Of the three headliners at the 13th annual Stagecoach Country Music Festival, Sam Hunt had the greatest promise to offer some kind of much-needed surprise factor. Saturday, he was headlining the California desert gathering for the first time, and presumably with a lot of unreleased new music in the can, since he hasn’t had an album out since his 2014 debut. (This is in contrast to Luke Bryan, headlining Stagecoach for the third time Friday, and Jason Aldean, at the top of the bill for the second time Sunday, both supporting albums that have been out for 12-18 months.)
On top of that, the last time Hunt played Stagecoach, a couple of notches further down the bill in 2016, he made news by bringing out Snoop Dogg, Bebe Rexha and G-Eazy for genre-defying surprise appearances. In a recent interview previewing this year’s festival, he said, “I guess Stagecoach has developed a reputation for those kinds of moments… Now there’s this expectation that those moments will be part of the show… We’ll definitely have some moments that are off-script.” There were a lot of long pauses during his set Saturday night where the stage went dark at length for no apparent reason, leaving fans thinking, okay, maybe this is the moment where he’ll bring out Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus (whose appearance at Stagecoach has been rumored for days)?
But the big surprise guest during Hunt’s show was… Luke Combs, who’d immediately preceded him on the stage. And the number of new songs unveiled was zero. As much lip service as the singer gave to the importance of Stagecoach, the opportunity for a sense of occasion was lost — although if you had a hit in your arsenal as massive as “Body Like a Back Road,” you might feel that refreshers for their own sake are beside the point, too.
The MIA status of Hunt’s second album has been a topic within the industry for literally years. (It was two years ago this month that this writer published a news story trying to figure out what was up with the then-already-long-delayed project.) Hunt did address the speculation Saturday and gave the audience a couple of explanations, including the long-offered one that he’d wanted to take an extended honeymoon with his bride. “We haven’t been out here in a couple years, and I haven’t put out a whole lot of music in the last 24 months, but I want to thank you all for being patient,” he told the 80,000-strong crowd. “I‘ve had a lot of changes in my life the past — I guess — two and a half years. One of the biggest was (when) two years and two weeks ago I got married to the girl I ended up in the back of the ‘Cop Car’ with back in Alabama,” he said.
Hunt then tried to put it on Friday’s headliner: “I blame Luke (Bryan) for not having any new music out. I was planning on spending all last year to make a record, and he called and said, ‘Hey, you want to come out on tour with me?’ And I couldn’t pass it up,” he said, referring to the 15 stadium dates that apparently took him out of commission for 12 months.
Your best guess would have to be that he’s not as much of a writing or studio slacker as he made himself out to be with those remarks and that he is putting a perfectionist’s (or anal retentive-ist’s) touches on an album that could be ready to go at any time. Or maybe he really is bad with a sense of time, since Hunt kept referring to having been at Stagecoach two years ago, even though he had the 2016 date correct.
But if it didn’t augur well for a totally imminent drop of fresh material, Hunt’s hour-and-a-half set did provide plenty of reminders why it matters that he not drop off the face of the earth as a recording artist. “Take Your Time,” as many times as you’ve heard it since it became his breakthrough single, still has the power to almost take your breath away, if a masterfully rendered conversational casualness can be considered breath-taking (it should). “Back Road,” the one hit he’s had since the “Montevallo” song cycle — albeit a big enough one to beat the cumulative effect of about 15 smashes — came across again as something much more poetically ingenious than the naughty nursery rhyme it at first appeared to be. “Ex to See” still came off as overblown arena-rock, and “Breakup in a Small Town” didn’t really need the row of pyro to get across, but notwithstanding those couple of attempts to dazzle, it’s still pleasingly clear that Hunt has a songwriter’s instincts first and a showman’s second.
The two covers in the set told a couple of tales. First, as a duet with Combs, there was Brooks & Dunn’s “Brand New Man,” which has actually usually been a part of Combs’ touring set in recent weeks, since he’s the one who sings it with B&D on their new “Reboot” album of remakes. It didn’t seem to have been completely rehearsed, as the band seemed uncertain in moments and the two singers stepped on each other enough times that Hunt finally wisely said, “Take it, Luke.” But it was enjoyable anyway, and if anyone was looking for an antidote to last week’s controversial remarks by a couple of big names at Coachella that of course everyone uses tracks, especially featured guests, here was the proof that a slightly botched impromptu pairing is still a lot more charming than a synthetic-sounding needle drop.
And the other cover was perhaps the most magical moment at this year’s Stagecoach: Hunt’s solo, very low-key cover of Waylon Jennings’ “Belle of the Ball,” a song little remembered enough that really no one has taken to covering it in recent years, other than Waylon’s son Shooter. Considering that Hunt’s entrance music was a DJ-style pop medley that included Post Malone and Billie Eilish, and that he’d only been known to cover “Belle” once before years ago, this was an unexpected gesture, to say the least. So forget what we said earlier about the lack of a sense of occasion or special guests: Waylon’s ghost is probably all the celebrity cachet any set needs.
Preceding Hunt on stage, Combs made sure to take stock in the moment as vindication for a lack of belief that led up to his unexpected and seemingly overnight rise. Noting that he’d just turned 29, the singer offered a vivid recollection of being dissuaded from his dream when he moved to Nashville at 24. “I had a meeting a few months after I moved there with some folks. They told me, ‘One, you need to learn to write better songs. Two, you’re going to be a songwriter because nobody is ever going to pay money to come and watch you play these songs that you’ve written.”’ Well, here I am standing in Indio. California in front of 80,000 people. I sang three songs that day, and I am pleased to say that all three of those songs are No. 1 songs now.”
Combs seemed fixated on that birthday. “I just turned 29 a month and a half ago. Some people may think that I’ve lost a step when it comes to getting drunk or smoking weed. I know y’all like smoking weed out there; I can smell it all the way up here. Anyway, if you think I have lost a step, you’re sorely mistaken. That’s what this song is about: ‘Don’t Tempt Me With a Good Time.’” Let the record show that the scurrilous rumors about the age of 29 being synonymous with embracing sobriety and temperance are lies, damnable lies!
Cam had the third-billed slot on the Mane Stage for the day. Since she hasn’t been active as a recording artist lately — and has been very vocal about radio’s indifference toward her last single, “Diane,” and toward most female artists’ work in general — there would seem to be every indication that this represented Stagecoach buyer Stacy Vee’s desire to give women as much of an even break as possible, even if the format won’t. Cam made the most of it with a winning performance that offered some brightly colored machisma and plenty of gender-specific commentary (although nothing about the radio issue).
Introducing her debut single, “My Mistake” (key line: “He’s my mistake to make all night”), Cam pointed out that “the New York Times called it sex-positive. I was proud of that,” she said, even though “when women sing about sex, it’s considered a statement. When men sing about sex, it’s just another Friday night.” Later, in introducing a new song, she cited country’s history of strong women and pointed to Loretta Lynn singing about the pill and Kacey Musgraves singing about weed. “I grew up around strong, honest women and that means a lot to me,” she said. “For example, when my grandmother decided to tell me about sex, she said, ‘Camaron Marvel, sex is like a milkshake. Once you have it, you’re always going to want it.’ …. This is a new song, and this is for you, Grandma.”
Cam opened with “Diane,” her sort-of answer song to “Jolene,” which had some impressive a capella/dropout moments. Toward the end of the set, she actually got to “Jolene,” too, but as part of a medley with the Miley Cyrus/Mark Ronson song “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart,” with Dolly Parton as Cyrus’ godmother being the connective thread. Cam said she’d collaborated on songwriting with Cyrus, which she described as “a fun day in the studio. Probably the highest I’ve ever been. And I studied abroad in the Netherlands, y’all.”
Cam also did an acoustic version of her new collaboration with Diplo, “So Long,” making it clear that audiences would be able to hear a different arrangement of it if they went to Diplo’s festival-closing set late Sunday night. That’s when they’ll finally get to hear Miley’s dad, Billy Ray, too, who’s expected to show up with Lil Nas X, the country star of the millennium. Playing in the Palomino tent Saturday, Lynyrd Skynyrd drew an overflow crowd big enough to fill at least two tents, but that just might pale against how many show up Sunday when the late-night choice is between taking the 10 back home to L.A. County or “Old Town Road.”