Backstage Sunday afternoon at the Stagecoach Festival, Garth Brooks half-heard a question being addressed to his wife, Trisha Yearwood, and jumped in. “Was this about women in country music and the lack of them right now? Hell, yeah, I want in on this,” he said. “I can tell you this: Boys are stupid. We just are… I miss (women’s) voices. We have plenty of space for them on country radio. Let’s get the females back here so our format becomes living and intelligent more than it is right now.”
Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood backstage (Photo: Chris Willman)
Brooks’ sentiments are clearly shared by the fest’s producer, Goldenvoice, as Stagecoach typically presents a rosier and more inclusive picture of the genre each year than other purely commercial indicators would suggest. Sexism? Ageism? Authenticity-ism? It’s easy to imagine that none of these are problems afflicting country when you see a smartly curated bill that has women, oldsters and alt/indie acts all represented in quotients you won’t see at any other large-scale country fest. You could almost mistake Stagecoach for a love train, when the bill includes Kacey Musgraves, Jason Isbell, Gordon Lightfoot, Brandy Clark, Tanya Tucker, Joshua Hedley, Dwight Yoakam, Lindsay Ell, Ashley McBryde, Jade Bird, Ronnie Milsap, Tyler Childers and other picks that represent one strong minority strain or another.
At the top of the bill, of course, marketplace realities set in. The 2018 headliners were Brooks, Keith Urban and Florida Georgia Line, marking the first time in four years and only the second time in eight years that none of the three closers was a woman. That’s not necessarily Stagecoach’s fault; at present, there are only two currently hit-producing female acts who might still be in a position to command 75,000 fans, Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert, and they’ve both already cycled through a few times. (Last year, Stagecoach brought in Shania Twain, who is essentially a “classic” artist at this point.)
At that top-tier level in country, you have to settle not for women but for allies. So each of those acts do their bit to make country feel a little less bro, a little more broad. With Brooks, it’s through giving Yearwood a mini-set in the middle of his, as well as the heartfelt lip service. With Florida Georgia Line, the very model of mid-2010s bro-dom, it’s by hooking up with Bebe Rexha for the biggest pop and/or country smash of the moment, “Meant to Be” — although Rexha was not on hand as expected, and the audience was asked to fill in her part. Urban sang his recent “Female,” an ode to all things feminine and feminist that was deeply well-intentioned, even if sexism might not be the only reason why it was his first non-top-10 single this decade.
But it was actual women and not just women sympathizers performing an inordinate amount of the most interesting or invigorating sets at Stagecoach. Friday night, Kelsea Ballerini showed further proof why she’s been the big logjam-breaker at radio — it requires a country-specific intersection of bubbliness and determination on top of talent. In a similar main stage undercard slot Saturday, Musgraves bravely started her set with “Slow Burn,” one of several songs from her superior new album of dreamy pop, and downplayed some of the kitschier aspects of her previous live sets, while not completely denying the audience the pleasures of the early, funny stuff. And in early slots Saturday and Sunday, Stagecoach had even more crowd-winning sets from the lesser known Clark and McBryde, who, like Musgraves, are in the virtually female-exclusive category of the half-dozen truly great singer/songwriters signed to major Nashville labels. You can’t help but feel these four women alone would make the basis of a pretty great radio format.
Kacey Musgraves (Photo: Chris Willman)
Stagecoach has good taste in men, too. Saturday’s lineup on what is now the sole side stage was worth the price of weekend admission by itself. Isbell was essentially opening for Yoakam, historically the most reliable draw in getting Stagecoach-goers out of their lawn chairs on the main field over to a less well-trod area of the Empire Polo Grounds. (Unlike Coachella, which takes place in the same location, it can be a pretty stationary festival, except for beer runs and Dwight.) Isbell said in the past he’d tried to match Yoakam jeans-for-jeans, but “tonight I thought… the hell with it. I’m going to go as far in the opposite direction and get the biggest pants that I own, and that’s what I brought along, just to give you guys some variety.” His “Super 8 Motel” proved just the kind of rave-up to win over a partly unfamiliar festival crowd, while the heartfelt and subtly erotically charged “Cover Me Up” — sung, as always, directly to his wife, fiddler Amanda Shires — almost seemed designed to boost condom sales over at the general-store booths.
McBryde’s mid-afternoon Sunday set proved that one of this year’s new developments at the festival was working as intended. That was the new SiriusXM Spotlight stage, positioned behind the mixing area about a third of the way back into the main field, where the younger acts who once would have played the main stage in the afternoon have now been pushed further into the crowd. It was a smart move: Instead of facing a sea of empty chairs reserved for VIP buyers who don’t show up till 7, the afternoon acts are now greeted by an admittedly small but enthusiastic contingent of standing GA folks. McBryde even got encore calls well into the tearing down of her equipment — and everyone knows encores don’t happen at Stagecoach, so either that was the sunstroke talking or she really was that good.
McBryde also has a fan in the guy who closed out the entertainment on the field that night, Brooks, who enthused later, “Miss Ashley McBryde was here earlier. I love to watch her because that guitar and her, it’s like her lungs, it’s like her arms —they’re one and the same. And I love the way she tells a story.”
That Brooks has some facility with telling a story himself was evident later that night, in a 12-years-awaited set you could knock only for being a little shorter than expected. Brooks had been booked into a two-and-a-half hour slot and kept promising to play all night, but called it a festival at an hour and 45 minutes… maybe because the dust in the ridiculously overpowering winds were having a deleterious effect on the lungs of people who didn’t even have their mouths open for epic performance stretches.
Gordon Lightfoot (photo: Chris Willman)
Brooks didn’t just open his mouth to sing, anyway; he emitted several extended growling screams of such ecstatic pleasure that you’d think Howard Dean was one of his biggest influences. It was the kind of set that could place contemporary country’s greatest happy song, “Friends in Low Places,” and its greatest sad song, “The Dance,” back to back, and not even as show closers, but midpoints on the way to a cover of Alabama’s “Fishin’ in the Dark” and a duet of “More Than a Memory” with co-writer Lee Brice (who preceded Brooks on stage) — and, finally, the great lie that is “Ain’t Goin’ Down (Til the Sun Comes Up).” Then came the real proof of what will keep Brooks awash in Entertainer of the Year awards until his dotage: his willingness to stay into the crowd for selfies after the floodlights have come up.
The preceding night, Urban easily won the award for best surprise collaboration of the festival. First, the singer/guitarist brought out Brothers Osborne to duet on both of those chosen instruments on what he called a “California classic,” Dwight Yoakam’s “Fast as You.” You excused the fact that Yoakam himself was not the guest as one of those festival peculiarities… until Dwight did step in, midway, and the brothers humbly took a step back. It was the best possible use of the festival setting to provide fans a you-shoulda-been-there takeaway. Unfortunately, there was no such catharsis when Urban subsequently asked how many in the audience were Carrie Underwood fans — then proceeded to sing their duet “The Fighter” with a video pre-recording of Underwood. Surely the guy who sings “Female” could’ve found another strong woman at Stagecoach to step in for hologram Carrie.
The lovefest for veterans of a certain stature at Stagecoach continued unabated. Lightfoot was nearly unrecognizable from his ‘60s/’70s chart-heyday self, in both tenor and appearance’ the curly-headed, bearded, low-voiced troubadour is now thin, clean-shaven, and long, straight and gray of hair, with a voice that’s gotten less deep with age. Once the cognitive dissonance settled down, he was still as captivating as the festival hoped he would be after 12 years of attempts to book the elusive Canadian. Lightfoot was probably the only performer at Stagecoach to talk repeatedly about guitar tunings and technique… or to use one of those digressions as the setup for an impromptu “that’s what she said” joke.
At Stagecoach, we could finally say we’ve read Lightfoot’s mind… and it’s as dirty as everyone else’s.