Oh, that Sweet Southern Sound
By Dan MacIntosh
At the end of each April, hipster fedoras are replaced by cowboy hats at Indio’s Empire Polo Club field as country music’s Stagecoach picks up where the rocking Coachella leaves off. Just as Coachella is rock music’s biggest outdoor festival, Stagecoach amounts to the country music fan’s favorite annual hoedown. This year’s lineup will be sure to please, as it’s headlined by God’s gift to patriotism, Toby Keith on Friday, Fleetwood Mac with a Southern accent in Lady Antebellum on Saturday and cowboy jam band Zac Brown Band on Sunday.
In addition to these big belt buckle headliners, however, there are also many smaller—yet by no means less significant—concert stories to be told about this year’s music party. For starters, Lonestar will be playing its biggest U.S. date since being joined again by Richie McDonald, the Texas band’s original vocalist. McDonald, that familiar voice behind this act’s biggest hits, including “Amazed” and “What About Now” left the act for a solo career in 2007. While this group has had more than its share of chart successes, including ten #1 country songs over the past two decades together, the members of Lonestar have not always fully appreciated all of these memorable moments.
“One thing we talked about when we got back together,” McDonald recalls, “we said, ‘Let’s just go and have fun, first of all, and kind of cherish the moment . . . I don’t think we really relished the moments when we could really look back and remember what we accomplished because we just didn’t take time to enjoy it.”
Then on Friday night, fans will get to hear a real singer’s singer when Joe Nichols takes the stage. Nichols will likely also be presenting new music from his Red Bow Records debut album at the festival; an album that includes a spot-on cover of Merle Haggard’s “Footlights,” which finds Nichols sounding like a true doppelganger for The Hag, which is about the highest compliment you can pay any country singer. To hear him talk about it, Nichols is more excited than ever about his newest recording.
“We’ve got some things that I think will compete with the more progressive sounding records on the radio right now,” Nichols explains, “which I don’t think people would expect from me. They’ll expect me to put out something traditional, in the “Brokenheartsville” vein . . . We were able to make a transition in the record and reach out and put out a record, that would be competitive with Lady Antebellum and Taylor Swift and some of the more progressive things that are happening right now.”
In a few cases, concert-goers won’t even need to switch out their fedoras for Stetsons because an act like Rhode Island’s Brown Bird, which is slated to play on Sunday, could just have easily fit in on a Coachella stage without at all seeming out of place. Similar to Mumford and Sons and Lumineers, Brown Bird’s David Lamb and MorganEve Swain play acoustic, American roots music, yet also write heady lyrical songs inspired by the writings of Omar Khayyam, Christopher Hitchens and other intellectuals.
Although Stagecoach is filled with card-carrying country bands, Brown bluntly answers, “Not at all,” when asked if his Brown Bird is also a country outfit. “We try to stay away from any particular genre being put on our music,” Lamb continues. “We love country music. We are influenced by a lot of especially classic country, but we certainly wouldn’t consider ourselves to be a country band. We were a little bit surprised when we were invited to play Stagecoach, but pleasantly surprised. I think it will be fun.”
Only attendees that venture beyond the huge main stages will likely have the opportunity to be surprised by Brown Bird’s music because this unique act will probably be performing in one of the festival’s tent areas, rather than at one of the larger outdoor venues. But this is just one more reason why Stagecoach is so darn good and has something for just about every roots music loving taste. Those that like the more edgy or more traditional sounds can hang out in the tents where these artists mainly play, while folks that just want the big, commercial acts can sweat it out with the throngs at the huge sages. Therefore, from fedoras to Stetsons, Stagecoach is one American festival that wears a lot of different hats, with a hat rack big enough to hang them all.
Stagecoach Music Festival at Empire Polo Club, 81-800 Avenue 51, Indio, (888) 512-SHOW, www.stagecoachfestival.com. April 26-28. Tickets $239-$1,099.