Stagecoach Country Music Festival
at the Empire Polo Fields, Indio, May 5-6
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 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 to listen to Garrison Keillor spin his Prairie Home Companion yarns about life at Lake Wobegon.
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 repurposed 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. There would 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’ 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 Earl Scruggs.
A few of the art installations stayed — the Tesla Coils apparently transcend political parties. But in a lot of ways Stagecoach was more enjoyable than Coachella. Lines were shorter and the grass was cleaner, and I was surprised at how many down-home Americans actually picked up after themselves and recycled, something that should shame the Coachella-goers, who littered from the parking lot to the field and back. But it was sad to see the poor attendance in the tents where the traditions of the Old West and true cowboy culture live on, barely. It would break your heart to see the sparse crowds at Harris and Kristofferson, who, by the way, in a balls-out move, sang more than one song protesting the war and the current administration, giving us liberals the Dixie Chicks shot of peace power that is truly American.
At one point we went to the Mane Stage and caught a song by Eric Church, dedicated to country legend Merle Haggard, called “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag.” The lyrics: They say country’s fadin’/But we still wavin’ that flag around here/An’ when it’s time to go, you know you’re welcome back/Where the people pledge allegiance to the Hag. And the crowd was waving their beer cups and singing along, without a clue that across the field, the old country they claim allegiance to was on life support.