Eric Church is eager to return to the desert sprawl of the 2016 Stagecoach Festival. He's just hoping that Mother Nature will try a little tenderness this year. The last time he came to Indio, she didn't exactly welcome him with open arms.
"I'm looking forward to not playing in 40-mile-per-hour winds!" he jokes.
When Church wrapped up the opening-night festivities with his headlining set in 2014, a blustery burst nearly swept him and his band off the stage. "Of all the shows I've played, I remember that being some of the most miserable weather I'd ever been in. It was just howling wind, sandstorms, just not the most pleasant thing for myself or the crowd. People had their bandannas up around their faces, and it was chilly."
Assuming there's no repeat of that tempestuous interlude, Church's upcoming Stagecoach set feels like déjà vu in the best possible way. He headlined the first night of the festival in 2014, just as he's doing on April 29; he had a new album to promote back then, 2014's chart-topping The Outsiders, and surprised his fans with an unexpected album, Mr. Misunderstood, at the tail end of 2015.
The record cycle, as he knows it, hasn't really changed: Make a record, tour to promote it, and hit a slew of country-friendly festivals along the way to reach as many listeners as possible. "The only thing that kind of threw a wrench in this process is we had a record that I didn't expect that kind of fell in my lap," he says with a dry chuckle. "It's a little odd to put out a record in a year when you're not playing a lot, when you're not really out doing a tour. It's cool to just drop in right now and play some songs. It's kind of different."
The landscape is kind of different, too, in both popular country at large and the festival circuit it feeds. Church has carved himself a place as a bit of lone wolf by shirking the trappings of "bro country" and the beer can–crushin', small town–livin' sentiments it holds close to its hairy chest.
As Church has risen in the genre's ranks, so have other performers who don't exactly fit the current Music Row and country radio mold. The most compelling talents coming out of Nashville have little interest in tailoring their image or sound to trends (Chris Stapleton); sing about pot and same-sex relationships (Kacey Musgraves) or psychedelic turtles (Sturgill Simpson); work hip-hop and R&B strains into their ballads (Sam Hunt); and play on country's relationship with faith by likening a Johnny Cash–soundtracked drive to Sunday service (Maren Morris).
Country has come to celebrate such stylistic rule breakers since Church's last Stagecoach set, and the festival, in its 10th year of operation, has long since worked them into its booking DNA. Goldenvoice, the promoter-producer of Coachella, launched Stagecoach in 2007 with a lineup of 46 acts. (Goldenvoice declined to comment for this story.) That first roster included players credited with shaping the genre as we know it, like Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris, alongside such radio-friendly acts as Sugarland and Kenny Chesney and artists of an indie-leaning, tangential ilk — Old 97's, Neko Case, Drive-By Truckers and Church, back when he was playing to a smaller crowd earlier in the day.
The number of performers at Stagecoach has grown — 2016 will draw 60 acts over three days — but that mix of big names and up-and-comers is still central to the festival's strategy. Carrie Underwood and Luke Bryan join Church as headliners, while artists like Aubrie Sellers — who independently released her debut album, New City Blues, to critical acclaim back in January — will share the same bill with her mother, Lee Ann Womack, one of the most recognizable voices in traditional country.
"You know, I think my music is a little shocking to some people, because my voice is very traditional-sounding, and my music is not," says Sellers, who notes that fans of her mom aren't necessarily into the plugged-in, electric onslaught of New City Blues. "I think it's definitely not everybody's cup of tea, but I like it that way. It's pushing some buttons and it's different from everything else out there." She's looking forward to being part of the diverse lineup at Stagecoach, where she thinks fans may be more open-minded and "accepting [of] my brand of garage country."
For Church, this embrace of nonmainstream styles is what sets Stagecoach apart from other multiday, big-budget country productions. "Country's a really big umbrella, and when you say 'country music,' especially during this day and time, I could really give you an array of acts," he says. "I think a lot of [Stagecoach's success] is being smart about who is on the bill and having some taste, too. If you're putting one of these things together, it's not always the people ringing the bell at the top of the charts that are cool and fit in with what you want in your presentation."
Stagecoach's winning formula is apparently harder to replicate than it looks. In a recent Billboard article titled "Is the Country Festival Business Past Its Peak?" writer Ray Waddell pointed out that at least six major country music festivals canceled their 2016 editions, including Dega Jam and Big Barrel, both produced by Goldenvoice's parent company, AEG Live, and FarmBorough, a co-production of Founders Entertainment and Live Nation, which was to take place in New York City's Randall's Island Park. The market is oversaturated, and the hefty fees festivals must shell out for top-tier talent can cripple a fledgling operation, even one with a corporate concert powerhouse behind it.
But unlike its competitors, Stagecoach is thriving. After raking in $21.8 million in gross ticket sales in 2015, the festival can afford to secure popular headliners, and it continues to celebrate the various sounds of the genre and outliers with true talent, instead of casting a mold and booking accordingly. It takes an approach that has worked for massive, multigenre festivals such as Coachella and Bonnaroo and applies it within a smaller scope.
Church emphasizes Stagecoach's perpetual support of the artist yet to rise. "The way we consume music is not the way it used to be consumed," he says. "With iPhones, streaming, everything else, people build their own playlists; they listen to what they want to listen to. Festivals — Bonnaroo, things like that — that are multigenre, it's worth checking it all out. You're not going to like it all, but you're not going to hate it all, either."
The singer-songwriter fondly remembers some of his own early festival gigs, when he was low-profile enough to wander among the fans undisturbed. "My favorite thing to do back in the day was just roam, walk. There used to be three, four stages all going at one time, and you could walk around, check stuff out. The first time I heard Gary Clark Jr. was at a festival and I was pretty blown away. Stuff like that is neat."
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If he has time between press engagements and his set, Church is going to make a point of checking out the smaller names on the Stagecoach roster. He knows that territory well, as his own name used to run in the smaller flier font, and he's encountered a ton of new music that way.
"I discovered Shovels & Rope at a festival one time. There was kind of a buzz there," he recalls. "That's why it's so important to get out there and look around. And don't get too drunk, 'cause then I can do nothing with you six hours later." He laughs. "Pace yourself!"