Two faces of contemporary country music stood in striking relief at the third edition of Stagecoach, the country music festival held in Indio over the weekend.
On one side, topping Saturday's bill, was Brad Paisley, a self-professed music geek who has risen to the top with an estimable string of hits built on brilliant lyric twists ("I'm Gonna Miss Her [The Fishing Song]"), the occasional bawdy double-entendre ("Ticks") and even profundity ("Whiskey Lullaby").
At the other end, as Sunday's headliner, was Kenny Chesney, who sells more concert tickets year in and year out than any other pop music act, not in the least because of his let's-go-to-the-islands-get-drunk-and-forget solution for personal or societal ills.
But along with those marquee names, Stagecoach served up a wealth of stellar stylistic torchbearers (Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs, Ricky Skaggs, Doyle Lawson) and brash mavericks who view rules as something to be broken, not followed (Maxim Ludwig, Randy Houser, the Duhks). It also delivered a deeply satisfying walk through the history of Southern California country rock.
Paisley once scored a big hit with "Online," the story of a character bragging about how much cooler he is online than in real life. But the coolest thing about the West Virginia singer, songwriter and guitarist is that he's become one of country music's biggest stars by fully embracing his inner nerd.
It wasn't even all that inner during his headlining set at Stagecoach on Saturday night, the final stop -- a belated hiccup, almost -- on his Paisley Party Tour that formally ended in March.
A good percentage of his expanding catalog encompasses youthful awkwardness and the way it plays out in adulthood: "I'm Just a Guy," "Online" and "Letter to Me." He writes and delivers them with such unforced wit and Everyman honesty, it's understandable that he's connected with a broad swath of country fans.
But what is still a bit surprising, in a good way, is that Paisley has crafted hit after hit without sinking to lowest-common-denominator level in contrast to much of what's on country radio today. His lyrics are fresh, musically inventive, and to top it off, he's one of the most dazzling guitarists ever to come down the pike, a worthy heir to the tradition of Chet Atkins, Jimmy Bryant, Albert Lee and Vince Gill.
Sunday's reunion of Poco, featuring peak-period members Richie Furay, Jim Messina, Rusty Young, Timothy B. Schmit, Paul Cotton and a poignant cameo by original drummer George Grantham, was clearly a highlight for those gathered at the Palomino Stage.
And it tacitly raised the question: Who needs Eagles?
OK, the Eagles have a song catalog to die for, but the multi-part harmonies delivered precisely yet lovingly gave Poco's performance a sweetly golden tone. In addition to the group's own signature numbers, including "Pick Up the Pieces," they dipped into the Buffalo Springfield catalog for Furay's "Kind Woman" and a genuinely touching reading of Neil Young's "On the Way Home."
Poco's appearance capped a strong showing by current or former Southern California country rockers from several eras, which made the Palomino Stage the place to spend the day, especially for Sunday's potent bill with the Knitters, Jim Lauderdale (who was joined by pioneering country-rock guitarist James Burton) and James Intveld.
Late Sunday night, Chesney, who has built his career largely on escapist songs, finally made it to the stage, but his set started past press time.
Chesney followed Kid Rock, the rap-rocker who has been embraced wholeheartedly by the country audience. Rock launched his Sunday evening set with "Son of Detroit," in which he proclaims himself "a long-haired redneck" even though he's from the Motor City. He's playing the hard-rocking rebel role once handled by Hank Williams Jr., a musical archetype audiences never seem to tire of no matter how cliched the individual practitioners are.
The discovery of the weekend was Maxim Ludwig and the Santa Fe Seven. Just 20 years old, New York-born Ludwig, now based in Los Angeles, impressively channeled some iconic Americana influences -- predominantly Gram Parsons/Flying Burrito Brothers and the Band -- during an electrifying early set on Saturday. He's a compellingly amped-up frontman, and his singing was impassioned to the point of desperation in songs often built around characters and situations that feel -- as he put it in one of them -- "restless and abandoned." The group is unsigned, but Ludwig says the group's debut album will be on iTunes starting next month.
The Knitters and Intveld duly represented the L.A. roots music community with characteristically freewheeling performances, Intveld zeroing in on the irresistible twang of '50s honky-tonk tradition, and John Doe, Exene, Dave Alvin and the other Knitters mining their border-hopping exploration of folk, bluegrass, country and punk.
Kevin Costner brought a touch of Hollywood luster to the proceedings fronting his country rock band Modern West. The "Bull Durham" star took to the guitar and microphone as naturally as, well, a baseball bat.
Fortunately, he also has a longstanding relationship with a solid songwriter and musical partner in Modern West's John Coinman, so the Eagles-lite songs on their recent debut album, "Untold Truths," give him a respectable musical foundation. It's not groundbreaking stuff, but there are far worse bands serving as little more than vanity projects for such stars.
Stagecoach's strongest performances suggest that the monolithic slab of shiny pop country that dominates the radio and sales charts might just be showing cracks -- through which music of a more organic nature that hews closer to its historical foundation might rise. Houser, Ludwig and the Zac Brown Band in some ways hark back to the "outlaw movement" of the 1970s when artists such as Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson turned their backs on what Nashville deemed acceptable.
In part, we may be seeing the result of the tough times gripping the nation, when lightweight music just doesn't cut it for people besieged by real-life struggles. A March survey of music listeners presented at the annual Country Radio Seminar conference demonstrated that country is faring better than many other genres. That's due, said the report delivered in Nashville, to increasing joblessness and a recession that for a growing number of listeners has lately made country music "more relevant." One person's recession can sometimes be another's bonanza.