By Whitney Pastorek
May 08, 2007 at 08:16 AM EDT

Well, my PopWatch darlings, if you missed the first annual Stagecoach Country Music Festival, you missed something pretty damn special. As my co-worker and two-weekend festival buddy Chris Willman already pointed out, the organizers of Coachella proved that they can take the same diversity and depth they bring to programming their alternative music fest each year and apply it to the country and western genre. Your Aunt Whittlz was there for all of it, and I’ve dragged my sunburned, hay-fevered, whooped-out carcass back to a computer to recap it all for you. Sorry I didn’t get this up earlier today; it’s possible my brain has melted just a smidge.

Since Willman already gave you a sense of the general environment, I’ll mostly use my space after the jump to run through the performances — many of which I watched from inside the photo pit, where I was close enough to see the sparkle in George Strait’s eyes (pictured). I’ll also try and fail to keep this as succinct as possible… so if picture’s worth a thousand words, why not check out the hundred or so shots I just slapped up on our Flickr page?

addCredit(“George Strait: Whitney Pastorek”)

How You Know You’re At Stagecoach, Not Coachella, Reason No. 1: The trance dome is now the “Half-Pint Hootenanny”… and by “pint,” they don’t mean beer.

Heading back out to Indio for the second week in a row proved to be a whole cowpile of surreal, PopWatchers, and if Coachella is a prison on outdoor lockdown, Stagecoach is a community theater production of Oklahoma! that exploded. The stop-the-war booths were gone, replaced by bluegrass tutorials; the Gobi tent now contained a mechanical bull. As I walked through the gates, the giant metal rocking horses that had seemed so sinister the weekend before were now being scaled by entire families for picture opportunities. (“It’s amazing how many people don’t know how to get on a horse,” said a woman next to me as she watched a pack of children struggle to climb the eight-foot tall sculpture.) 

And I don’t want you Coachella devotees to be mad, but it looks like the organizers don’t trust you quite as much as they trust the country fans. How else to explain the fact that beer was allowed to travel outside the beer gardens? According to the security guard I spoke to, the decision had to do with the “type of crowd.” I’m not sure what that means, except that somehow the organizers managed to put together an excellent country music festival without ever noticing that every single lyric is inherently about booze. Sure, us honky-tonkers are less likely to set stuff on fire than your average Rage Against the Machine fan, but that don’t mean we can hold our liquor, either… and when we get drunk, we want to be somebody.

My first stop on the first day was the Old 97’s at the Palomino stage, where Rhett Miller’s rampant cuteness almost distracted me from songs like “Won’t Be Home” and “West Texas Teardrop.” Meanwhile, on the Mainstage — excuse me — MANE Stage, Jason Michael Carroll was using his preternatural baritone to crank through his current radio smash, “Alyssa Lies.” “The first time you heard that song, how many of y’all thought I was a lot older than I am?” the 28 year old asked of the sad little story song about an abused girl. I don’t know how old I thought he was, but I’m not sure I would have guessed he looked like the lost Hanson.

Up next on the big stage was the lady power of Jamie O’Neal, tossing out an early Mother’s Day dedication of “Somebody’s Hero” to the moms in the crowd and leading a chick-heavy singalong of “You’re No Good” that was mostly notable for getting one or two of the already-nested crowd out of their lawn chairs. This would be a persistent problem throughout the weekend, and several acts became a bit exasperated by the lackadaisical crowd energy. (“We can’t hear you, California!” yelled Miranda Lambert, repeatedly, to no avail.) You see, someone made the bizarre decision to sell assigned-seating lawn chairs to rich people, and stick them right down front, so every mainstage act until the sun went down played to a 50-yard half-moon diameter of virtually empty folding chairs. The situation would only get weirder when security started corralling the rich people who wanted to stand up close and forcing them to the sides of the stage, because the rich people who wanted to sit were complaining they couldn’t see. I am not rich, but I would pay handsomely to see Rage Against the Machine fans react to that.

The first afternoon wore on with the new-breed sound of self-proclaimed sinner Eric Church — watch this space for a Q&A, PopWatchers! — who backed up his claims of being raised by “pot-smoking hippie parents” by playing a terrific cover of The Band’s “Ophelia.” Our girl Miranda followed that with “Up On Cripple Creek”, plus a fun rendition of Creedence’s “Travelin’ Band.” By this point in the day, the beer had started to work: I saw a wobbly woman actually throw a lit cigarette about 15 feet into the crowd, so excited was she to sing the “little bitch!” line of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” (Perhaps the Rage fans would have been down with Miranda after all.) Before she closed out with “Kerosene,” my favorite daughter of private investigators looked down at the front few rows and bellowed, “You people paid a lot of money for those seats — you better stand up!” That’s my girl.

Thinking it would be a nice, calming place to take a breath and eat some dinner while the sun went down, I headed over to Lucinda Williams, only to discover Lucinda was crabby, too, and after a lovely “Out of Touch” and an even lovelier “…Broken Guitar Strings,” she started growling, and I started wishing whoever took her joy would please, please give it back. She was followed by Willie Nelson, back for weekend  No. 2, whose set seemed similar to what I’d heard at Coachella, only played to a far more appreciative crowd. As Willman pointed out, the people who got off their asses and made the trip to the smaller stages were treated to some pretty special stuff: Willie laid down a cover of “Me and Bobby McGee” that his pal Kris Kristofferson would match the next day, and as the breeze picked up, tiny kids chased runaway straw hats across the wide, empty expanses of grass. I’ll admit it: Unlike Coachella, which makes me never want to breed, Stagecoach made me wish, just a little, that I had a five-year-old to dance with. Repeat that to anyone and I’ll call you a liar.

Heading into the headliner block, the breeze became a full-on wind, forcing the mainstage crew to rip down the giant Toyota Tundra ads draping the proscenium, and causing the lighting grid to sway and creak like a ship’s rig. But all thoughts of imminent death-by-crushing-jumbotron left my mind as soon as Alan Jackson’s countdown clock started and the man himself took the stage with “Gone Country” and never looked back. He coasted through the hits — “Summertime Blues,” “Livin’ on Love,” “Remember When,” and “Chattahoochee” — and just as I was flashing back to Western Night at summer camp, the big screens lit up with a summer camp video montage of their own: An intrepid member of the Jackson crew had shot footage all over Palm Springs and Indio during the day, and edited it to accompany “Where I Come From.” Signs! Churches! Firemen! Girls shotgunning beer! A truck decal showing Calvin peeing on the words “Bin Laden”! All the things that make America great flashed before our eyes, ending on shots of soldiers and the American flag, which caused the crowd to let out the biggest cheer of the day. (How You Know You’re At Stagecoach, Not Coachella, Reason No. 2: See above.)

This spectacle would be hard for George Strait to top, but see, George Strait doesn’t have to top anything, because he is George Strait, a.k.a. the only man I would leave my non-existent husband for. Thus was he able to stand behind a microphone, play whatever the hell he wanted, damn the hits, and do it for two whole hours without missing a note — no pyrotechnics necessary. I sang my little lungs out to “Amarillo By Morning” and cheered the Ace in the Hole Band, and after a lifetime of seeing George as a tiny little dot on the Astrodome’s rodeo floor, the simple fact that I didn’t pass out when he looked right at me in the photo pit and asked me to check yes or no should really count for a lot. (I guess Neko Case and I have something in common.) So it pains me to criticize the man for playing too much new stuff, and too many deep album cuts, and skipping hits like “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” and “Blue Clear Sky” and, come on now, “Fool-Hearted Memory,” but at the same time, George just sort of puts you into a trance. By the time he closed out with an encore that included a cover of “Folsom Prison Blues” and ended, appropriately, with “The Cowboy Rides Away,” I drifted on a sleepy Texas dust cloud all the way home.

Day Two! No time to dally! (Jeez, this is turning out long. I’m so sorry. A lot happened! I’m just doing my job here! If you’re still reading, I have just bought you an imaginary pony!) I was up n’ at ’em to check out Carolyn Dawn Johnson, whose Canadian song stylings I mostly enjoyed from an I-can’t-believe-I-am-still-in-this-field perspective, and then my buddy Jason Aldean and his drumstick-licking boys took the stage for what I believe to be the most successful set, per capita, of the entire festival. “You always know a true country fan when they’re sitting in 90-degree weather, sweating their ass off,” he said — but for once, the folks weren’t sitting! They were dancing! Sure, it’s one thing to be Kenny Chesney and have the crowd frothing at the mouth come nighttime, but for Jason — who features a sort of roguish, cocky charm — to have as many people on their feet as he did at 3 p.m. was a major triumph. (The Guns N’ Roses medley he’s still doing doesn’t hurt.) The 16-year-old girl in the front row professing her love for him may have been kicked out by grumpy middle-aged rich women, but wherever she ended up in the crowd, I’m certain she was hollering along with everyone else when time came for “Hicktown.” So yay for you, Jason Aldean.

Unfortunately for Pat Green, once he let the crowd’s enthusiasm flag a little for the sway of “Dixie Lullaby,” it wasn’t so easy to pick it back up again. He started off strong, with a tossed-off “How you doin’, baby?” all it took to have the chicks screaming, but by the time he got to “Wave on Wave,” he started and then stopped. “I didn’t drag my ass all the way from Texas to see y’all give me that for the biggest hit I ever had!” he grumbled, before going on a rant about how he opens for Kenny Chesney, the number one country tour in the country, thus making him the number one opening-opening-opening act in the country… ah, I won’t go on, cause it’ll make Pat sound like a jerk. I’m fairly certain he was kidding about all of it, except the “GET YOUR ASSES UP” part, which needed to be said. The crowd complied, and was rewarded with little snippets of U2’s “With or Without You” for their trouble.

I left that scene and headed over to alt-land, opting for the crooning of Marty Stuart over whatever it is Gary Allan planned to do, and plopped down in the hay barn for as long as I could, catching “Tempted,” “In the Pines,” and “Long Black Veil,” the vay-ee-yay-ee-yail stretched out as only Marty Stuart could stretch it. I then itched over to Kris Kristofferson and elbowed my way into the photo pit, which was bursting with photogs all there to score what one woman called “the Kristofferson obit shot,” but for my money, that dude looks like he could live another 30 years, easy– he took the stage alone, nothing but his guitar and harmonica rack, and held the small crowd captive despite turning in easily the most politically-charged set of the weekend. In between classics like “Darby’s Castle” and “Best of All Possible Worlds,” he dedicated “Shipwrecked in the 80’s” to “all the veterans of the Iraq war who are opposed to the Iraq war,” and introduced “In the News,” a pretty angry anti-Dubya number whose refrains of “not in my name” and “I want nothing but the ending of the war” actually received a decent-sized round of applause. I shall not use this space to make sweeping generalizations about the kinds of people who get up out of their lawn chair to see a music legend as opposed to people who stay plopped in the same spot all day.

And now came a tough decision: Sugarland or Emmylou Harris? I managed to do a little of both, staying for Jennifer Nettles & Co. until I realized they were doing essentially the same set I saw at the rodeo in March and then picking my way across the chair-strewn field to Emmylou, who greeted me almost immediately with an “Orphan Girl” so sweet Gillian Welch would have just passed right out. And yet the persistent sound-bleed problems interfered here, too, and once I heard the irresistible strains of “Baby Girl” from across the way, I headed back within earshot for that and “Something More.” I find that J.Net to be absolutely infectious, PopWatchers. Is there a more joyful person in music today? (Answer: Yes, Kristian Bush, her band partner and the luckiest sucker on the planet.) Back to Emmylou for George Jones’ “Beneath Still Waters” and a terrific a cappella turn on “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby,” during which I felt the cool evening air and the persistent lullaby start to make my sleepy eyes droop, so I picked up and headed over for the final night’s main event.

Not much more to go here, PopWatchers, for the simple reason that Brooks & Dunn started things off by playing “Ain’t Nothin’ ‘Bout You,” “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” “Neon Moon,” “Rock My World (Little Country Girl)” and “My Maria” back to back to back, after which your Aunt Whittlz checked out for a little bit. I’d already told someone if they did “Neon Moon” I was likely to cry, and so there may or may not have been a series of teardrops on the slice of pizza I was sitting and eating all alone when that song began. If my Coachella moment came during Arcade Fire, then my Stagecoach moment was rooted firmly in those five songs, five songs that span a lot of emotional ground in my life. I’ll save the rest of that nonsense for my memoirs, but I will say that had the night ended right then and there I would have wiped away my tears and left happy. Thank God they kept playing, though — otherwise, who else would have treated us to “Only In America,” complete with real live saluting Marines on stage AND confetti cannons?!? Ooh, Alan Jackson: I think you and your video just got served.

Round about here, all hell broke loose. The incidental music changed to the Black Eyed Peas’ “Let’s Get It Started,” the old people in the fancy seats started looking very concerned, the security staff at the front of the stage started hitting on hot chicks in the front row (and having success!), and someone let a very intoxicated girl into the photo pit, where she wrapped her arm around the neck of one of my more uptight-looking colleagues and yelled, “You ready to have a good time???” All of these things, combined with the rum ad up on the jumbotron, were a pretty clear indication we were on the cusp of a Kenny Chesney show.

I’ve never seen a longer walkup to a concert in my life: dudes with air guns shooting t-shirts into the crowd, testimonial video featuring Sammy Hagar, recording of “You Shook Me All Night Long,” and then finally, finally the man himself appeared, King of the Bahamas, with his pirate guitar and testicularly-unfriendly jeans. And wonder of wonders, his first song was “Beer in Mexico,” which was not only one of the two Kenny Chesney songs I was sure I knew and liked going into this, but also my own predetermined safe word for the night, meaning I was now free to go the hell home. Call me lazy if you want, but I wasn’t so sure I wanted to hang around to drink and drive with my fellow Stagecoach somebodies (who’d started literally and figuratively tearing the VIP fence down). Plus, the packs of shirtless, hairless young men in jeans, cowboy hats, and pukka-shell necklaces roaming the property were becoming genuinely alarming. I joined the parade of families walking to the exits, and got about halfway to my car when I heard “Living in Fast Forward,” song No. 2 of the knowing/liking, thus making me quite sure I’d made the right decision. I was, as they say, all Stagecoached out.

And lemme see… yes! Once again, I have no real conclusions to be drawn! Except that I can’t wait for next year! Also, next year I need to bring someone to two-step with and show these California ninnies how it’s done. (It’s not swing dancing, people.) Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this, and will come back tomorrow for that Eric Church Q&A, and will let me know if any of you were there and had a special, transcendent moment of your own. I’m getting choked up just thinking about “Neon Moon” again. Ah, country music. How desperately I tried to get away from you in my teens, and how frighteningly good you are at bringing it all back.