a rolling festival sound check,” he said, gaining applause.

“I’m John Reilly, and these are my friends. On this hot day, so are you,” he said, before going into his first number. He played the guitar he used in the movie Walk Hard. People at the rear were slow-dancing, as if the Mustang Tent had been turned into a honky tonk. At times, it felt like a performance suited for A Prairie Home Companion. Nice job, John!

Mustang headliners Katey Sagal and the Forest Rangers took the stage around 10 minutes late. Sagal was yet another Hollywood figure performing at Stagecoach; she was a recording artist before becoming an actress in roles such as Peg on Married With Children and Gemma on Sons of Anarchy. The Forest Rangers have been contributors on the Sons of Anarchy soundtrack throughout its five seasons, with various vocalists.

A few Sons of Anarchy and “SAMCRO” T-shirts were scattered throughout the decent-sized audience, and as the Forest Rangers took the stage, Sagal was missing. The group performed alone with what they called “guest vocalists” at first. Through bluesy/southern rock performances of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” and Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” it seemed as if they were trying to shrug off a possible absence.

Sagal finally walked onstage to a deafening ovation. When she began to sing a cover of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’,” fans got to experience her magnificent singing ability. She then did a beautiful cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” and a cover of Steve Earle’s “Come Home to Me.”

She turned over the vocals to Curtis Stigers for a performance of “John the Revelator,” which was just as impressive as it was during the Sons of Anarchy season 1 finale.

While Sagal was obviously the major attraction, the Forest Rangers—along with their guest vocalists—were quite a sight to see, and it was a real treat for those who attended.

As Katey Sagal and the Forest Rangers were finishing up, a large crowd in the Palomino Tent was awaiting the Charlie Daniels Band, scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Daniels and the band took the stage about 15 minutes late; to be fair, the sound check appeared to be quite extensive. For a man who recently had heart surgery, Daniels appeared to be extremely energetic. The Southern-rock icon was twirling his bow and playing a mean fiddle during their opening song, and seemed to joke with his guitarist by slapping him with it.

“I do believe it’s party time in the desert!” he said after his first song.

While Daniels’ performance was strong throughout, his scaled-back set contained two long instrumentals and left no time for Daniels to play his established hits. Daniels bragged that his current band was the best he’s played with, and while there’s no doubt that’s true, people seemed as if they were ready for the long guitar solos and repetitive bass lines to end. Nevertheless, Daniels’ performance included spectacular lighting, and there was no better way to close out the Palomino Tent for Stagecoach 2013 than with “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”

The Zac Brown Band closed out the Mane Stage and were the last act to play at Stagecoach for 2013. The band’s first song, “Keep Me in Mind,” was a delightful opener. Hearing some Americana, acoustic-driven country thrown into the mainstream Nashville sound that’s usually featured on the Mane Stage was a unique experience.

The highlight of their show was a cover of Dave Matthews Band’s “Ants Marching,” which was something I didn’t expect, and it sounded wonderful when played with their signature sound. The Zac Brown Band was not as flashy as Toby Keith or Lady Antebellum, and the group had a more-laid-back approach. Instead, it was all about the music. It was another wonderful night for the Mane Stage, and a lovely conclusion to Stagecoach 2013.

Despite blistering temperatures, fans enjoyed the three days of the most unique country music festival in the United States. It’s the only place where you will see Americana, bluegrass and alternative country, as well as groups like the Honky Tonk Angels Band, plus actors and actresses performing country music, and the thundering sound of modern Nashville mainstream—all in one place.

Photos by Erik Goodman

Published in Reviews