Empire Polo Grounds, Indio, May 5 and 6
One week after the three day Coachella Music Festival, a new crowd descended upon the Empire Polo Fields, pushing baby strollers, wearing cowboy hats, and carrying folding chairs. Everyone from the baby to grandma was there for the first ever Stagecoach Country Music Festival.
It felt a little like going behind enemy lines— the blue state, red state divide. These were God fearing, America loving, family valued folks, who brought their own chairs with cup holders (at Stagecoach you were allowed to carry booze out of the beer gardens) and staked out a spot in front of the Mane Stage (formerly, the Main Stage).
They didn’t migrate back and forth to check out other musicians, they were there for the big names in Nashville country music, Alan Jackson and George Strait, Sugarland and other performers I didn’t know, and they weren’t about to give up their spots, so they parked it all day long in front of that one stage, protecting their precious realty. You couldn’t squeeze up through that crowd like you could at Coachella, those places belonged to them. Not that I cared, I didn’t come to see Kenny Chesney, I came to see Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris and listen to Garrison Keillor spin his Prairie Home Companion yarns about lifeat Lake Woebegone.
Food was simple, gone were the marsala fries and pad thai of the previous week. At Stagecoach it was BBQ, BBQ and more tri-tip and meat on a stick than you could imagine. The tents stayed just where they were during the Coachella festival, only they were given new names, The Gobi, Mohave, and Sahara tents, became Appaloosa, Mustang and the CMT tent where you could ride a mechanical bull. The raver dome, where kids tripped out to electronic music the week before was re-purposed as the Half-Pint Hootenany, a place where kids could learn how to two step or watch cowboy rope tricks or pistol spinning. There was a Cyber Saloon filled with laptops that you could use for free to check your MySpace, or what have you. Therewould never be anything like that at Coachella.
Then again, at Coachella people wouldn’t line up to virtually test-drive a Toyota Tundra or put up with so much corporate sponsorship. The foreign car company was a major sponsor, and lest you forget, they placed banners all over to remind you. There was lotsa stuff you would never see at Coachella— a giant stuffed brown bear and other dead grazing animals in the VIP area, and a museum in the far tent, where items belonging to country music legends— like Loretta Lynn’s boots, Buck Owen’s guitar, and Elvis’s necklace— were encased in glass for inspection. That tent also had a saloon with a full service bar, and you could sit on a hay bale or a provided folding chair and listen to bluegrass, or laugh with cowboy poets like Red Steagall and Baxter Black.
There were no barricades in those tents, only some hay and a few bull skulls separated you from the performer, not that anyone was rushing to charge EarlScruggs. A few of the art installations stayed— the Tesla Coils apparentlytranscend political parties. But in a lot of ways Stagecoach was moreenjoyable than Coachella, lines were shorter and the grass was cleaner, Iwas surprised at how many down home Americans actually picked up afterthemselves and recycled, something that should shame the Coachella-goers,who littered from the parking lot to the field and back. But it was sad tosee the poor attendance in the tents where the traditions of the old westand true cowboy country culture live on, barely. It would break your heartto see the sparse crowds at Harris and Kristofferson, who by the way, in aballs out move, sang more than one song protesting the war and the currentadministration giving us liberals the Dixie Chicks shot of peace power thatis truly American. At one point we went to the Mane Stage and caught a songby Eric Church, it was dedicated to country legend Merle Haggard, calledPledge Allegiance to the Hag, the lyrics: They say country’s fadin’/But westill wavin’ that flag around here/An’ when it’s time to go, you know you’rewelcome back/ Where the people pledge allegiance to the Hag. And the crowdwas waving their beer cups and singing along, without a clue, that acrossthe field, the old country they claim allegiance to was on life support.