As the alternative to the bigger, two-weekend all-genre gathering called Coachella, The Stagecoach Festival in Indio, California every April is supposed to give country music its turn on the famous Empire Polo Club grounds so as not be shaded out by the massive names of the pop, EDM, and hip-hop world. In 2019, the Stagecoach Festival still accomplished this to some extent, with important sets of music performed by artists from across the country music landscape. But the big story lines coming from the event were not dominated by the big country stars or important up-and-comers who performed on the weekend. The focus was on artists outside the genre, artists long past their relevance, and the performers who intentionally break the rules of country as opposed to attempting to honor them.
Every year, the Stagecoach Festival stirs controversy among traditional country fans by putting big, mainstream names such as Luke Bryan, Sam Hunt, and Jason Aldean (who all headlined in 2019) ahead of country legends and up-and-comers that the festival also puts on the bill. But this always misses the greater point of what makes Stagecoach so unique and important in the country music landscape. Unlike the other massive corporate country music festivals, Stagecoach actually still books legends and up-and-comers along with the major headliner names, while this is not the case for many other mainstream country events.
Even though the legends and up-and-comers on the Stagecoach lineup often appear on side stages, the cross pollination of the mainstream and independent / traditional and contemporary music realms can’t be a bad thing. It allows name recognition for important independent artists and older performers to spread when paired with the massive names of the mainstream. There will always be major pop country stars dominating mainstream country music, and that’s the reason their names receive the biggest font sizes on the festival posters. But the best performers of the past and from the independent realm should have a place at the table too, and they always have at Stagecoach.
But in 2019, some major setbacks occurred in this important balance that helps make Stagecoach the premier live event in country music every year. The Mustang Stage, which from the beginning of Stagecoach in 2007 has featured some of the greatest legends of country music was unceremoniously shelved in 2018, and along with it, that cool mix of country music old timers that helped give legitimacy to the Stagecoach lineup. Instead in 2019, what passed for country legends on the lineup were the washed-up Joe Diffie, Poison frontman Bret Michaels, Tom Jones, and the wife of Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson.
The undercard of up-and-comers still had quite a few cool names. Whitey Morgan, Charley Crockett, Aubrey Sellers, Dawn Landes, and Parker Millsap all made the 2019 Stagecoach lineup. But this year’s crop felt extra thin, while up-and-comers from the mainstream world encroached on these slots, including performers like Mitchell “Bitches” Tenpenny and Devin Dawson.
And of course none of these up-and-comers—independent or mainstream—were the people pulling the greatest ink from the press. Collaborations between artists like Ruby Boots and Nikki Lane weren’t what made headlines, nor was it even the big headlining sets by Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan. Instead the big buzz coming out of Stagecoach 2019 was how EDM performer Diplo stole the show, and disputed country trap star Lil Nas X played one song with Billy Ray Cyrus while Cyrus fake strummed an acoustic guitar.
2019 will go down as the year the Stagecoach Festival in Indio, California jumped the shark, and not because they wholesale changed the spirit of the event, though the passing of the Mustang Stage and lack of true legends in the lineup, and a weak list of independent country artists helped take a big step in that direction. It’s because they failed to understand the massive impact of small decisions that completely disrupted the spirit of Stagecoach as being the country alternative to Coachella.
After the full lineup for Stagecoach 2019 was announced, Diplo was later added as the entertainment for the inaugural after party dubbed “Stagecoach: Late Night in Palomino.” Why was an artist with no ties to country music receiving this important distinction when it could have gone to a country artist? Diplo was already one of the major performers at Coachella the two weekends prior. And even if you wanted to have a DJ specifically for the “afterparty” aspect of the event, country music has its own set of DJs who would have been more appropriate for a Stagecoach afterparty, from more mainstream-oriented guys like Dee Jay Silver, to the guys at Vinyl Ranch. But it was just an afterparty, so perhaps it wasn’t something to get too concerned about. Right before the fest, it was revealed that Diplo was working on a collaborative album with some country stars, which ultimately explained the reasoning behind the booking.
But far from an afterthought of the 2019 Stagecoach experience, Diplo stole the show and became the default headliner as the final performer at the 2019 Stagecoach Festival. He also performed with Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus who were late additions booked last minute to perform the smash hit “Old Town Road.” And when the media retreated to their trailers and hotel rooms to write about the 2019 Stagecoach Festival, it was these three performers who they put first and harped on the most, shading out all the other performers and performances from the weekend.
One bullet point being made by much of the media was that Diplo and Lil Nas X brought relevancy to Stagecoach 2019. But country music does not covet being relevant to the greater music realm, it covets being relevant to country music. Unlike hip-hop and pop, country music isn’t out for world domination, it’s out to preserve the legacy that has carried its sounds and stories across generations of performers and fans. In a popularity contest with hip-hop or pop music, country music will always lose. But that’s okay, because country music is not looking for massive popularity. It’s looking to allow the traditions of country music to persevere into the future, and as long as this happens, country music will never be torn asunder. Infusing country music with supposed “relevant” sounds or artists isn’t what will keep country music pertinent to the music world, its what risks undermining country by eroding away what makes it unique and special as an artistic expression.
The saying “jumped the shark” makes reference to when something sells out its long-term viability for short-term attention. Undoubtedly, bringing Diplo and Lil Nas X to Stagecoach in 2019 brought extra attention to the event in 2019. But there is a reason that the last two records from Billy Ray Cyrus sold 800 copies and 300 copies respectively—numbers that would easily be bested by many of the independent artists who appeared on Stagecoach’s side stages. It’s because the wide popularity of Billy Ray’s super hit “Achy Breaky Heart” soon turned into a wide realization at the lack of long-term viability in the song, and Billy Ray Cyrus at large, relegating him to a punchline and a meme for generations.
Stagecoach still stands as an important institution in country music. But it must ask itself, does it want to persevere like the legacy of the many legends it booked over the years, artists like Loretta Lynn, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Dwight Yoakam that it has now turned its back on? Or does it want to chase relevancy, only to find it as fleeting as the legacy of Billy Ray Cyrus, Lil Nas X, and the craze of calling EDM music country? Diplo and viral sensations such as Lil Nas X already have their festival on the Empire Polo Grounds in Indio, and it’s much bigger, and twice as long. Hip-hop is the most dominant music genre in all of music, and not just in the here and now, but that popular music has ever seen, even to the point of encroaching into country music. Hip-hop and EDM artists don’t need to garner attention from the country crowd, they have plenty of it already. It’s the women of country, and the traditionalists who are hurting for attention.
Let country music do its own thing, and not be allowed to be overshadowed by the next overnight sensation. And keep Stagecoach as one of the few events in the annual country music calendar where all the disparate elements of country can come together in celebration of the music in all of its styles, facets, and eras, not encroached on by carpetbaggers and opportunists.