Country's new Western home

Times Staff Writer

The first Stagecoach festival came to a close on Sunday with the prospect of losing money, but also with a big-boned optimism about its future as 55,000 fans over two days came to hear Alan Jackson, Kenny Chesney, George Strait and 50 other acts perform at a country show put together by rock promoters.

The people behind the 8-year-old Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival tried their hand last weekend at a country counterpart, and by the final notes on Sunday they were ready to book year two. The strong walk-up business on Sunday at the Empire Polo Field brought the second day crowd close to 30,000, half the size of the audience each day at the three-day Coachella the previous weekend.

"I think Stagecoach will catch Coachella pretty quickly," said Paul Tollett, the promoter who shaped Coachella and runs both festivals with AEG Live, the concert industry giant.

Backstage before his Saturday set, Jackson said that one of his strongest fan bases is Southern California, and the Georgia native predicted big things for the new venture. With a chuckle, he also said the desert heat and good-time vibe fit like old jeans. "The main thing is to remember that everyone out there has been drunk and sober three times, so when it gets dark, you want to make sure you sing up-tempo songs. You don't want to make them fall asleep."

On Sunday, Brooks & Dunn and Chesney kept the crowd wide awake to the end, but in contrast to the Coachella crowd, a migration of fans headed to the exits earlier. A lot of them didn't go far; 2,300 RVs were parked on the dusty campground that a week earlier hosted 16,000 rock kids with tents. The Stagecoach faithful not only ride in comfort, but they also cause less commotion; Coachella averaged 30 arrests per day, Stagecoach had fewer than a dozen.

If there was a hitch to Stagecoach it was the presence of reserved seating, another contrast to the open-field Coachella. The seats brought in big money for Stagecoach (the top ticket price was about $500 for the weekend, double that of Coachella), but there were grumbles from fans who showed up with beach towels and wanted a better view of the main stage.

Southern California is the nation's top market for country music CD sales but it doesn't always wear its boots in the public mind. Kris Kristofferson, one of the legacy artists who played Stagecoach, said it was a marvel to see a new festival cutting against that grain. "I remember when you had to roll up your car window in L.A. if you were playing country music," he said Sunday. "It just wasn't cool. For that reason alone, this is fantastic."

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