Emerging artists who score a booking at Stagecoach surely experience that “good news/bad news” moment when reality sinks in: They get to play the world’s largest gathering of country music fans, but usually do so early in the day, long before the masses show up for the superstar headliners.
That’s what lower-tier acts are up against when they perform on the festival’s recently introduced SiriusXM Spotlight Stage, a smaller space placed a hundred yards or so in front of the Mane Stage where the most popular contemporary country acts perform beginning in the late afternoons.
Five acts per day are allotted about 25 minutes each, in which they strive to connect with the smattering of listeners who turn up in the blazing midday heat. Canadian singer-songwriter William Prince overcame such obstacles Saturday on his way to delivering one of the most captivating performances of the weekend. Armed with just an acoustic guitar for accompaniment, the 33-year-old artist served up several compelling songs from his 2015 album “Earthly Days,” which won best contemporary roots album of the year at the 2017 Juno Awards, Canada’s answer to the Grammys.
His performance on the Juno Awards show of his song “Breathless” caught the attention of record executive Daniel Glass, who promptly signed Prince to his Glassnote indie label to further spread the word to greater swaths of North America.
That led to an artist spotlight segment on SiriusXM satellite radio, which is where Stacy Vee, Goldenvoice’s talent buyer who assembles the lineup for Stagecoach each year, was introduced to his music, in turn booking him for what is only his second live performance in California, after a visit last year to play in Napa Valley’s wine country.
Prince’s songs transcend the conventions and tropes of commercial country, demonstrating more in common with the folk-country tradition of literate songwriting exemplified by Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Kris Kristofferson.
“Breathless” may be his best known song to date, and the video has accumulated more than half a million views:
So there's this voice inside
Terrified, plagued with pride
Resonating, sounding like my own
Then piece by piece so suddenly, no subtleties
Your beauty, it can bring me to my knees
In fact, Prince cited Kristofferson among his key influences shortly after finishing his set, relaxing backstage in Stagecoach’s artist compound.
“I’ve written songs, and poetry, since I was a kid,” he said, noting that his father also wrote songs and recorded three albums of his own. “I was at church every Sunday playing this old country-western-gospel stuff and listening to Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson.”
He also pointed with pride to the long history of great songwriters out of Canada, from Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell to Gordon Lightfoot and Neil Young (Prince shares a booking agent with Young).
“Some of it’s that the winter forces you to stay in your house,” he said. “You’ve got to make good art if you want to keep working, because there are so many great artists up there.”
His surname is more than just a family name — it derives from his direct lineage to Chief Peguis of the Saulteaux-Cree First Nation people of Ontario. After one of Chief Peguis’ descendants converted to Christianity, he took the name William King, and his offspring were given the surname Prince.
For a time, Prince was on track to become a doctor, and he studied microbiology en route to that goal. But the call of music proved to be stronger. He’s wrapping up work on a new album to follow “Earthly Days,” and still is regularly on the road, building a following piece by piece, playing for a few fans at a time, as he did Saturday.
“I love the atmosphere” at Stagecoach, he said. “You’re put in the realm of entertainers who are really pushing the boundaries of performance, and then I come in here low and lazy with just a guitar and the songs kind of carry and bring people in and it just became any other show. That's the best part of it all.”