By Lisa Morgan
By the time I hit the grounds of Stagecoach, my work as a CV Weekly writer is pretty much done (and has most likely tried to kill me). The intensive, deadline motivated endeavor of trying to get interviews from performers months before via their management/publicists, researching them in order to conduct an interview that hopefully sounds like I know what I’m doing, transcribing the recordings and fitting fascinating life stories (some decades in the making) and their pearls of wisdom into a an article that is under 2000 words is behind me. I am deeply grateful for all of it, but listening to the artists live is my reward.
There were the performances I would consider moments of a lifetime, right up there with last year’s Stagecoach experience of seeing Steve Earle and the late, great Merle Haggard (it still stings to write that word, “late”). I’ll just let you know right now, the appearance of Snoop Dogg was not one of those.
I watched “Dale Watson – the Great Ameripolitan” sing and play with richness, apparently just too much for our condensed, “made for iTunes” digital recordings. With the ease of scratching an itch, amazing music poured out of his Euro studded guitar and George Jones infused voice, and of course he had stellar musicians on stage with him. He had told me in our interview the week before that there should be a Mount Rushmore for country music, and Merle Haggard’s face should be carved into it; so it was only fitting that the amazing, mandolin wielding Marty Stuart made him come up on stage with him to play a tribute to “The Hag” during his show.
Billy Joe Shaver didn’t let me down either. With fire in his eyes, his love for the music and those of us listening to it outshined his obvious pain when he tried to put his guitar over his shoulder that he refuses to take time off to fix. He set the guitar back down before he got half way through the song. It didn’t stop him from throwing air punches and kicks to his iconic songs along with a couple of pelvic thrusts. I knew I was standing in front of one of the most resilient, positive and most influential men in the genre, and quite possibly one of the more flirtations of his age and gender. Having him there was a gift. I walked past Southern rock artist, Leroy Powell, on his way to catch Mr. Shaver, a bucket list show for him and many of the artists playing Stagecoach.
Robert Earle Keen and his mighty band were absolutely delicious, starting off with my favorite song, “Feelin’ Good Again.” But my world stopped for Emmylou Harris. I managed to work my vertically challenged, 5 foot 3 inches self to the front row. As I waited for Emmylou to come on stage, none other than our own high desert treasure, Victoria Williams, stepped up behind me. She had been given an Artist wrist band by Emmylou herself, giving her all access back stage, but she wanted to watch her friend from the “cheap seats” with me. The sound of Emmylou’s voice was otherworldly, and the harmonies, percussion, bass and guitars were spun silk. While it was obvious they were all struggling with the sound that was coming out of their stage monitors, you couldn’t tell from what the audience was given. There were moments the floating vocals and expertly crafted arrangements brought me to tears. I wondered how it could get any better. In retrospect, it didn’t, but it got surprisingly good, like a delicious dessert tray after a perfect meal.
SUSTO, a band I’d had the pleasure of interviewing the week before was playing at the top of Saturdays schedule at the Mustang Stage. I had already fallen in love with their recordings and the story behind their birth, but hearing them live owned me. The soaring pedal steel sounds that were squeezed out of the lead guitar atop of a music bed that had no business being so good from guys so young would have been enough. But the well-crafted, honest lyrics sung by a voice that drove feelings into your chest like a scalpel, made perfect sense of the fact that lead singer, Justin Osborne, left college, only one paper and one exam away from a degree in Anthropology to pursue this life of music (see my full article on SUSTO in this issue).
I caught Jamestown Revival mid-harmony in a beautiful rendition of “Silver Wings” in honor of Merle Haggard. But I was compelled to leave them early in order to catch an act that had somehow flown under my radar previously. It turned out to be the deepest and most fulfilling show of my day. I walked back into the Mustang Stage as Madisen Ward, a young man in his mid-twenties/early thirties was mid song, singing in a soprano that would stop Aaron Neville in his tracks, only to have him follow it up with another song showcasing a rich and unique but mostly soulful baritone. Next to him was the “Mama Bear.” Everything this grandmother-esque woman did was masterfully done, gentle and seasoned by a soul practiced in the art of real life. You instantly loved every sound that dripped off of her guitar and voice. She was so comfortable in her own skin; I wanted to be in it myself. Backed by bass and drums that had as much feel and intuition as they did technique, the experience of Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear gave me something I didn’t even know I’d lost or hungered for. This roots blossomed alternative country/blues mother and son performance was an act of love. I felt at times that their music tenderly touched places in me I didn’t even know needed their healing gift’s attention. I would drive many many miles to be in the presence of this ensemble again.
Day three brought me to Amanda Shires, wife of Grammy winning Americana singer/songwriter, Jason Isbell. She left no doubt about what made Isbell fall in love with his new baby mama. Her voice was sweet perfection just like the amazing voice she gave to her violin. Her sweet nature was so organic, even in the way she spoke to her band as if we couldn’t hear everything she said, was endearing. Sadly, in the middle of an absolutely stellar performance of one of her last songs, the power went out. She sweetly and graciously promised to be back, unruffled or disturbed by the unfortunate event whatsoever. She’s a keeper.
I left Shires to see the child Phenom, Emisunshine, at the neighboring stage, realizing by the comments of the vendors along the way, that the power outage did not just affect the Palomino Stage where Shires was performing. Walking into the Mustang Stage, I found myself directly behind Emisunshine performing an acoustic set for an excited crowd pressed in all around her. Her young yet commanding voice soared over the crowd as they hung just as tightly to every note as they did their phones and cameras, forever capturing them. Photographers, including CV Weekly’s go to guys, Scott Pam and Chris Miller, were on the scene, expertly seizing the moment – Pam as Emisunshine’s personal photographer for the event, and Chris Miller for Goldenvoice. As the first song ended and the grateful astonished crowed cheered, Emi’s beyond-her-years eyes (like everything else about this 11 year old girl) immediately searched and locked onto her family member with information as to whether or not to return to the stage. Within seconds, she confidently turned back toward her audience and started into a second song, after which she returned to the stage. She delightfully segued into the rest of her performance with, “Can y’all hear me out there?” Songs that locked my knees were “I Am Able” – a song that could inspire the most down and out person you know, to get up off the couch and give it another go. Then there was a song (forgive me for not knowing or being able to find the title) where she sweetly sings a story of a man who didn’t quite experience the American dream like he was promised, along with other examples of folks who were disparaged. “But go ahead and buy your big house…” she sang at the chorus, with the gentle but deep conviction of a wise old woman sewing the truth into your heart. She left us all convinced that maybe we could do with a little less and do a little more for others, just before closing with a bad ass version of “Me and Bobby Magee.”
One thing was crystal clear to me this year; I am hungry for musical offerings that fill the holes and heal the battle scars, and I am not alone. This year, it wasn’t so much about the getting truck drunk and naked kind of country music. It was more of a collection of genuine hearts spinning some real positivity into a world that has been rocked by appalling attacks, and a political circus that has few confident that we are safe or that we’re heading in the right direction. We had a lot more salt of the earth on all the stages this year it semes, and I for one, am extremely encouraged and inspired.