The scene in the early hours of Stagecoach 2014 invites a philosophical inquiry of Socratic dimension: Which came first: the deluge of country songs about girls in Daisy Dukes, or the deluge of girls in said Daisy Dukes?
Perhaps that historic first song, whichever tune it was that warrants blame for the outpouring of one-dimensional celebrations of imagined rural life that barely run skin deep, was inspired by some real-world situation. Even so, the subsequent assembly line response from the Nashville songwriting community no doubt has fueled the sea of cutoff jeans that constituted part of the official uniform of at least half the country music audience today in Indio.
Musically, the first few hours of the festival revealed the fascinating yin-yang that is Stagecoach, which divides itself roughly along the line that separates the Mane Stage, populated with the most commercially minded players in the country community, and the more freewheeling members of the country music fringe universe booked onto the smaller Palomino and Mustang Stage tents.
The vast majority of Stagecoach attendees arrive early with lawn chairs and blankets and park themselves in front of the Mane Stage awaiting the biggest names, while those checking out Palomino and Mustang performers tend to be a more nomadic bunch, moving from one space to another to see who’s up to what.
Those in front of the Mane Stage pretty much know what’s coming, and are in it for the long haul. Temperamentally, Mane Stage performers often trumpet their outlaw credentials, but stick religiously to the tried-and-true formulas.
Newcomer Kelleigh Bannen actually used the word “genre” multiple times and ventured versions of well-known songs by Garth Brooks and Imagine Dragons before getting to her own touchstone hit “Famous,” as direct an homage/ripoff of Taylor Swift as imaginable, with its payback threat of making a cheating boyfriend famous by publicizing his transgressions with her music.
Would-be bad boy Jon Pardi sang an ode to trashing hotel rooms—musician behavior that hasn’t been cutting edge for at least four decades now—with assistance from a steel guitar player wearing a shirt bearing the name, not of a favorite musician, athlete, movie or other cultural reference point, but of a defunct Nashville record label.
He also sent a shout-out to the “great” county music era of the 1990s with a version of Brooks & Dunn’s “Hard Workin’ Man,” a fitting tribute to one of the acts that launched the faux-country movement fully in blossom today.
Are you sure Hank done it this way?
On the flip side, Austin actor-cum-musician Alejandro Rose-Garcia, who performs under the stage name Shakey Graves, put the first real jolts of authentic energy into the day with a bracing set built around his usual one-man band solo act, fleshed out on a couple of numbers by a drummer and a lap-guitar player.
Rose-Garcia’s guitar work was a wonder to behold, finding the common ground between the dexterity of Merle Travis' intricate picking and Daniel Lanois’ atmospheric soundscapes, with hints of Coldplay/Snow Patrol pop melodicism blended in.
The first notes of the day came from Wild Feathers, another act with Austin roots and now Nashville-based. Wild Feathers looks for inspiration to the classic country of Waylon and Willie and the classic rock of Tom Petty and the Byrds, coming off in the final number of its set with the raucous pop-rock energy of L.A.’s great ‘80s band the Plimsouls.
Other moments of interest came from the throwback trio the Howlin’ Brothers, who sounded and looked appealingly like they could have stepped straight out of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and bluegrass singer, banjo player, guitarist and songwriter Sarah Jarosz, who went deliciously deep and dark in her late afternoon set.
On to the evening’s offerings.
Follow Randy Lewis on Twitter: @RandyLewis2