Stagecoach 2016: Expert songwriting moves into the spotlight

Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen, left, performs on Friday's opening day of the three-day Stagecoach Country Music Festival in Indio.

Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen, left, performs on Friday’s opening day of the three-day Stagecoach Country Music Festival in Indio.

(Randy Lewis / Los Angeles Times )

Listening to mainstream country radio stations for any length of time can quickly become dispiriting.

The cookie-cutter quality of the songwriting, with images repeated ad nauseam of fishin’ holes, hot girls in Daisy Dukes and the accompanying nonstop party mentality --one San Bernardino station proclaimed over the weekend that “country music is all about having a good time” --creates an impression of least-common-denominator pandering.

Fortunately, the restorative aspect of the annual Stagecoach Country Music Festival’s smartly curated lineup is that it provides pretty much whatever level of artistry any festival-goer might yearn for.

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The Mane Stage, devoted to the masses, is the source of the biggest helping of current hits. In the early going at Friday’s opening day, those were generously served up by hot-on-the-chart acts such as Sam Hunt, Eric Paslay and the half of Sugarland that wears a beard, Kristian Bush.

But across the Empire Polo Field, in the Palomino tent, Texas troubadour Robert Earl Keen countered with consistently witty, lyrically fresh explorations of facets of life that rarely make the airwaves on commercial radio these days.

Take this cinematic scene from “Gringo Honeymoon,” sketched with the economy of a poet and the painterly touch of a novelist.

Met a cowboy who said that he
was running from the D.E.A.
He left his home his wife and family
when he made his getaway
We followed him on down a street at dusk
to his one-room rundown shack
He blew a smoke ring and he smiled at us
I ain’t ever goin back

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Keen came on shortly after another venerated Texan, Billy Joe Shaver, likewise delivered a batch of richly detailed, often howling, lunging, sometimes trenchantly revealing songs that make most hits on the country charts these days seem like a kindergartner’s fingerprinting exercise.

No wonder one of country’s greatest vocalists, Waylon Jennings, devoted an entire album to Shaver’s brilliantly evocative songs. Here’s an excerpt from the title track from that Jennings album, “Old Five and Dimers Like Me”:

I’ve spent a lifetime making up my mind to be
More than the measure of what I thought others could see
Good luck and fast bucks are too far and too few between
For Cadillac buyers and old five and dimers like me

And that’s just the first verse. Stagecoach is delivering a timely reminder that quality is still readily available in country music. You just need to know where, and to whom, to look for it.

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