Miranda Lambert snagged an opportunity to catch her breath a few hours before she was to hit the stage as a headliner for the 2015 Stagecoach Country Music Festival, an event she's played four times since it started eight years ago.
"Oh, yeah, I started in the 12 o'clock noon spot and now we're finally playing after dark," she said Saturday, reflecting on how much has changed for her, for country music and for Stagecoach, which has become the biggest country music festival in the world.
"I feel like country music is more popular right now than it's ever been," said the Texas singer, who last week collected the Academy of Country Music award for female vocalist of the year for an unprecedented sixth consecutive year.
It was hard to argue with her, given the tens of thousands of fans splayed out in front of Stagecoach's biggest stage. At the ninth edition of the event, a combined attendance of 210,000 — up from 190,000 last year — turned out for three days of music by headliners Lambert, husband Blake Shelton, Tim McGraw and more than 60 other acts.
"That first year, we had 12,000 people," said Paul Tollett, president and chief executive of concert promoter Goldenvoice, which created Stagecoach as a country cousin to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, arguably the most prestigious music festival in the U.S. and one of the most highly regarded in the world. Goldenvoice puts on both events in association with its business partner, concert promotion giant AEG Live.
"We thought, 'Well, maybe this won't work here,'" Tollett said, but eight years later, Stagecoach is a staple of the Southern California concert scene. It's also an increasingly important part of touring plans for artists such as Lambert, who has been through the full growth cycle that such festivals provide for musicians. She was first booked for Stagecoach four years after finishing third in the "Nashville Star" reality singing competition, and through return visits in 2009 and 2012 her career has blossomed. She has commanded headline status during her last two appearances.
Stagecoach also is serving as the template for the new Big Barrel Country Music Festival that Goldenvoice and AEG are unveiling June 26-28 in Dover, Del. Lambert, Shelton and Carrie Underwood are headlining that event.
Like Coachella, Stagecoach offers a curated lineup of commercial powerhouses (McGraw, Lambert, Shelton, Dierks Bentley, Jake Owen, the Eli Young Band), respected country veterans (Merle Haggard, Mickey Gilley, the Oak Ridge Boys, the Outlaws), critically acclaimed progressive country singer-songwriters (Steve Earle, Sturgill Simpson, Kacey Musgraves) and promising newcomers (Lindi Ortega).
Last year's male-dominated bill was topped by Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan and Eric Church, acts that have risen to headliner status relatively recently by courting country's party-minded fans — the genre's so-called bro-country wing.
This year, there was no shortage of exhortations from the stage for fans to drink, dance and debauch, but there was a bigger contingent of strong female performers, including neo-rockabilly-Western singer Nikki Lane, Colorado electric-guitar wielding singer-songwriter Clare Dunn and the spirited female bluegrass quintet Della Mae.
Newcomer duo Maddie and Tae served up their good-humored jab at the bro-country movement, "Girl in a Country Song," early Sunday. They played to a modest but enthusiastic audience — women outnumbering men 2-1 or maybe 3-1, as is characteristic of the female-dominant country audience.
The presence of more women in the lineup might reflect the new role this year for Tollett's longtime assistant Stacy Vee, promoted in February to festival talent buyer for Stagecoach and Big Barrel.
"I've been going to the College of Seeing How Paul Does This, and it seemed like a natural evolution," she said from the Palomino stage Friday between performances by Simpson, one of the most acclaimed new arrivals in roots-country in recent years, and the Time Jumpers, a Western swing band featuring Country Music Hall of Fame singer, guitarist and songwriter Vince Gill.
"I love that we can book acts just because they're good and we love them," said Vee, who added that she visits Nashville at least four times a year among other travels in search of performers to add to the festivals' lineups.
As Tollett did in years past, Vee sprinkled a few classic-rock acts among the mainstream and alternative country performers that make up the bulk of the lineup. Texas blues-rock trio ZZ Top, Southern rocker Gregg Allman and British Invasion rocker Eric Burdon and the latest incarnation of the Animals set the country crowd atwitter with the luster they added to the festival.
At 73, Burdon on Sunday showed off the gruff and soulful vocals that distinguished Animals hits such as "Don't Bring Me Down," "The House of the Rising Sun" and "We Gotta Get Out of This Place."
The delightfully wacky also was represented Sunday by the Ben Miller Band of Joplin, Mo. The trio concocted a rough and tumble sound with slide guitar, wash-tub bass and, on at least one number, electric spoons.
An impromptu meeting of three generations of acclaimed country singer-songwriters materialized Friday backstage on the Time Jumpers' bus shortly before their set when Haggard, along with Willie Nelson, stopped by and then was joined by Simpson.
Earle, another widely praised songwriter who has moved from neo-traditionalist country through rock and folk and blues with various albums over the last 30 years, expressed optimism about a new contingent of mavericks starting to gain traction.
That contingent is represented this year at Stagecoach by Simpson and Musgraves, harking back to a brief time in country three decades earlier when Earle, k.d. lang, Lyle Lovett, the Mavericks, the Desert Rose Band and others surfaced between the "Urban Cowboy" fad of the early 1980s and the "hat acts" such as Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson and Clint Black who came to the fore at the end of that decade.
"Ah, yes, the credibility scare of the mid-'80s," as Earle put it relaxing backstage after his set Friday. "Mainstream country music has become — boy, I'm going to get in trouble for this — it's become music for twentysomethings who can't deal with hip-hop for whatever reason.
"But Kacey Musgraves, she's the real deal. She can write. Sturgill, he's the real deal, he can write."
Others suggested that it's not an either-or proposition and that the upside of Stagecoach is that it makes room for the more literate, creatively expressive wing of alt-country as well as for those on the party-anthem end of the spectrum.
Lambert is one of the rare artists who has successfully bridged those worlds.
"I haven't had to compromise what I want to do or what I have to say, so I'm happy," she said with a broad grin. "I feel like there's room for all of us — all of the kinds of styles. Country's kind of all over the place stylistically right now. ... I would so much rather it be this way. But with more girls — please, more females!"