A couple of new classes of country music performer emerged at the 2018 edition of the Stagecoach Country Music Festival over the weekend — one obvious, one less so.
After making strides for the last three years with female headliners Shania Twain, Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert, it was back to all men at the top of the bill this year: pop-country-hip-hop duo Florida Georgia Line on Friday, Keith Urban on Saturday and Garth Brooks, who was scheduled to make his Stagecoach debut on Sunday, albeit with his wife, singer Trisha Yearwood, co-billed with him.
Yet Stagecoach didn't retreat. Saturday evening, for instance, offered a triumphant set from Kacey Musgraves, who delivered on her early promise and handled her new stature as a soon-to-be headliner with confidence, as her set drew from her acclaimed new boundary stretching album, "Golden Hour."
Additionally, country newcomers this year were easier to spot than ever. They were once relegated to the shadow of commercial powerhouses at Stagecoach, but an innovative new performance space put a spotlight on a contemporary country class.
The SiriusXM Spotlight Stage placed performers who are still introducing themselves and their music to fans in closer proximity to the audience, this year on a platform erected directly in front of the massive Mane Stage, where the big guns hold court.
In years past, such artists often looked out on vast expanses of empty seats and open field when playing the larger Mane Stage.
The strongest impressions on the weekend's so-called undercard were turned in by hard-driving country traditionalist Cody Jinks, self-assured and savvy songwriter McBryde, preternaturally gifted central California singer-songwriter Jade Jackson, muscular voiced outlaw singer-songwriter Paul Cauthen and electric guitar-slinging singer-songwriter Lindsay Ell.
"I think it's great," said Mekayla Williams, 21, of Lake Forest, just after Australian singer-songwriter — and, as of Dec. 2, Mr. Kelsea Ballerini — Evans finished his Spotlight Stage set. Williams was attending her second Stagecoach festival with three friends, all also from southern Orange County, among the sold-out, three day event. Organizers said 75,000 tickets were sold this year, and somewhere in the range of 80,000 total attended.
"It gives the less-known artists more of the attention they deserve," she said. "When they're on the side stages, people don't pay attention."
Stagecoach also brought more into focus another community of musicians: country's new veterans, oxymoronic as it may sound.
Like its increasingly pop-focused peer Coachella, Stagecoach has always paid homage to artists from earlier eras rather than just those who dominate the charts today. That's yielded appearances by such esteemed figures as bluegrass patriarchs Earl Scruggs and Ralph Stanley, revered singer-songwriters including Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, and country rockers such as Jerry Lee Lewis.
But because many of those musicians who came of age in the 1940s, '50s and '60s have since passed, the "heritage" torch is now being handed off to the '70s and '80s country class. This year, that duty fell to Ronnie Milsap, 75, and Tanya Tucker, 59, with roots country maverick Dwight Yoakam, the twangy Georgia Satellites and Southern rock outfit Molly Hatchet adding to that side of the scale as well.
Continuing to apply the term "country" broadly, Stagecoach festival talent buyer Stacy Vee this year booked the 79-year-old dean of Canadian folk-rock troubadours, Gordon Lightfoot, who was scheduled to perform after the deadline for this report.
Just as Haggard, Nelson and others of their generation often made a nod to forbears such as Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, these new veterans took time to salute those who paved the way for them.
Tucker sang a convincingly traditional version of Tammy Wynette's "Stand by Your Man" in addition to surveying her own career that's nearing the 50-year mark. Not surprisingly, Yoakam took a particularly deep dive into the songbooks of two of his Bakersfield heroes, Haggard, who died two years ago, and his mentor Buck Owens, who died in 2006, just a year before Stagecoach launched.
Some next-generation singers picked up the tradition of saluting their heroes. Granger Smith delivered a soaring version of Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'," and Australian singer-songwriter Evans referenced Brooks' "Friends in Low Places." Urban, Saturday's headliner, drafted the Brothers Osborne for a version of Yoakam's "Fast as You," the same number that rising female trio Runaway June served up early Sunday.
Finally, there was another class of country performer that, although overall well-represented once again at Stagecoach, might not be terribly familiar to people who listen only to mainstream country radio: women.
An exaggeration? Perhaps. But not a big one. Records by women are few and far between on Billboard's latest Hot Country Songs chart. Among last week's Top 30 ranking, only seven feature a female singer, and just two are by solo females not collaborating on hits by or with males.
"I feel so lucky I was able to grow up listening to women like Kathy Mattea, Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, Mary Chapin Carpenter and so many others who were on the radio" in the 1980s and '90s, Brandy Clark said backstage after her set Saturday.
A respected songwriter before she launched a solo career to considerable critical acclaim in recent years, Clark noted the path to success traveled by her friend and songwriting collaborator, Musgraves.
"Kacey is continuing to do things her way without a lot of support from radio," Clark said. Notably, Musgraves graduated from her early-in-the-day performance at Stagecoach when she last performed in 2015 to a notch below headliner status this year.
And she continues to evolve. Musgraves' disarmingly sweet love ballad "Butterflies" took her briefly away from the razor-sharp wit and snappy wordplay of her signature songs to reveal an endearing vulnerability.
"I don't know what happened, or when things will change," Clark said. "But we just have to keep doing what we're doing."
It appears to be working, as throughout the weekend, women received generous, if not fully equal, time in the spotlight. Performances by Musgraves, Clark, Ballerini, McBryde, Ell, Lillie Mae and the rest of their Stagecoach sisters in rhyme helped remind festivalgoers that today's country music isn't strictly a man's man's man's world.
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