Strolling the grounds of the Empire Polo Field on Sunday afternoon in the final hours of the three-day Stagecoach country musicfestival, Paul Tollett the man behind the event and its older sibling, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, stopped at the Palomino stage to hear 80-year-old singer Charlie Louvin.
He surveyed the audience of a few dozen fans. The vast majority of Stagecoach-goers were half a mile away at the main stage listening to 6-foot-6 singer Trace Adkins. Country Music Hall of Fame member Louvin noticed, and politely commented, "Maybe it will start to fill up in a little bit."
Rather than grimacing, Tollett smiled.
"I know a lot of people aren't going to buy a ticket to Stagecoach just to see this," said Tollett, head of concert promoter Goldenvoice. "But for the people who know who he is, this is what will make them remember this festival."
Unlike Coachella, where the giddy factor for Tollett often comes from landing a stellar headliner -- Prince filled that bill this year -- at Stagecoach, he often finds the heart and soul of the event in the supporting acts, the veterans in particular.
This year that joy came from booking Louvin, half of the influential Louvin Brothers duo, along with 81-year-old mountain-music patriarch Ralph Stanley, 84-year-old banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs and, the youngster of the bunch, 76-year-old George Jones.
As Jones sang "Choices," a song about coming to terms with one's failures in life, a woman who'd been whooping and hollering a few minutes earlier started sobbing. "They played that song at my dad's funeral," she explained.
For his part, Jones looked genuinely startled by the rock-star roar his appearance inspired. Midway through his hour set, he said, "You're the best audience we've played for in a lot of years."
Mixing it up
Fans and performers benefited mutually from Stagecoach's catholic philosophy. Rather than relying exclusively on acts that are country radio friendly, like George Strait, Kenny Chesney and Brooks & Dunn, Stagecoach brought an impressively wide range of performers together across its three stages: young and old, mainstream and fringe, traditional and experimental.
The scale ran from acts at their commercial zenith (Tim McGraw, Rascal Flatts, Carrie Underwood) to those at the very beginning, such as 8-year-old Haydn Jones of Tehachapi. The children's division winner of the California State Old Time Fiddlers Assn. Contest, who's on her way to the national championships next month in Idaho, played at Stagecoach's smallest performance venue, a tiny corner of a musical equipment vendor's booth that had room for only about a dozen chairs.
The talent lineup also tested the limits of what defines "country" music. Its stylistic umbrella was broad enough to encompass the early 20th century African American string band music of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the avant-bluegrass of Sam Bush, the outlaw punk energy of Social Distortion leader Mike Ness and the sanitized pop with a twang of Rascal Flatts.
The result was a refreshing blending of audiences not unlike that of the annual outdoor Hootenanny Festival in Orange County, which unites punk, roots-rock and car-culture communities. Along with regulars such as Social Distortion, X and the Blasters, each Hootenanny has had an early rock or country icon. Over the years that role has been filled by the likes of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buck Owens.
Indeed, Hootenanny's spirit is reflected in many ways at Stagecoach, such as the sight of tattooed and pierced punk fans happily standing alongside country dudes with beer guts and beards at Ness' bristling performance Friday.
Tollett's experience helping put together Hootenanny also led to his urge to act now in booking country icons for Stagecoach before it's too late.
"If I could, I'd bring in every one of these 80-year-old guys who are still playing," he says. One of the first acts he confirmed for this year's lineup was Porter Wagoner, who subsequently died last fall.
"These are American treasures," he says, "and there are not very many of them. It's a small club."
Despite its size, there was a small-club feel in some respects to the Stagecoach community, stemming from the fact that many of those involved in mounting it are alumni of the L.A.-Orange County punk community of the 1980s. Bob Forrest of Thelonious Monster raved about the Carolina Chocolate Drops on his way across the lawn to the tent where Louvin was playing.
"It's good they have those big acts who keep everybody else over there," he said, nodding toward the Tundra Mane Stage where the headliners played.