The country music festival that happened this weekend in Indio, California, was not Coachella. To quote Toby Keith, “There's a barrier between between freedom and evil.” Now, I'm not saying Coachella is evil. But Toby Keith's stage show involves both giant inflatable red Solo cups and fireworks, so you can motherfucking bet Stagecoach, the music festival that did happen over the weekend in Indio, California, is on the freedom side of that barrier. To quote the same Toby Keith monologue from Friday night, “I'm hammered.”
The California desert east of Palm Springs has come under serious environmental assault in recent years, and it's not just from wildly unsustainable practice of operating so many golf courses in a place with 10 inches of annual rainfall. There's Coachella, the widely celebrated branding event, celebrity playground and web content generation festival (also an “Arts and Music Festival”). Then—a more recent addition—there's a second weekend of Coachella that features the exact same stuff. One weekend later, the same location hosts the substantially less web-content-oriented Stagecoach, “California's Country Music Festival,” aka Stagecoachella, aka Ragecoach.
In the hierarchies of audiences whose attention sponsors are hoping to capture, general hipness, and misappropriated Native American garb, Coachella far outranks Stagecoach. The drive from LA to Palm Springs features a steady stream of billboards clearly targeting the Coachella demo—ads for albums from the xx, James Blake, Daft Punk, Tegan and Sara, Kid Cudi and Major Lazer—and none aimed at the Stagecoach set (but there was one for Red Robin advertising the “twang” in their fries?).
In the hierarchies of general chillness, unironic excitement, enthusiasm for all-American beer and awesome songs that frequently touch on the aforementioned subjects, Stagecoach kicks the shit out of its preening, carefully affected alternative cousin. I swear to god that within an hour of entering the festival I caught myself using the phrase “American heroes” without a trace of irony to a guy checking IDs, before buying a Budweiser and carrying it out while walking behind a guy wearing a cowboy hat that appeared to be made of Bud Light cases. There was also a booth where you could buy full-sized flags.
This explanation isn't to give the sense that Stagecoach is solely some wild, jingoistic playground for people who would rather wear cowboy hats and drink Jack Daniels than wave glowsticks and do molly (although that's not entirely untrue). Rather, it's a place entirely unconcerned with being overly self-conscious, which is great. You can literally say “Yeehaw!”—the country version of “Turn up”—in pretty much any context and people will reciprocate (other phrases I heard said yesterday in utter sincerity included “oh my golly,” “hoot and holler” and “boogie woogie”).
It's also totally cool and extremely common to be older (i.e. 50s, 60s, and up): the most disparaging comment I overheard was from a woman who appeared to be in her fifties, who remarked to her friend that other people in line didn't know what they were doing by showing up without their own folding chairs. As one might imagine in such a pro-chair environment, personal space in the Stagecoach crowd was ample. At one point, confronted with a circle of people dancing what might have been loosely termed a jig, a man who appeared to be in his fifties joked to me that he didn't want to stand near the “mosh pit” and went to go find a less rowdy spot. Speaking of dancing, people motherfucking swing danced there. That's the kind of generally chill environment at play.
Other exceedingly chill things going on included the Chill Celebrity Side Project Tent (née The Palomino Stage), which featured performances from Jeff Bridges's band, Jeff Bridges and the Abiders (presumably the reason for the large number of Big Lebowski-themed “The Dude Abides” t-shirts), and Norah Jones's country group, The Little Willies. Bridges in country singer mode, as anyone who's ever seen “Crazy Heart” can attest, is an entirely natural fit, as is Bridges in sweet-dude-wearing-a-Hawaiian-shirt-and-playing-guitar mode. Norah Jones singing “Jolene” on some goddess shit was absolutely sublime, and the piecemeal crowd was reverential, recognizing that it's not every day you get to see Norah Jones in such a small setting, while sitting on a couch made out of hay bales (an option, should you choose it). Little Willies guitarist Jim Campilongo also deserves special mention for holding it down with incredibly nasty solos and a comparably ill ascot situation.
Country isn't always given much recognition as a genre of great guitarists, but your average country performance features epic guitar parts that make jangly Coachella indie rock sound a hospital waiting room soundtrack in comparison. Another great thing about country, while we're at it, is the sense of tradition, which dictates that it's not only cool to play a few covers, it's almost expected.
The Little Willies are mostly a cover group anyway, but a lively Hank Williams Jr. show was essentially karaoke, featuring performances of songs like “Lost Highway” and “Walk the Line,” as well as slightly countrified renditions of “Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On” and “Walk this Way.” It may have also been a clever ploy: These big-time sing-alongs set the stage for an even more massive audience rendition of Williams Jr.'s own “Family Tradition” as a closer.” Essentially, the fun of the performance was the priority: Hank Williams Jr. concluded a honky tonk bit by playing the piano with his leg and by sitting on it, and, at one point, the stage banter included a joking request from his guitarist to slow down his fiddle part because IT WAS JUST THAT INSANE.
That mood carried into the closing set by Toby Keith, who is basically the ultimate bro of all bro-dom. Keith, too, included some covers, paying tribute to country legend George Jones, who had passed away earlier that day (an odd but touching eulogy noted that Jones was the kind of guy who would stop mowing his lawn to give you directions). But mostly his set tended toward shock and awe (not to be confused with Keith's album, Shock'n Y'all, which was only represented with one song, “I Love This Bar”).
There were pyrotechnics, fireworks, a screen playing music videos and, for “Red Solo Cup,” the aforementioned large, inflatable red Solo cups (The video accompaniment for that one was an awesome theme of “Tobybook,” a version of Facebook devoted entirely to pictures of rad Solo cup arrangements. If Tobybook actually existed, I would definitely have an account). For a sing-along with the kind of date-rapey “Get Out Of My Car,” the three dudes in Keith's horn section came to the front of the stage to twerk, which was only the tip of the iceberg in terms of ratchetness and yeehawness on display. Worth mentioning, perhaps, is the fact that the crowd started chanting “USA” in the downtime before Keith's set.
For the first day of Ragecoach, Toby Keith, whose primary muses are beer, whiskey, and the American army, seemed like an appropriate headliner. That may sound corny, but who the fuck cares. Yeehaw.
Kyle Kramer's favorite indie rock band is Toby Keith. He's on Twitter - @kylekramer