Stagecoach succeeds by promoting from within

INDIO — The Stagecoach Country Music Festival moved into its seventh edition this weekend, and even though that's young by festival standards, Stagecoach has become enough of a cultural force that participants and fans are beginning to use it as a yardstick on their lives, like penciled growth marks scribbled on a family's kitchen wall.

Acts that once were low in the ranks have sprouted up to the top of the heap, some elder members of the musical family have passed on, a few estranged relatives have returned to the fold, and new blood is welcomed into the mix with each succeeding year.

Jason Aldean and Miranda Lambert, the respective headliners of the Friday and Saturday bills, both remarked from the stage on the upward shift in their careers since they played earlier editions of Stagecoach. By comparison, Brad Paisley, who put out his first album in 1999, practically represented the old guard in making his second headlining Stagecoach appearance Sunday.

"I can't believe I'm playing last tonight," Lambert said Saturday as she gazed across a sold-out crowd on the second of Stagecoach's three nights. "This is crazy!" In a first for the event, 55,000 three-day-weekend passes sold out months in advance.

Likewise, Aldean was just another name on the undercard when he played the first Stagecoach festival in 2006, well before he had scored the biggest-selling country album of the year — a feat he achieved in 2011 with his fourth album, "My Kinda Party," which has elevated him to top-dog status as he now regularly sells out arenas and amphitheaters around the country.

"To come back here a few years later and go from opener to headliner of the show is pretty cool, especially the first night when you know everybody's excited to get it going," said Aldean, 35, stretching out in the back of a tour bus parked next to the Mane Stage a couple of hours before he was to go on Friday night.

Humility and congeniality largely ruled the weekend.

"It's such an honor to be here," Sheryl Crow said in her set Sunday evening that preceded Paisley's festival-closing appearance, which took place after press deadline. "I've got a lot of nerve following Martina McBride."

Crow's set unleashed the weekend's biggest impromptu group line dance session drawing in a couple of hundred fans near the stage.

Like a responsible and loving newly emergent matriarch, Lambert on Saturday shared the spotlight with others, giving portions of her set over to her other group, the wonderfully catty Pistol Annies, and she was joined by "The Voice's" recently eliminated 17-year-old country upstart RaeLynn on one number.

Blake Shelton, playing immediately ahead of bride Lambert, capitalized on his newfound fame from his role on NBC's "The Voice" and longtime onstage persona as a bad boy of country. He's a delightful loose cannon in an over-scripted world who's not truly threatening, and country fans love that he publicly displays not only his love but also his respect — and just the right amount of fear — for the Pistol he married last year.

Elsewhere across the grounds of the Empire Polo Club, a crop of up-and-comers took the spots that Aldean and Lambert once held on their way up.

Texas singer and songwriter Sunny Sweeney lived up to her name temperamentally and meteorologically in her Mane Stage set in the bright desert sun on Saturday afternoon, drawing on a small handful of initial hits that have helped her establish a foothold in the country community, a day after rising Illinois singer Brett Eldredge showed off dollops of Midwestern soul at times reminiscent of John Hiatt.

Two reunions brought cult-favorite bands — the Mavericks and the Unforgiven — back to life, the Mavericks using their time on stage Saturday not just to revisit the past but to bring up the curtain on a career phase by including a handful of songs from an album slated to arrive in September.

The boundary-bending Mavericks' reunion performance was as effervescent as fans of its '90s incarnation might have hoped. With plenty of support from five touring members along with the core quartet, singer Raul Malo once again demonstrated his remarkably evocative voice as the band coursed seamlessly through Bakersfield twang, Texas honky-tonk, Austin Tex-Mex and pan-Latin dance textures.

Country stalwarts from the '70s and '80s including Alabama and Kenny Rogers reconnected with old fans and stood in front of others who hadn't even been born when they were regularly visiting the top of the country charts.

Alabama deserves credit, or blame, for popularizing the trend in country to proclaim one's country cred in song after song more concerned with where life happened than what happened or why.

On the other hand, you'd be hard-pressed this past weekend, or any weekend for that matter, to hear songs that reach deeper or ring truer than Dave Alvin's portraits of people who often struggle without earthly reward to show for their efforts. Whether on his old Blasters/X classic "Fourth of July" or a more recent song such as "Black Rose of Texas," Alvin unfailingly hits dead center of the human heart.

That contrast is representative of Stagecoach's all-embracing inclusivity of commercial and alternative strains of country, as elucidated by Lambert in one of her newest songs, "All Kinds of Kinds," which celebrates the expansiveness of human experience.

Such we-are-family gatherings also can offer support for new ventures, and that's what Aaron Lewis got for his new foray into country — independent of his ongoing role fronting hard-rock group Staind.

Among the freshest faces this year, the San Fernando Valley-based group Old Man Markley applied the brash attitude and visceral energy — sans the anger — of punk rock to old-timey music bashed out on banjo, autoharp, washtub bass and washboard.

Sara Watkins, the former singer and fiddler from the avant-bluegrass trio Nickel Creek, which played Stagecoach five years ago, has since moved out on her own and was as winsome and charming in her solo setting as they come, infusing her endearingly homegrown bluegrass-folk with both youthful spunk and sophisticated musicality.

Mountain music patriarch Ralph Stanley was back for the third time with his Clinch Mountain Boys — reassuring in his ongoing presence, especially so recently on the heels of the passing of his contemporary and fellow banjo legend Earl Scruggs, who died last month at 84. Stanley, however, has bequeathed the instrumental tasks to a younger-generation member of his band, Mitchell Vandyke. "At 85," he explained on his tour bus shortly after arriving on Saturday, "the body doesn't always want to do what it used to do." But his voice, that hauntingly craggy mixture of gravel and sand, remained a marvel when applied to the timeless gospel and gothic country-folks songs he's been singing for more than six decades.

At another end of the spectrum, recent-vintage heartthrob Luke Bryan, fresh out of the gate with his debut album when he first played Stagecoach in 2008, moved up the bill and may well be headlining himself in another couple of years if he keeps churning out hits the way he has with his first three albums. He made female fans swoon and male audience members pump their fists in solidarity with his mix of hyper-romantic ballads ("Do I") and wryly humor-filled party tunes ("All My Friends Say").

The Minnesota-bred alt-country Jayhawks highlighted their debt to California sources on Saturday, touching on scintillating Buffalo Springfield/Poco-like vocal harmonies and often surprising chord progression along with periodic Grateful Dead-style solo excursions among the players.

Singer-songwriter J.D. Souther, an architect of the '70s Southern California country-rock sound that has become the template for much of what has been coming out of Nashville for the last two decades, brought his recent vintage jazz-inflected sound into the mix on Saturday, adding welcome musical variety to the stylistic mix. Before singing one of his Eagles-associated hits, "Best of My Love," Souther told the crowd: "This is my oldest song — it's so old my nieces think it's a folk song."

That's just the way things go in a family.

randy.lewis@latimes.com

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