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Stagecoach 2014: John Prine and Michael Nesmith's smart country

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John Prine and Michael Nesmith have made records with some of the most skillfully literate songs in pop music.

Despite a wealth of party-ready anthems on offer, it was difficult to enjoy much of anything on the Mane Stage as the three-day Stagecoach Country Music Festival drew to a close on Sunday.

I blame John Prine. And Michael Nesmith.

In the early 1970s, these two veteran singer-songwriters made records built around some of the most skillfully literate songs in pop music. Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and others certainly made their own contributions, but in the world of country and folk-rooted music, Prine and Nesmith spoke powerfully about what was possible in the genre.

So hearing the good-time sounds spilling from Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and Eric Church served up little to feed at least one listener’s spirit.

All three headliners has featured moments of insight in their music since arriving on the scene within the last decade. But their massive popularity in recent years came from simplistic exhortations for their audiences to get wild, get drunk or get crazy.

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Within a short time at Sunday night’s grand finale, Bryan offered up two shining examples in “Drinkin’ Beer and Wasting Bullets” and “Drink a Beer.” The first of the two included the lyrics “Sittin’ here waitin’ on a deer/Drinking beer,” while the latter addressed the loss of a loved one with: “I’m gonna sit right here/On the edge of this pier/Watch the sun disappear/And drink a beer.”

Oh dear.

Contrast that with how Prine expressed feelings of loss in “Souvenirs,” a song he dedicated on Sunday to his old singer-songwriter friend Steve Goodman, who died in 1988.

I hate graveyards and old pawn shops

For they always bring me tears

I can’t forgive the way they rob me

Of my childhood souvenirs

Aldean’s notion of romance, as outlined in his introduction to his 2012 hit “Night Train,” was to advise the men on hand at Stagecoach to drive their 4x4 trucks over to pick up their date, snag a fifth of Southern Comfort on the way, head out to some remote spot, spread a blanket, pour the Comfort and hope they get lucky.

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The emphasis on mass quantities of alcohol consumption from the Mane Stage through the weekend may suggest 12-step interventions might be in the future for some. Prine had something up his sleeve as well, and it went well beyond getting a woman drunk and hoping to get lucky.

In Prine’s humorous “Spanish Pipedream (Blow Up Your TV),” he set an evocative scene about a Vietnam War-era draft dodger who meets a topless dancer in a bar.

She was a level-headed dancer

On the road to alcohol

And I was just a soldier

On my way to Montreal

Prine sustains the good-natured suspense over where this all might be leading:

Well I sat there at the table

And I acted real naïve

For I knew that topless lady

Had something up her sleeve

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Most touchingly, Prine’s songs about the loneliness of old age were as powerful on Sunday as they were more than 40 years ago when he wrote them. Both were covered by female artists---something few of the Aldean-Bryan-Church canon are likely to experience down the line.

In “Angel From Montgomery,” which Bonnie Raitt recorded, Prine sings from the perspective of an old woman who struggles to find reason to continue living:

There's flies in the kitchen I can hear 'em buzzing

And I ain't done nothing since I woke up today.

How the hell can a person go to work in the morning

And come home in the evening and have nothing to say

Nesmith, who also plays Tuesday at the Roxy in West Hollywood, established himself as something of an urbane cowboy with his nuanced and evocative songs that fused rock and country in innovative ways after his departure from the Monkees in 1970.

In his Stagecoach set, Nesmith preceded Prine with a triptych of songs from his debut solo album “Magnetic South.”

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One of the three, “Nine Times Blue,” ran just a bit over 90 seconds in its original version, but established a world of emotion and complexity of adult interpersonal relationships within that short span:

There’s a certain something in the way

You looked at me and said you’d stay

That let me know that I was out of line

But I didn’t know what else to do

And like a fool I tested you

By demanding things of you

Which weren’t mine

Prine and Nesmith delved into a panoply of subjects that country music rarely pays attention to today.

It would be tempting to think the difference in the quality of songwriting reflects the wisdom that comes with age. But Prine was 22 and 23 when he wrote many of his signature songs, and Nesmith was also in his early and mid-20s when he was turning out his country-rock pearls.

The encouraging news out of Stagecoach is that a few hundred concertgoers who skipped Sunday sets by Lee Brice and Florida Georgia Line to take in the performances by Prine and Nesmith included a smattering of young listeners, many of whom sang along with several of their songs.

There may be hope for country yet.

ALSO:

Stagecoach 2014: The year of the bad boy

Stagecoach 2014: Country festival is young fans' kinda party

Ex-Monkees Michael Nesmith will show his country roots at Stagecoach

Follow Randy Lewis on Twitter: @RandyLewis2 

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