Driving east on the 10 from Los Angeles to Indio, the views change slowly, shifting from less-than-scenic strip malls before eventually settling on huge open skies, mountains every which way, bright, bright sunlight, the heat seeping into the car. Once you arrive at the home shared by the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and Stagecoach Festival, you have to travel even further on foot, winding your way a mile and a half or so to the final entrance of the Empire Polo Club, away from a parking lot that at night reminded me of the elephant graveyard in The Lion King, the cars dusty from a day sitting in the desert.
Who goes to a country music festival in Palm Springs, California? Young white women with long, dyed blonde, perfectly curled hair, wearing short-shorts displaying ample underbutt, bikini tops, bandanas and bandeaus substituting for tops, short patterned summer dresses, cowboy boots with bandanas wrapped around them for use against the dust (and also decoration). They’re joined by young white men in swim trunks, cut-off overalls with no shirt on, boot-cut jeans and visible tattoos everywhere, some proudly supporting some idea they have of the Confederacy or Reagan/Bush ‘84 or California Republicans. Everyone is wearing red, white and blue. A few parents come with their young children, a few more with their older children, even more sans any parental burdens, all carrying foldable chairs to allow them to fully embrace the ultimate relaxation experience.
Founded in 2007, the same year Coachella expanded its offerings to three days, Stagecoach Festival began as a two-day affair, but now lasts Friday to Sunday. At the time, Coachella was described by The San Diego Union-Tribune as “the nation’s most acclaimed annual alternative-rock fete”; this year, it boasted headliners like Ellie Goulding, Calvin Harris, and Ice Cube, more than indicating that its original focus has shifted slightly (though the dad band reunions continue). The same can be said of Stagecoach; while its original lineup consisted of acts like George Strait, Kenny Chesney, Lucinda Williams and Willie Nelson, this year’s main stage (“Mane Stage”) saw almost all (mostly male) mainstream country artists perform: Luke Bryan, Sam Hunt, Chris Stapleton, Eric Church, and Carrie Underwood, with artists like Emmylou Harris, Dale Watson, Jamestown Revival and Lee Ann Womack relegated to smaller stages perhaps more befitting of their sounds. It did not “feature appearances by Prairie Home Companion creator Garrison Keillor and Texas poet laureate Red Steagal” as it did the first year.
Both Stagecoach and Coachella were founded by Paul Tollett through his company Goldenvoice, who said the year he started Stagecoach that its success was “kind of amazing, because the country-music audience is a different crowd that usually goes to concerts in arenas and amphitheaters, not festivals.” He continued:
“One of the things we’re having to overcome is that the country-music festivals that have previously happened in California weren’t that great. That’s why they didn’t last. The audience we’re going after has never been to anything like this. At least when we did Coachella the first time, people had been to Lollapalooza and had something to gauge it with.”
Tollett was certainly right, to a point: the country music festival CMA Fest in Nashville has been going on much longer, but many of its biggest acts play in a stadium each night, and the funds from the festival go to music education programs. Coachella and Stagecoach are for-profit byproducts of the American capitalist way, where the music is more of an activity that allows congregating with friends than an opportunity to see a collection of great performances in one place. They are festivals, first and foremost—experiences, set to music. Combined, Stagecoach and Coachella make over $700 million a year.
Before this year, I’d never been to Stagecoach. I’ve still never been to Coachella, but it seemed that a fair number of the Stagecoach attendees had; I overheard multiple people comparing their Stagecoach experience to past Coachella ones, expressing their preference to Stagecoach. (“Didn’t I see you last weekend?” the woman checking ID’s asked me quizzically.) It’s chiller, is the general sentiment, less of a scene, with fewer celebrities wandering around, less drug use and more beer drinking (at Coachella, you can only drink alcohol in select areas, while at Stagecoach, you can drink anywhere). Stagecoach isn’t all about the afterparties thrown by companies around Palm Springs, but Coachella, befitting the wider range of musical genres it features, has more stages and more attendees (though both festivals started with around 25,000).
By expanding Coachella even further, Tollett was onto something, as The Press Enterprise reported in 2008:
This year, more than a dozen multiday festivals similar to Coachella, which opens today at the Empire Polo Field, will take place around the country.
Multiday events, including the Mile High Music Festival in Denver, Outside Lands in San Francisco and Rothbury in Michigan, will launch this summer. In addition, other festivals have started within the past five years, such as the Virgin Mobile Festival in Baltimore and the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago.
“A study in contrasts: Goldenvoice’s Coachella and Stagecoach festivals couldn’t be more different, yet each is a booming success,” The San Diego Union-Tribune proclaimed in 2009. That may have been true then, but things have equalized since: Stagecoach now is merely Coachella with a slightly different theme; the number of slurringly drunk people of all ages seemed on par with the experience of any festival. If Stagecoach is country, it is very lightly such, a performance of what it means to love one interpretation American life more than it is a celebration of American music.
But nowhere was this genre-blurring more subtly explored than through the performances. Country artists have always embraced covers (Merle Haggard, of course, was given tribute), but a number of headliners chose to play pop tracks of yesterday and today, as if hesitant to rely on their own actual material for an outing like this.
On Saturday, The Band Perry did The Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams,” CeeLo’s “Crazy” and Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack,” as well as Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself” and a frankly embarrassing version of Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls,” all while in front of a backdrop of an neon, electropop-looking heart. (“In my heart, I am Beyoncé,” Perry’s frontwoman Kimberly Perry said before shaking her ass during the latter track. “My body is still trying to catch up.” She was clad in the apparent preferred outfit of woman performers that weekend, one that I’m sure would have fit in a Coachella, consisting of a halter top and harem-style pants, because the ‘90s are back everywhere.)
And on Sunday, Joe Nichols briefly handled “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-A-Lot, but not before Raelynn covered Selena Gomez’s “Good For You” and No Doubt’s “Hella Good.”
“I just don’t understand why you’d chase the failing portion of the industry,” my friend remarked of the choice multiple artists made to cover pop songs. “Country fans actually buy albums.”
The lackluster appeal of these actually successful acts giving performances that mirrored the work of a decent wedding band paled in comparison the coup pulled off by Sam Hunt on Friday night. After singing a few of his hits, Hunt brought out first Bebe Rexha and G-Eazy, who performed their (hit?) single “Me, Myself & I.” Hunt stood in front of the crowd as if one of us, sharing a Bud Light that had been handed to him, nodding along to their performance. Not satisfied with this strange twist, he then brought out Snoop Dogg, who performed “Drop It Like It’s Hot” and “The Next Episode” to a backing track, toking all the while.
It was incongruous if not utterly bizarre, but clearly explained later: the idea of such a mishmash had been proposed by Bud Light, and they sponsored it (dubbing it a “Bud Light Music Stage Moment”), which is why, once Snoop had finished his set, he remained on stage, drinking his Bud, and jammin’ to Hunt’s “House Party.” Taylor Swift may have managed permanent crossover pop appeal, but at Stagecoach, the artists play with it temporarily.
Whether their attempts were hitting home with their audience remains to be seen. The crowd oscillated between confused, uninterested and briefly entertained by the covers and guest stars (Snoop was the only one to prompt true excitement, among teen girls who were hoisted on the shoulders of male friends/paramours as they Snapchatted themselves singing his lyrics down to every last “nigga”). “Do you know who Biggie is?” one young man asked a girl in a crowd that was, according to their chants, eagerly waiting for Eric Church late Friday evening. “No,” she said while laughing.
“Watch Straight Outta Compton,” he replied.
The tenor of it all meant that there were almost no black people at Stagecoach, though, it being Southern California, there were plenty of Latinos. And despite the several men adhering themselves to the past vis à vis their Reagan/Bush ‘84 gear, public displays of current political affiliation seemed limited; I saw no Trump paraphernalia (though it was apparently present). The closest I got was a man with “Fuck Off We’re Full” written in the shape of the United States above an American Flag on the back of his shirt. He was standing in front of a woman with tattoos of guns on her midsection who had donned a bandana as a shirt that boasted her allegiance to the 2nd Amendment. As we watched them, my friend said, “I saw a guy with a Confederate Flag on his car and I thought, where do you think you are?” and I swear the woman sitting in front of us quietly said, to no one in particular, “I would have high-fived him.”
As with Coachella, the only true Stagecoach allegiance is to fun; as bands played on Saturday night, a party was going on in the Honky Tonk (where a similar dance party talkes place during Coachella), as a DJ spun country, rap and pop hits of yesterday and today and exhausted-looking and sometimes out of sync line dancers did what they do best to the beat. It was like middle-school and college in one, as shirtless sweaty men well under 30 ground their pelvises against women almost as unclothed. For a second, as I bounced to “We Found Love,” I recalled Rihanna’s rare performance of the song the weekend prior. No one in the crowd seemed like they wouldn’t have enjoyed that, despite their adherence to “country”; the cultural classification seemed minimal, if present at all.
Top images via Getty; women at Coachella on the left, women at Stagecoach on the right.