By Chris Willman
Updated May 07, 2007 at 12:00 PM EDT
Credit: Chris Willman

Miranda Lambert (pictured) was sitting in a folding chair outside her tour bus, taking in the idyllic scene that was this past weekend’s Stagecoach Festival in Indio, California. She’d just had a couple of drinks after coming off a rousing main stage set, and was ready to wander the bus zone, mingle with old friends, and make some new ones. “It’s paradise for me,” she told us, “because I like mainstream and I love Lucinda Williams and Robert Earl Keen and Emmylou Harris. It’s the first festival I’ve been to, as far as country festivals go, that really crosses genres. It takes guts to come up with something like this and actually try it. Stagecoach is cool because it bridges the gap. It doesn’t have to be country or Americana or bluegrass, it’s just all good music.”

Lambert is turning into a bit of a poster girl for the cause of uniting fans from different rootsy corners. If you read EW regularly, you know Lambert is as close to an officially staff-designated favorite as we get, but we’re not the only magazine that loves her; she just showed up on the cover of No Depression. “Which is so cool to me,” she said. “Love that! My guys and I were just freaking out. It’s an awesome magazine.” This was a milestone, actually, the first time that No Depression has deigned to so endorse a current mainstream country hitmaker. That publication’s editors take a slight risk by giving her their imprimatur; the mag usually covers alt-country, Americana, and even more left-of-center subgenres, and in the rare instances when they profile an actual contemporary hitmaker who’s signed to a Nashville label (even one with clearly definable roots leanings, like Dierks Bentley), they get hostile letters from overly hip readers who think they’ve sold out. But Lambert’s newly released second album, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, is so good — with its mixture of honky-tonk, intimate singer/songwriter balladry, and ballsy rock, it’s got something for just about everybody — she just has to be a uniter, not a divider.

But maybe these divides aren’t so easily bridged. Stagecoach was a brave, brilliant idea, with one of the most fantastic lineups any music festival has ever boasted, and it was a success on most of the imaginable levels. But it really ended up being two different festivals, proceeding on parallel tracks. Of the estimated 30,000 attendees who showed up both days, it’s probably to safe to say that at least 27,000 were there only to see the mainstream superstars on the main stage: Alan Jackson and George Strait one night, and Brooks & Dunn and Kenny Chesney the next. Most of these guys’ fans planted their chairs and blankets early on that vast field and never left except for beer runs. There were three other stages, meanwhile, one devoted to Americana and alt-country, one to bluegrass, and one to cowboy or Western music… each of these brilliantly programmed lineups drawing audiences of about 150-500 at a time, with a few notable exceptions. And it’s not clear how many of the hipsters who populated these side areas ever wandered over to see the big-name Nashvillians. Chesney fanatics were never forced to take in Earl Scruggs, Neko Case, or Drive-By Truckers against their will, and a lot of the cool types who might’ve gravitated toward an Americana festival that featured only the critically acclaimed acts probably just stayed home, maybe fearful of having to rub tattoos with guys shouting “Git ‘er done!” So to the question of “Can’t we all just get along?,” we’d have to say the jury is still out.

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In 2005, I wrote a book that addressed some of these issues, called Rednecks and Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music,dealing with the divides between the mainstream country audience (whichis generally perceived as musically and culturally conservative) andalt-country (which tends to swing the other way). I had some friendswho told me the musicians and audiences in these two camps were toodisparite to even belong in the same book. But I was heartened when Italked to people like veteran journalist Chet Flippo, a former Texan and New Yorker who wrote for Rolling Stonein the ’70s and now works at CMT. Flippo believes these divides areartificial, and I quoted him in my book saying this: “There’s a hugeamount of overlap in country music audiences. It’s always seemed to methat the notion of country music Balkanization — that there is one hugemonolithic mainstream country audience and one small alt-countryaudience — has been propagated by mainstream radio, some music critics,and music snobs. There are overlapping circles of country fans andartists and alt-country fans and artists, and that’s always been thecase. Kinky Friedman was alt-country in 1975 — but no such term existedthen, so he was just considered a failed mainstream artist.” (I lovethat.) “But he still found his audience, which included some mainstreamfans. That is still the case with artists and audiences today. I knowmany country fans who would be considered mainstream because they likeToby Keith or Sara Evans, but they’re also listening to Outlaw Radio onSirius and turning on to what are considered alt-country artists. It’sa matter of what people are exposed to. Mainstream radio is still themain country delivery system, although satellite radio and TV aremaking dramatic inroads. The impact of downloads on country is stillbeing assessed.”

Good points, all — but the setup at Stagecoach allowed for fairlyeasy segregation. A lot of people who’d been camped out for the mainstage came over to the alternative stage to see old-timers WillieNelson, Emmylou Harris, and Kris Kristofferson, and went into thebluegrass tent for Nickel Creek. And I saw some suspiciously punkysorts headed over to the big field for Lambert, Alan Jackson, and GaryAllan. Even without race-mixing — er, I mean, genre-mixing — everyonethere had the time of their lives in their respective camps, far as Icould tell. Still, it was easy to dream of a lineup that mixed thingsup a little more between stages and stretched people’s boundaries justa little. I can tell you that if organizers put some of the topbluegrass-oriented acts (Nickel Creek, Ricky Skaggs, Earl Scruggs, DelMcCoury) or veteran cred artists (namely, Emmylou) on the main stage asan apertif before the stadium-sized headliners, that mass audiencewouldn’t have balked at the excellence set before them. And puttingsome mid-level mainsteam acts on the side stages might’ve gotten thebigger part of the audience used to, you know, walking. (At theCoachella Festival the weekend before, it would’ve been unthinkablethat anyone would stay in one spot for very long, but Stagecoach,unlike Coachella, allows chairs and blankets, which turned out to be ahindrance to audience adventurousness.)

Early in the festival, Lambert was taking the hopeful view with me.”I think it’s different sets of audiences than you could be in front ofat any other venue,” she said Saturday, “because people that go seeLucinda are probably not gonna go see me, unless they just happen tohear me and like it. But I think there’s a way to be cool andmainstream. To me, Dwight Yoakam [who wasn’t booked at Stagecoach] isthe perfect example.” But she confessed to her own nervousness aboutwhat the implications of this labeling might mean. “When I first made Kerosene,and then this album, too, whenever people that I thought were reallycool said ‘We love your album,’ I was like, oh gosh, cool people thinkmy album is good, so it’s not gonna be mainstream. It seemed likethere’s hardly anyone that goes between.”

The easiest thing to do might seem to be to admit that mainstreamcountry and Americana are distinctly different forms of music thatinherently attract different kinds of fans. Except my fellow PopWatchblogger Whitney Pastorek and I are living proof that Chet Flippo isn’tjust blowing smoke, and that it is not just possible but, foranyone who really loves the art of popular songwriting, inevitable tolove at least a little bit of both ends of the spectrum. And some ofthe songs are literally the same, with mainsteam acts so oftenborrowing the most commercial tunes their alternative brethren have tooffer. (Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood made a joke of this when hisstage patter was getting drowned out by Brooks & Dunn: “Maybe thoseguys over there will cover this one and get [fellow Trucker] Cooley aCadillac.”) You have to believe it’s true when Lambert says: “People,especially in mainstream country, don’t put enough faith in theiraudience, saying, ‘This is what our listeners want to hear, this iswhat the country audience is. Period, the end.’ And it’s not true,because I’m a mainstream country fan, and I love off-the-beaten-pathstuff like Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer and Robert Earl Keen. Theyunderestimate their audience, and this is a place that’s a test of it.”But it’s also true that the other side, feeling marginalized, is justas incapable of even considering that Strait, Jackson, Sara Evans, andB&D, while not quite fitting the definition of “album artists,”have recorded some of the greatest singles in any genre in the last 20years.

This festival could only have taken place in California because wehave a tradition of hippieish country-rock that I think still lingersin the collective memory. That was represented at Stagecoach by ChrisHillman, of the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, and Richie Furay, ofBuffalo Springfield and Poco — and both of them formerly of theSouther-Hillman-Furay Band — doing nostalgic conjoining sets. Arguably,it could have happened in Texas, which also has a stubborn independentstreak when it comes to genre-mixing. But I wonder if it’s telling thatWillie Nelson, who’s brought rock and country acts together for hisFourth of July picnic in Texas every year since the 1970s, is movingthe event to Washington state this year. In my book, Steve Earlerecalled, “There was a moment in Texas, when Rodney Crowell and I cameup, that Texas wasn’t the place it was now. Rednecks and hippiesstarted going to the same gigs. And I stopped getting my ass kicked allof a sudden! I remember hitchhiking to see Willie, and some guy in alimo, who worked for some oil company, picked me up. He was going, too,so he took me. It was just this moment — a window that opened up, andthen closed.”

Well, as long as Willie is still around, that window isn’tcompletely closed. God bless the Stagecoach organizers for believingthat different camps could not just put up with each other but indulgein some sort of collective embrace for a weekend. Segregated asStagecoach felt, it also felt like an enormous potential force for goodin the overall musical landscape.

Of course, it’s easy for the alt folks to feel drowned out —symboically and, at Stagecoach, quite literally. Nearly every act thatplayed the secondary outdoor stage commented on the blare from thelarger adjacent one that made it hard for artists and fans alike toconcentrate on the often quieter sounds at hand. Some had a good humorabout it. “You get two shows for the price of one!” said EmmylouHarris. Some of the comments were a little more barbed: “Pull up closeand we’ll try to play louder than whatever that is over there. We’rethe antidote,” barked the Truckers’ Patterson Hood. And then there wasNeko Case, who made a running joke of it her entire set, with songintros like, “George Strait is doing a sad one… This is a sad one.We’re gonna do a tandem stereo bum-out with George over there.”

“George Strait’s got it goin’ on,” announced Case’s backup singer.

“Get in line,” retorted Case.

“Get in line behind my grandma!”

“My grandma will fistfight you to make out with George Strait!”

“That’s all right,” said Case’s backup singer. “I’ll take sloppy seconds from your grandma.”

At that moment, it became clear what can really unite rednecks andbluenecks: George Strait’s overwhelming studliness. But what will do itfor the guys? Miranda Lambert’s? Miranda, you have a mandate to bring adivided nation of roots music lovers together again… by any sexymeans necessary.