The Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival will expand to three days next April, but the bigger news is that the West Coast’s premier rock and dance event will also welcome a country cousin: The concert’s stages and tents will stay in place for an extra week to host a country music bonanza featuring George Strait, Kenny Chesney, Willie Nelson and Lucinda Williams.
Coachella promoter Paul Tollett said Monday that he’s not ready to announce the new venture’s name and entire lineup just yet, but he did acknowledge that it will be staged May 5 and 6 at the Empire Polo Field in Indio, a site that has been home to the Coachella festival since 1999. Tickets are expected to go on sale in January.
The new country festival will devote its largest stage to mainstream stars such as Strait, Chesney and Sugarland while Nelson, Williams and alt-country stars will be featured on a secondary platform called the “Outlaw Stage.”
There will also be a bluegrass stage with Ricky Skaggs, Earl Scruggs and Nickel Creek. The latter booking takes on added intrigue with the Grammy-winning trio’s announcement that they will be going their separate ways after their 2007 tour, ending a run that began when the group formed in 1989 in Carlsbad.
There will also be tents devoted to cowboy poetry, rural Americana and storytelling, and Red Steagall, host of the syndicated radio show “Cowboy Corner” and the 2006 poet laureate for the state of Texas, has been booked, as has Garrison Keillor of “A Prairie Home Companion” fame. Another tent will have Riders in the Sky, the heritage music and comedy act that has reached the most ears through two Pixar productions, the hit film “Toy Story 2" and the Oscar-winning short “For the Birds.”
The foray in country music for Tollett is a jolting one — the career of the promoter and the company brand he is most associated with, Goldenvoice Productions, has long been defined by booking alt-rock acts in Los Angeles. Tollett and his partners gambled in 1999 by launching Coachella as a fan-friendly, European-style two-day festival of guitar heroes and dance-tent DJs, and after a few shaky years the brand has become an award-winning template for major U.S. outdoor concerts.
The Coachella franchise, which has even spawned an all-star concert film, has put major rock moments on its stages, among them molten performances by Nine Inch Nails and the White Stripes, reunion-spirited sets by the Cure and Pixies and a curious (and quick) set by Madonna in a crowd-jammed dance tent. There’s no word on the lineup for next year’s Coachella. It will be spread over three days for the first time, April 27 to 29.
The following week, the country-music newcomer will draw a clientele that will almost certainly skew older. Tollett said he has verbal agreements with a number of other major country names to perform, but he declined to name them until the dotted lines are signed.
The country show will ride out to the high desert at a transition time for country music in L.A. The region is a powerhouse market for the genre’s CD sales, but the longtime radio home for twang, KZLA-FM, succumbed to the unforgiving numbers of audience ratings and advertising demographics and switched to a pop and dance format this year. So while Rascal Flatts has the bestselling CD of 2006, citizens of the nation’s second-largest city cannot consistently tune the band in on their FM dial. (They’ll have an AM outlet beginning Dec. 1 when KKGO-AM  switches to a country format.)
“We think there is an audience that wants to hear this music and will be excited about hearing it live,” Tollett said. “ It’s not like people stopped liking country because KZLA went away.”