You get the idea that Jason Aldean is probably not the type of guy who intently studies his own press clippings. That may be a good thing today, because although he was the ostensible headliner for the third and final day of the 2019 Stagecoach Country Festival — and, to be sure, commanded by far the biggest attendance of any performer Sunday — he was eclipsed in zeitgeist-iness by the official “after-party.” It was there, in Diplo’s late-night DJ set, that he and surprise guest Lil Nas X established just how easy it is for a carpetbagger to run off with the stagecoach these days.
“That should have been the headliner,” one bro was heard saying to another on the post-midnight slog to the parking lots. Country music’s fans are now as un-provincial as its gatekeepers are still protectionist, so it really shouldn’t come as much surprise that at least some festival-goers think a rave, hosted by Diplo, featuring a guy with one single out (and one that has been effectively banned from the country charts), Lil Nas X, would merit top billing even above the guy the ACMs just named artist of the decade.
If the heresy of this even crossed Aldean’s radar, maybe he’d have to laugh about it, in a “what hath I wrought” kind of way. Although his sound perpetually leans more toward meat-and-potatoes rock than pushing the envelope into urban music, he was among the first big stars to introduce mild hip-hop elements into country. And there he was, mid-set, during “Gettin’ Warmed Up,” a song from his post recent album, rapping his way through the bridge. But what is just a seasoning for Aldean is a main course for the thousands of kids who instantly screamed along with every hip-hop hit Diplo incorporated into his DJ set.
You could admire the disruptive qualities of Diplo doing a takeover of Stagecoach Sunday night while also acknowledging that there wasn’t too much about it that was very good. Country/EDM/hip-hop DJ sets usually sound more interesting on paper than they turn out to be in practice, and you didn’t get the feeling that Diplo had really put too much thought into how to transform what he usually does into something truly new and exciting for Stagecoach. Throwing Dan + Shay’s “Tequila,” Rascal Flatts’ “Life is a Highway” and some ZZ Top into a blender with the rap hits of the day without much apparent thought about what connects them is not moving the genre-blending conversation forward; it’s collecting a paycheck.
When fans arrived in the Palomino tent, there was the sight of a starry desert landscape that suggested Diplo was going to do something truly themed to the occasion. But while he did subsequently put a lot of galloping horses and cattle skulls on screen, a lot of the other imagery was presumably just left over from his non-country shows, like the million different variations on his personal logo, in case we forgot who was up there maneuvering things behind the hay bales. I’m also guessing that the images of nudes he put on screen, or the recurring illustrations of sexual positions, weren’t designed specifically for Stagecoach, a festival where Coachella’s Sahara tent is turned into a “Half Pint Hootenanny” for kids.
There were other star cameos during Diplo’s hour on stage. First was Cam, who has a new song out with Diplo, “So Long.” She’d performed the previous day, and as Diplo said, “She did a(n acoustic) version last night that was way better than my version,” although their joint one really wasn’t bad. Then, as also teased from the main stage the night before, Sam Hunt — described by a grateful Diplo who almost seemed at a loss for words as “a legend” — came out to sing over an arrangement of “Body Like a Back Road” that had a heavier beat thrown over it. Then it was back to ponies, naked ladies, strobes and heavy-duty branding until the real star, Lil Nas X, showed up.
Lil Nas X is the perfect star for the insta-celebrity age: No one seems to have the slightest idea if he’s talented — he may well be! — but we know that we love his very simple concoction, and so we’re going to give him some faith. “Old Town Road” is unlike almost any other songs of our age, though, in how ridiculously ubiquitous it is: It’s hard to find a song in 2019 that has cross-quadrant awareness, but this one does. And so when he came out with Billy Ray, I don’t want to see it was like Beatlemania inside the Palomino tent (and outside it, where the crowd stretched as far as you could see), but it was about as much mania as any song this defiantly humble, low-key and even goofy has ever generated. Here were three guys who clearly didn’t belong on a stage together, united by nothing but their new or existing love for Western-wear, prompting a happy panic that anyone who appreciates the peculiarities of pop culture couldn’t help but enjoy, too.
Diplo was not the only performer in the Palomino tent Sunday whose appearance could and would prompt philosophical debates about what country is. Tom Jones, Wales’ preeminent wailer, provided a superior example of the non-country veterans Stagecoach has done a good job of booking the past 13 years. And he addressed the question of whether he fits the bill head-on.
“Some people say, ‘This is not country,'” Jones said. “Well, I’m not from the city, I can tell you that.”
Most country fans with a little knowledge of history would grandfather him into the genre just for his version of “Green, Green Grass of Home,” with its a variation on the no-he’s-really-dead-or-dying twist familiar to traditional country. For the most part, though, he delved into blues and early rock, covering Little Willie John and “Soul of a Man” with tubas, and taking a familiar signature song like “It’s Not Unusual” far away from any hint of Vegas by putting the emphasis on the accordion. More than almost anyone else of his age (which is pushing 80), Jones has done a brilliant job of reinventing himself as a roots guy who can still deliver big-lung entertainment; he’s at the perfect intersection of enduring voice and admirably expanded repertoire. You walk away from his set thinking every festival should book him — including Coachella, if they ever embrace token over-30s again.
Stagecoach books fewer classic country stars for the second stage than it used to — and partly that’s a function of so many of them passing away on us. Now, those heritage slots go to late ’80s and ’90s country stars, like Joe Diffie and Sammy Kershaw, who drew significant audiences Friday and Saturday. On Sunday, Mark Chestnutt had to beg out on account of illness, so that card was left to Terri Clark, who, besides doing her own hits, may be the first to ever attempt a Paul McCartney/Warren Zevon medley, mixing her own hit cover of “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” with “Band on the Run.”
The festival has also cut down on its Americana and alt-country side-stage bookings. Whereas as recently as last year they still had as big a figure from that world as Jason Isbell, this time around, Parker Millsap was the name Americana draw. But even though Stagecoach’s original idealism of mixing mainstream Nashville stars and the hippie-ish southern California country-rock world has diminished, there are still smaller remnants of that dream.
In particular, kudos go to the decision to have Nikki Lane curate a combination satellite stage and shopping area, where she booked fellow alt comers like Austin’s Whitney Rose before taking the tiny Horseshoe Stage herself before dusk Sunday. And on the larger Mustang stage, there are still renegades like Whitey Morgan, who congratulated his crowd on having come over from the main field to join the “degenerates and mother—ers” on the fringe. Any festival that can book Morgan, Tom Jones and Diplo for back-to-back sets on the same stage is still going to offer a lot more intrigue than any other country festival,