By Lisa Morgan
The 2016 Stagecoach Country Music Festival lineup could easily be considered the best to date, at least in this country music fan’s not-so-humble opinion. I say this with the exception to last year’s festival wherein the “golden-powers-that-be” gave us all the gift of seeing the late, great, Merle Haggard, one last time at the festival, before losing him April 6th of this year. Along with well-known artist with daily real estate on top 40 contemporary country radio, this year brings us more of the trailblazers and music history icons that have been essential to the genre, some as standout artists themselves, and those who helped paved the way for others with their stellar song-crafting.
While not a “headliner” by definition, there is one artist who, after birthing songs that have propelled the careers of so many others, is currently in the throes of seeing his own star launch like a NASA space shuttle. A 15 year overnight success, Chris Stapleton and his wife likely have a touch of emotional whip lash from the speed at which things have turned around for them. “I haven’t always believed in myself, but she always has,” Stapleton said, in regard to “the love of his life,” his wife Morgane, who regularly joins him on stage.
The Kentucky born, son of a coal miner moved to Nashville in 2001. It took a decade, but Stapleton began to establish himself a songwriter with six number-one songs that include, “Never Wanted Nothing More” recorded by Kenny Chesney, “Love’s Gonna Make It Alright” recorded by George Strait, and “Come Back Song” recorded by Darius Rucker. Stapleton has penned over 170 songs that have appeared on albums by artists such as Adele, Luke Bryan, Tim McGraw, Brad Paisley and Dierks Bentley, and co-written with Vince Gill, Peter Frampton, Sheryl Crow and many more.
In 2015, Stapleton released his debut studio album, Traveller. The sumptuous buffet of soulful, rocking country blues eloquently relating to the human experience went to number one on the US Billboard 200, selling 1.2 million copies in the US alone. Stapleton won the 2015 Country Music Association Award for Best Male Vocalist, New Artist of the Year, and Album of the Year. He performed on that award show alongside Memphis native, Justin Timberlake. The video of that performance went viral, and sealed the deal when it came to the hearts of those not naturally drawn to the country genre. Stapleton has been becoming a household name in the industry ever since. He went on to receive four 2016 Grammy Award nominations including Album of the Year, winning two: Best Country Album and Best Country Solo Performance. Stapleton now joins the very short list of artists, such as Shovels and Rope and Sturgill Simpson, that have been added to both Coachella and Stagecoach festival marquees.
I went to Stapleton’s stage early during the first weekend of the 2016 Coachella Music and Arts Festival, eager to get a good look at the phenom. I waited through four other performances to get front and center against the rails, and it was a good thing I did. I felt the huge crowd suddenly press in behind me as soon as the band that played before Stapleton began clearing the stage. In stark contrast to many of the performances that weekend, Stapleton’s stage set up was simple – just him and his guitar(s), a second, equally incredible guitar player, an extremely focused time keeper on drums, a delicious upright bass and it’s keeper, and his wife, Morgane, sharing the spotlight with him on vocals and tambourine. The simple charm and unpretentiousness of their ensemble, blended with gut wrenching, make you weep vocals, supported by face melting guitar leads and licks, was riveting. It was a reminder of how technologically complicated music in general has gotten, and how sweet and powerful the simple good stuff is when it’s been soaking in authenticity, born from a master songwriter’s own bleeding heart, and sung by a voice that is simultaneously raw and flawless. Needless to say, this is one show of the plethora that you will want to make a point to catch. Perhaps he can even be coerced to perform the tribute to Prince he did in Berkeley where he had the stage lights turned purple and played, “Nothing Compares to You,” an event that is being called the “bluesiest Prince cover you’ll ever hear.”(Rare.us)
There are so many others I would urge you to see, most of whom are on the smaller stages where you can usually get up close and personal as opposed to the arena sized Mane Stage with matching crowd. With the loss of so many never to be replaced artists this year, I’m tempted to list them from oldest to youngest. But the truth is, it can be just as exciting to see some of these up and coming artists as it is the tenured timeless icons. Imagine if you had the chance to see Haggard, Cash and Jones when they were starting out. So instead, I’ll simply share a partial schedule of artists I’ve created for myself, a music enthusiast who is deeply in love with the roots of country music and not so much a fan of the pop crossover artists. My criteria for choosing the following bands is simple: Make me believe you. Be your authentic self (You can reflect your influences but don’t be a copy). Inspire me. Show me your mad skills in tasteful dynamic doses. Show me you are honest and brave enough to bleed a little on the stage through your instruments and songs, and make us all feel connected. (Sounds simple enough, right?)
LEROY POWELL should make getting to the first show of Stagecoach 2016 worth your while. Powell played guitar with Shooter Jennings and is on Jennings’ album, Put the “O” Back in Country. Powell promises to put so much POW in his guitar driven southern rock show that it just might make the rest of the day sound like easy listening in comparison.
WHITEY MORGAN: Winner of the 2014 Ameripolitan Music Awards Outlaw Country Band of the Year, this is a legit honky tonk band that can also deliver a Jamie Johnson-esque, melt your heart ballad.
ROBERT EARL KEEN: This highly respected songwriter has penned songs for good folks like George Straight, Joe Ely, Lyle Lovett, The Highwaymen and The Dixie Chicks.
MARTY STUART: Quite possible one of the best mandolin players alive. Stuart started playing at the age of 12 and eventually became part of Johnny Cash’s backing band. He even got into a scuffle with Columbia label heads over them dropping Cash from the label, resulting in Stuarts own album that had just been recorded not getting released.
EMMYLOU HARRIS: There is no other voice like that of the beautiful Emmylou Harris. As of this year, she has won 13 Grammys and has worked with stellar artist like Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan, John Denver, Roy Orbison, the Band, Neil Young, Ryan Adams and more. Check out her long time singing partner, RODNEY CROWELL.
AMANDA SHIRES: Wife of Jason Isbell, this beautifully voiced, incredible songsmith and multi-instrumentalist will show you why Isbell fell hard for her – you will too.
LEE ANN WOMACK: “I Hope You Dance,” on over to the guaranteed all sing for the lovely voice behind this inspiring song and so many others.
DALE WATSON One of the Texas legends you won’t want to miss. (See article: Dale Watson: “I Am Not Country” in this issue)
BILLY JOE SHAVER is the songwriter’s songwriter. Even the prolific tunesmith, Kris Kristofferson, has covered Shaver’s songs (read a very intimate interview in this issue).
Beyond a doubt, any one at Stagecoach will be familiar with the headliners. And all true music lovers from all genre walks of life will likely flock to see rock and roll pillars, John Fogerty, Doobie Brothers, and the Marshall Tucker Band. But see if you can’t introduce yourself to these other very unique and exciting artists you’re not likely to hear on top 40 country radio. They are creating some great original country music: Pokey LaFarge, Longhorne Slim and the Law, SUSTO, The Turnpike Troubadours and James Town Revival.