This post has been updated. See note below for details.
“I don’t know if we’re a country band,” widely lauded singer and songwriter Jason Isbell said during his set Saturday at the Stagecoach Country Music Festival in Indio. “But I’m a country person and I wrote all these songs, so I guess we’re a country band.”
That issue typically arises in various guises throughout the run of the three-day festival, as acts that draw upon rock, R&B, hip-hop, country, bluegrass, folk, soul and other strains vie for fans’ attention.
The salient point of Isbell’s admonition was that when anyone brings a genuinely great song to the table, the labeling becomes irrelevant.
Isbell’s set was buoyed by thoughtful lyrics that aren’t a given in today’s country scene, especially in the mainstream music that lands most often on the radio.
Fortunately, events such as Stagecoach provide a forum for artists such as Isbell, whose intelligently arranged and powerfully delivered explorations of nuanced emotion blew through Stagecoach’s Palomino tent like a refreshing breeze through a desert landscape.
There’s no shortage of ostensibly romantic come-ons on the country radio dial, but Isbell had something more to offer with “Cover Me Up,” an ode to the power of love to bring about bona fide transformation.
So girl leave your boots by the bed / We ain't leavin' this room
Til someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom
It's cold in this house and I ain't goin' out to chop wood
So cover me up and know you're enough to use me for good
Other highlights from the first part of the day came from New York City’s marvelously energetic Spirit Family Reunion, a conglomeration of young musicians who strum, saw, bang, pluck and whack on their instruments with sheer abandon that’s contagious.
The veteran and highly influential bluegrass band the Seldom Scene demonstrated why its inventive instrumental powers and goosebump-inducing three- and four-part harmonizing has kept audiences enthralled for more than four decades.
Singer and songwriter Holly Williams served up several of her own emotionally deep-reaching songs before turning in one of this year’s golden pure-country moments when she closed with country-gospel standard “I Saw the Light,” written by her granddaddy, Hank Williams Sr.
New Orleans-based Hurray for the Riff Raff also injected fresh spirit into the day’s lineup, with lead singer and chief songwriter Alynda Lee Segarra exploring the struggle to hold onto hope in the face of life’s challenges, aided greatly by her scrappy and resourceful four-piece band. The group also is scheduled of an appearance Monday night, April 28, at the Grammy Museum in L.A.
Finally, classic-rock singer-songwriter Don McLean elicited the biggest moment of shared cultural connection as he closed his set with “American Pie,” his 42-year-old mythologization of rock music. It turned into a massive sing-along for Stagecoach’s youthful fans, some of whose parents weren’t yet born when the song was a runaway hit.
Country audiences do love their rock classics.
Update April 28 at 8:16 a.m.: An earlier edition of this post misspelled Hurray for the Riff Raff singer Alynda Lee Segarra's surname as Segara.
Follow Randy Lewis on Twitter: @RandyLewis2