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Stagecoach fine-tunes the formula with Shania Twain, Jerry Lee Lewis and more

The 2017 edition of the Stagecoach Country Music Festival runs April 28-30 at the Empire Polo Field in Indio. Shania Twain, Kenny Chesney and Dierks Bentley are this year's headliners.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“So at Stagecoach I’m going to be mostly surrounded by the guys?” Shania Twain asked a visitor about her upcoming headlining slot at the world’s biggest country music festival that opens April 28 in Indio.

The assumption was understandable.

In the 13 years since the Canadian singer, songwriter and cross-genre pop superstar released her last album, the country music landscape has shifted.

When Twain was regularly churning out No. 1 hits in the 1990s, she was at the front of a pack of female stars who commanded healthy chunks of time on the radio airwaves, as the likes of Faith Hill, Martina McBride, the Dixie Chicks, Reba McEntire and Sara Evans dominated.

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In recent years, the pendulum has swung the other direction, and other than a few exceptions including Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert, female singers often struggle to find a spot on the male-dominated playlists of radio programmers.

Stagecoach, however, is another matter.

The woman in charge of booking acts for the festival, promoter Goldenvoice’s director of festival talent, Stacy Vee, makes sure the scales are better balanced each year for this three-day event.

This year, in addition to Twain holding down one of the three headline slots in Indio — along with Dierks Bentley on Friday and Kenny Chesney on Sunday, Twain will be in the company of recent-vintage country stars and emerging acts including duo Maddie & Tae, Grammy-winner Maren Morris, powerhouse vocalist Rhiannon Giddens, acclaimed singer-songwriter Margo Price, renegade roots rocker Nikki Lane, the Margo Timmins-fronted Cowboy Junkies and newcomer Courtney Cole.

As for landing Twain at the top of 2017’s bill — the artist has a new album due later this year — Vee said, “She’s always been on our wish list, for sure.

“She’s wanted to launch some new things she’s been working on for a long time, and she decided to give Stagecoach fans the exclusive first look. Scott Rogers, her manager, called us and said he wanted to partner with us.”

Unlike its musical big brother, Coachella, which expanded capacity significantly this year from 99,000 to 125,000 in part because Goldenvoice and its festival partner AEG added 20 acres to the Empire Polo Club festival site, Vee said the attendance cap for Stagecoach will remain at 75,000, as it was in 2016.

Otherwise, Vee said the run-up to Stagecoach 2017 is more a matter of fine-tuning than any rebooting.

“We’re taking all the things about Stagecoach that work so well and putting in a lot of time and effort to making them work better,” she said.

One ripple from Goldenvoice’s gamble last fall with the Desert Trip classic-rock mega-concert at the same site with Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Neil Young, the Who and Roger Waters will be an expanded menu of upscale food options for Stagecoach attendees.

“We’ll still have the barbecue competition, but this year we’re also working with some more upscale vendors to give that aspect a little shot in the arm,” Vee said.

She noted, a tone of pride in her voice, the broad range of acts once again filling out the Stagecoach lineup. There will be mainstream artists such as Brett Eldredge, Thomas Rhett, Kip Moore and Cole Swindell, as well as veteran superstars including Willie Nelson & Family, Wynonna Judd and Travis Tritt. Also on the bill are progressive Americana acts such as Justin Townes Earle, Jamey Johnson and Texas artist-poet-songwriter Terry Allen, and another dose of classic-rock acts including the Zombies and Tommy James & the Shondells.

One curiosity on the lineup is the bluegrass band the Hillbenders, which will serve up its bluegrass arrangement of the Who’s classic rock opera “Tommy” on Sunday.

“They came to us,” Vee said. “It’s a little bit of a lengthy production — they’ll get a full hour on the Mustang Stage. When I was at Desert Trip watching the Who, I thought, ‘I’m going to do it.’ I don’t know why, except that it sounded like fun.”

As usual, Stagecoach also will offer a solid representation of California acts, from rising country singer-songwriter Jon Pardi to veteran punk-roots musician John Doe, the Long Ryders and East L.A. favorites Los Lobos.

A personal favorite for Vee will be pioneering rocker Jerry Lee Lewis, who is on Friday’s bill.

Following his emergence as one of the original blazing stars of ’50s rock ’n’ roll through hits such as “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Great Balls of Fire” and “High School Confidential,” Lewis scored a second run as one of the biggest country stars of the late 1960s and ’70s with a string of hits that included “What Made Milwaukee Famous,” “There Must Be More to Love Than This” and “Middle Age Crazy.”

What to expect from the Killer at age 81? The unexpected.

“We try not to make any requests, or try to alter what the artists plan to do,” Vee said. “It’s best just to let them do what they do. And with a guy like Jerry Lee, you don’t want to try and manage his live show.”

randy.lewis@latimes.com

Follow @RandyLewis2 on Twitter.com

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