At the desert gathering, pop-driven acts, traditional sounds and fringe performers all have a chance to please an expanded crowd.
The old gag about people who brag about loving both kinds of music — country and western — gets a twist at Stagecoach. Out in the desert, the annual festival serves up both kinds of country music: that which sells, and everything else.
Fest-goers generally fall into one camp or the other, and even though it often feels that the gap between is a great divide, there's not a hint of rivalry among these groups that otherwise rarely intersect.
The majority, predictably, plop down their blankets and lawn chairs — the kind with the built-in, beer-friendly cup holders — in front of the Mane Stage, where on Saturday the lineup was topped by a couple of contemporary country's more pop-driven acts, Keith Urban and Sugarland, and Sunday by the hard-charging likes of Toby Keith and Brooks & Dunn.
Far across the Empire Polo Field grounds in Indio, tradition-loving fans ensconced themselves in front of the Palomino Stage, where standard bearers such as Merle Haggard, Ray Price and Bobby Bare held forth on Saturday, while Sunday's offerings extended from the searingly dark folk country of Mary Gauthier to the Band-influenced Avett Brothers to those country-gospel hit makers of yore, the Oak Ridge Boys.
And in between, at the Mustang Stage, fans of the fringe were served by boundary-blind Americana musicians including Victoria Williams, Trampled by Turtles, Truth & Salvage and Black Prairie; Grand Ole Opry stalwarts Bill Anderson and Little Jimmy Dickens; and cowboy poets Waddie Mitchell and Baxter Black.
It's a catholic mix that draws no distinction between acts that just want to party and those more concerned with the inner workings of the human heart. But the difference is there for anyone attuned to it, and for many, the gift of Stagecoach is the ability to experience both schools in the same place.
Plenty turned out to savor that gift: Preliminary estimates put the average attendance at 50,000 each day, a significant uptick from last year's record of 40,000 per day, Goldenvoice chief Paul Tollett said Sunday.
Bobby Bare got Saturday off to a rousing start with several of the Shel Silverstein narrative tales he's recorded over the years — sterling examples of detail-rich songwriting that avoids cliché at every turn. Silverstein excelled in the tradition of tall tales from the American frontier going back to poet Robert W. Service and beyond, such as one concerning a chump who's had one too many and decides to pick a fight with the toughest guy in the bar, only to get a lecture on what it really means to be “The Winner”: “He said, ‘You see these bright white smilin' teeth, you know they ain't my own / Mine rolled away like Chiclets down a street in San Antone.'”