Ben Voskeritchian of These Wild Plains knew that he would be sharing the bill with some great talents — “absolute legends,” in his words — at the Stagecoach Festival in Indio. He just didn’t fully think through how he’d respond should he find himself brushing elbows with Emmylou Harris while figuring out what face to make when she told a joke.
“She’s standing side-stage — she let her backing band do a couple of songs without her — and the smoke machine blows a ton of smoke,” he recalls of Harris’ Friday night performance. The sun is about to set on the last day of the festival, and Voskeritchian and bandmates Ryan Bambery and Rob Motes are sitting around one of the bales of hay in the Mustang Tent, where Jerry Douglas, the renowned lap-steel player best known for his work with Alison Krauss & Union Station, has just finished a set with the Earls of Leicester. “She goes, ‘Ahhh! DDT! DDT!’ She looks dead at us, and goes, ‘We used to run behind these trucks spraying DDT when we were kids! We didn’t know what it was!’”
These Wild Plains kept it together while navigating the festival grounds at the Empire Polo Club in spite of winding up in situations similar to that side-stage brush with Emmylou over the course of the weekend. As one of the very few unsigned, unrepresented bands on the lineup, These Wild Plains were the indie rookies at Stagecoach, a country-rock band from Boston (where I first met them seven years ago) bowing at the bourbon-soaked altar of the outlaw.
If Carrie Underwood is the festival’s beautifully cut, bazillion-karat diamond of a headliner, These Wild Plains are the craggy hunk of coal — husky, raw and waiting for an extraordinary amount of pressure and duress to transform them into something precious. Like Lucero and Chris Stapleton before them, they trade in love songs and grand, spacious sojourns befitting of their name.
As one of the first bands to play the second day of the festival, they started off with a smaller audience, as fleets of cowboy hats and American flag–printed partiers made their way to the fields. But by the time they reached the end of their 13-song set — which leaned heavily on the track list of their upcoming album, Distant Ways — a sizable crowd had gathered, with plenty of curious onlookers leaning over to their neighbor to double-check the name of the band they were listening to.
The guys are nerds about all things Willie, Waylon and Johnny, and it seeps into their lives onstage and off. When he isn’t playing guitar and singing in These Wild Plains, Voskeritchian runs Tupelo, an upscale Southern comfort restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, named for Elvis Presley’s hometown. Tupelo serves as These Wild Plains’ unofficial home base, too (and a favorite hangout of mine when I'm back in Boston), as Voskeritchian will occasionally clear out some of the tables and throw small shows as part of his Country Club music series on Friday nights. Motes grew up on a steady diet of bluegrass courtesy of his dad’s record collection and his grandparents' 8-tracks; Bambery is such a dedicated disciple of Willie Nelson’s that he froze when he saw Mickey Raphael — Nelson’s harmonica player, who’s currently touring with Chris Stapleton — walking around the trailers backstage.
As fans of “absolute legends” like Emmylou Harris before they got to Indio, they found themselves gravitating to sets by old-school artists Marty Stuart, Robert Earl Keen and The Doobie Brothers, rather than braving the thousands-strong mainstage crowds for the pop-country chart-toppers. “It really feels like two different festivals,” Motes points out, referring to the drastic differences between the Mane Stage — which played host to Eric Church, Underwood and Luke Bryan — and the Palomino and Mustang Stages, where the icons and the indie upstarts set up shop. “Friday, having Billy Joe Shaver and Marty Stuart playing back-to-back, and then Robert Earl Keen’s right over there — it’s different crowds altogether. Trying to go see Chris Stapleton yesterday was nuts.”
Voskeritchian agrees. For him, John Fogerty’s career-spanning set was a revelation; he and his bandmates were agog over the Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman’s dexterity and the heights his weathered voice could still reach. Voskeritchian kept gushing over the guitars onstage — the Rickenbacker, the Les Paul, the guitar made out of a Louisville Slugger — and halted conversation to bask in the glory of “Fortunate Son.”
Still, they made the most of their time in Indio by mixing things up from the tried-and-true genre-definers and making a point to see bands they’d never caught live before — like The Deslondes, the New Orleans zydeco-folk sextet signed to New West, and The Turnpike Troubadours, who hail from Oklahoma, just over the border from where Motes grew up in Arkansas. (When the Troubadours played the lead track from their 2015 self-titled album, “The Bird Hunters,” Motes cheered, noting that the song was written about his hometown.)
While most of the Wild Plains dudes split before the revelry reached a fever pitch for the headliners on the Mane Stage, some did stay to take in the pop-country. The vocal might of Underwood can’t be denied, and neither can the spells Church and Bryan cast on the swells of people who come to howl along with the choruses.
“Susto, Tigerman Woah! and us are some of the few bands here that don’t have a machine behind them,” Voskeritchian says. “Even with these two [smaller] stages here, you still have a crew of people working for you to help further your thing.”
Though These Wild Plains took advantage of their relative anonymity to make their way through the crowds and soak up the music as festivalgoers, their days of doing so may be over soon enough. Several fans stopped to congratulate the guys on a job well done and to inquire about when the new record is coming out. (They don’t have a date set, but they’re aiming for late summer or early fall.) One new fan requested a selfie, then proceeded to trade notes about the weekend's other music; he shared the band's praise for Douglas and Fogerty, and also commented on the split nature of the pop-country and ”real” country dynamic between the stages.
Before heading over to The Doobie Brothers' set, the fan thanked them for “coming all the way out from the East Coast to play for us!” It’s a long way from that Elvis-themed bar in Cambridge to country’s biggest music festival, but for These Wild Plains, it was worth the trip.
Note: This article has been updated since it was first published to note the fact that the writer has been friends with These Wild Plains for several years.