INDIO — "Do you guys out here like the real, hard-core, traditional bluegrass music?" Jamie Dailey, of the fast-picking band Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, inquired Sunday afternoon at the Stagecoach Festival here. Those gathered at his feet roared back: "Yes!"
The Appaloosa Tent was only half full, but the devotees absorbing this venerable group's gospel hymns and instrumental breakdowns acted like a multitude, as happy as the throngs yelling for Kenny Chesney, Brooks & Dunn and Sugarland on the main stage.
On the second day of this inaugural country music confab at the Empire Polo Field, a criticism had arisen in the media and among some fans: The big stars were obliterating everyone else. To see if that was true, I decided to spend the day elsewhere. (But I broke my rule to see Gary Allan, my favorite Top 10 country-rocker. He satisfied, kicking dust over everyone else who aspires to that role.)
I heard spine-tingling music, devoured by enthusiasts. Yes, most ticket-holders unfolded their lawn chairs and stayed put where Chesney would finally appear, but supportive contingents plunked down to enjoy a day of bluegrass, western music or "alternative" country.
If anything, the last category suffered most. John Doe, the punk elder statesman, played a strong set peppered with exciting new material in front of a crowd that would have been bigger at Coachella. Same for Neko Case the night before. Such artists don't adhere to any one line, and since country is often about choosing sides, they ended up in an unfortunate middle.
Others benefited from subcultural attachments. The singer and banjo player Abigail Washburn, who just might be the next Alison Krauss, led a crack quartet that included the banjo great Béla Fleck, connecting bluegrass to Chinese folk music, gospel, hot jazz and blues. The Flatlanders, the all-star band from Austin, Texas, gallivanted through some mighty honky-tonk art-rock.
Being an éminence grise helped. Kris Kristofferson, alone with his guitar and his worn-leather voice, melted hearts delivering classics such as "Sunday Morning Coming Down." He also sang an antiwar song, perhaps the most overt political statement of the festival, making his point without any bravado.
Emmylou Harris followed Kristofferson with a hushed set occasionally drowned out by a boot-scootin' Brooks & Dunn. Beautifully rendering signature songs such as "Goin' Back to Harlan," Harris was a modest royal, unfazed by the noise of commerce nearby.
The Drive-By Truckers, from Athens, Ga., gave a fist-shaking performance ending with "Angels and Fuselage," a song that narrates the plane crash that decimated the Truckers' forebears, Lynyrd Skynyrd. It was epic. With fabled Muscle Shoals keyboard player Spooner Oldham sitting in, the Truckers earned the right to a title several artists vied for this weekend: rightful heirs to the legacy of 1960s pioneers the Band.
There was more, and that's what only one determined tent-hopper heard.
Sound bleed was a serious problem. The headliners played at top volume, soaking the big field with sound, showing less than festival spirit.
Perhaps the second stages should all end earlier, and the stars rule the night. But fans of grass-roots country and its sister styles will treasure the memory of this first Stagecoach festival, where they got to hear so much fine music, with legroom to spare.
What made one week so different from the other?
The bicycle rodeo and the garlic fries remained, but a week after Coachella, its country cousin, Stagecoach, switched the script. Here's a look at how the two fests shaped up:
Coachella: 1970s track shorts
Stagecoach: Cowboy hat
Coachella: BlackBerry, chewing gum-adhered VIP wristband
Stagecoach: Folding chair
Coachella: Tofu-stuffed naan
Stagecoach: Dollar ribs from around the nation
Coachella: 1990 Honda Civic
Stagecoach: 2005 Ford Explorer with American flag decal
Free campground movie
Coachella: "The Song Remains the Same"
Stagecoach: Double bill of "Smokey and the Bandit" and "Urban Cowboy"
Centers of the universe
Coachella: Brooklyn and London
Stagecoach: Nashville and Texas
Coachella: Actress Scarlett Johansson singing with the Jesus and Mary Chain
Stagecoach: Keyboard great Spooner Oldham sitting in with the Drive-By Truckers
Rote onstage comment
Coachella: "No more war"
Stagecoach: "God bless"
Coachella: Pithy T-shirt
Stagecoach: Embossed saddle