By Lisa Morgan
The best part of every Stagecoach experience I have ever had, has mostly taken place at the two smaller stages just south of the Mane stage. The lesser known bands, along with older musicians, who have long since made a debut on commercial top 40 radio stations, are seen in the beautifully, intimate setting of the Mustang and Palomino Stages. Unlike the Mane stage, where general admission basically means you would have to watch the big screens to actually view the performers, The Mustang and Palomino stage offer the opportunity to see the expressions and working fingers of musicians.
Right off the bat, I was thrilled to discover the band The Wild Feathers. They were the first act of the three day festival and appeared on the Palomino Stage. Looking very much like a rock band out of Los Angeles, they immediately powered through the audience with roaring rock lead guitars – three of them. As big and impressive as that was, it was their vocal depth that impressed me even more. Countering incredible three part harmonies were three different and fabulously unique lead vocals. You could say that this band definitely falls into the Country Rock genre as long as you understand that Rock is the root word in this label. As I watched them thrill the crowd, a theory began to form in my mind that perhaps country music venues may be the only fan friendly place in the music industry for lovers and players of honest to God, good old American Rock and Roll. As the festival went on, my “theory” began to feel a bit more like fact. This band was my most exciting introduction/discovery, hands down. You can learn more about this band and find their music at thewildfeathers.com.
The Mustang Stage seemed fairly consistent with representing the hard-core country roots genre, with bands whose music was built around the beautiful sounds of the banjo, fiddle, mandolin, pedal steel, Dobro and the like. Each of these topped their blue grass and/or Louisianan influences with rustic, crooning vocals and harmonies. Bands like the Howlin Brothers, Shakey Graves, Trampled by Turtles, Willie Watson and Whiskey Shivers showed off their multi-instrumental skills and kept many literally kicking up the dust with their dancing, stomping and swinging to the music. It was at the Trampled by Turtles show, CV Weekly had their celebrity sighting of Ashton Kutcher who seems to be making a tradition of attending the festival. He and fiance and suspected baby mama, Mila Kunis, were spotted at this bluegrass flavored folk band’s show, one of the few bands they risked crowd mobbing to see (Ashton is usually ushered into the photo pit of the Mane stage as photogs are ushered out).
The acts that drew some of the larger crowds appeared to be Asleep at the Wheel, Sleepy Man Banjo Boys, and The Railers.
For four decades Asleep at the Wheel have been stellar representatives of Western Swing, with more than 20 studio albums and 9 Grammys. I was perhaps, almost as equally impressed by the handful of very statuesque, well chiseled, young, shirtless, tan…(what was I talking about again? Oh, yes) men, skillfully twirling their dance partners, teaching many a young lady a thing or two about the Western Swing dance culture (twerking not included).
Sleepy Man Banjo Boys, a bluegrass band out of New Jersey, is made up of three brothers ages 11, 14 and 16. They had already been performing as roots musicians for a few years now, but this was the first show where they integrated vocals. They did so quite well.
The Railers made up of four “Nashville or Bust” dreamers are the more contemporary sounding band of those listed here, with a beautiful vocal blend (thanks in good part to the liltingly sweet soprano of their beautiful female vocalist Cassandra) they have more of a Memphis blues sound to them. They endeared their audience on and off the stage as they came out to take pictures with fans afterward.
The Palomino Stage represented many top 40s artists of days gone by, most of whom have cemented their footprints into the sonic landscape of country music for all time. All but one were the opportunity of a lifetime as the audience was able to watch and hear what only decades of life at a craft can bring to any stage.
The incomparable Miss Wanda Jackson, showed up, in spite of a recent shoulder surgery, with all the grace and charm a well lived life can bring to a talented woman. This gracefully ballsy icon charmed the audience with her colorful story, one that started with her first recording in 1954, as a junior in high school. After setting up the story behind the song she would dive into her music with all the power and original style she ever had in her youth. We were right there in music history with her as she weaved her tales of love and music, crediting Elvis Presley for the encouragement that lead to her becoming the initiator of a whole new genre called Rockabilly. Some were inspired, all were enchanted.
I enjoyed the enviable pleasure of having a private conversation with John Conlee before his performance Saturday afternoon. This absolutely understated gentleman charted 32 singles between the years 1978 and 2004 with songs like, “Backside of Thirty, “Common Man”, “I’m Only in it for the Love” and “As Long as I’m Rocking with You” to name just a few. I asked him for his perspective regarding the changes in the country music industry. “One of the things I miss in country music, and well, in all music, is we seem to be finding less distinctive sounds and songs,” he quickly answered with disappointment in his voice. “I don’t know who the new George Jones and Merle Haggards are today. I haven’t heard them. But it always cycles back. I don’t know when, but I believe it will. Music was so radio oriented before. Now, TV has more to do with it. Shows like “The Voice” or “American Idol” are doing what the radio stations used to do to a degree. As for myself, 36 years down the road, I’m doing 60 shows a year and still playing rooms like the Grand Old Opry. I’m as busy as I want to be and still enjoying it.” When I asked if there are any songs he gets tired of singing he said, “I was always very careful choosing songs. I never went into the studio with a song I didn’t like a lot. I don’t get tired of any of them.” Suffering from allergies aggravated by the wind and dust, Conlee crooned with just as much power and control and possibly even more warmth and depth as ever. He showered his audience with musical love as he always has, with his uplifting, clever music and his sunny, easy going disposition. The man, on every level, still commands the stage.
Shelby Lynne, now resident to the Coachella Valley, took over the stage with absolute dominance. Way more than just a pretty face, with a voice way too large for her petite frame, Lynne showed off her other super power – her musicianship. With her deceptively young appearance, it is in this forum only, that this woman can be identified as a seasoned veteran. Defying genre barriers, the music she creates suits her own heart and obviously her soul as that’s where it all clearly comes from. With a crew of mutually talented friends joining her on stage, the performance left fans new and old hungry for more. Only the presence of Lynyrd Skynyrd could fill the void left by Lynne’s departure from that stage. And fill it they did. Drawing a huge crowd, the classic rock band (revised) made it impossible for anyone not present prior to the performance start time to get anywhere close to the stage (myself included).
Shovels and Rope, who played at last year’s Coachella Music and Arts Festival, very likely walked away with the “Biggest Buzz Band” award, as their performance was widely talked about long after they finished their set. This husband and wife duo creates a musical tapestry that draws threads from almost every chapter in the genre handbook, allowing them to play with absolute integrity in both Coachella and Stagecoach festival environments. Observers could not help but compare this two piece collaboration to the well-known, retired, rock band, White Stripes. But the charisma and fullness of sound was a crescendo above in my opinion.
The performance that, in my mind, was the most important and inspiring of ALL of Stagecoach 2014 was that of John Prine. With only a bass player and a lead guitar player accompanying him, this Pied Piper of musicians and music lovers everywhere, showed just why he is considered to be one of the most influential songwriters of his generation. In the early 70’s, after the release of Prine’s self-titled album, Bob Dylan, himself, appeared at one of Prine’s first New York City club performances and anonymously backed him on harmonica. His sometimes humorous and always honest songs paint perfectly the human condition called life as seen through the eyes of a consummate and articulate observer. Prine underwent extreme surgery for squamous cell cancer on the right side of his neck, altering his voice. In my opinion, the extra gravel in his voice has enhanced his music wonderfully. It certainly has not taken a thing off the illuminating smile that shows up when he is cracking a joke or having a good time. With absolute mastery, Prine wove musical tales that made you cry, laugh and smile. With his popular song, “Marie”, the three piece dynamically rose and fell with waves of instrumental prowess that left the audience awestruck and cheering thunderously. John Prine was the only artist I saw that, through a passionate and compelling standing ovation, was compelled to do an encore. Those who had thought an encore would not happen and had begun to make their way to the Mane stage came sprinting back at the sound of those delighted, cheering audience members that refused to leave without more from this fascinating songsmith. When Kris Kristofferson first discovered Prine, a Vietnam Vet turned Postman, at an open mic he claimed that Prine wrote songs “so good, we’ll have to break his thumbs.” We were all eternally grateful they didn’t.
A name unfamiliar in commercial music circles, but making a huge impact never the less is Jason Isbell. Within this artist, lies the musicianship and song crafting skills that give hope to the idea that the ground laid by artists like John Prine will not be lost on our current generation. I began following Isbell’s music in the mid 90’s when he played with an Alabama based, grunge country band called the Drive By Truckers. Isbell’s songs contributed a less raw but equally honest, bit of honey to edgy albums that otherwise might have been overwhelmingly dark, bitter. Launching his solo career, Isbell achieved some acclaim with songs like “Alabama Pines” and “Codeine” but not the likes of what is being seen through his latest album, Southeastern. The album follows and documents to a degree his marriage to fellow artist, Amanda Shires and a recovery from addiction. It is perhaps these major life events that have this artist producing music that has entered a whole new level of depth and honesty. As fellow Nashville singer/songwriter, Elizabeth Elkins of Granville Automatic and Mama’s Blue Dress says, “He has set a new standard of songwriting that makes me cuss at the stereo when I’m listening.”
Perhaps the only miserable performance and performer at the Palomino Stage was former Monkee, Michael Nesmith. The sun powered its way onto the stage and into the face of Nesmith as it was setting on the last day of Stagecoach 2014. Only a small crowd had gathered to listen as other priorities such as Asleep at the Wheel, Lee Brice and the Beer Garden pulled others away. I went and I listened. Other than the notoriety as a member of the Monkee’s, I couldn’t really see the draw nor see the relevance of his music within the Stagecoach Festival dynamics. He had a really great band that he fronted with hand gestures that appeared as though he were frantically signing the instrumental music for the deaf. He read/sang lyrics from his iPad attached to his mic stand. As I listened, I thought about the BBQ that I was smelling, made a note to get some kettle corn, and considered visiting my friend and DJ, Craig Michaels, entertaining unskilled, yet hilariously charismatic singers at karaoke in the JP Wiser tent. Completely uninspired by the performance in front of me, I remembered that my feet hurt and left. I was later informed that my feelings of dissatisfaction were apparently shared by Nesmith as he finished his last song and said, “I’m outta here!”
Every year, loving Americana, roots, country music the way I have for decades, I struggle with the high cost of this music festival. I know that it will not always be guaranteed that I will be the fortunate one to cover the festival with my complimentary media pass. But every year, I am so grateful that I was able to enjoy the people watching, the fun times with friends, old and new, and most especially, the experience of the music brought to these smaller stages is like none other. Up close and personal, it never fails to leave me inspired as a human being who occasionally hears a bit of their own story in a song or two, or as a musician who aspires to glean from these incredibly talented artists. Ultimately, it is well worth the price of admission.