I stayed for all of Rascal Flatts last night, PopWatchers, and I blame the Judds (pictured). Reuniting at Stagecoach– for the first time in my gosh, has it been 17 years?– the mother/daughter team doused the field in a healthy dose of love and affirmation, transforming all us beer-and-sun-soaked wretches into a blubbering wad of earthy sensitivity and putting me so in touch with my inner nice person that I actually felt guilty for sitting out two mid-set Flatts songs in order to say goodbye to some friends who were leaving early. Granted, I’d also built last night’s RF show up for myself as a little mental Stagecoach obstacle to overcome, a personal challenge rooted in a foundation of critical dedication, genuine curiosity, and the suspicion that, no matter what they did, I could not possibly give them a worse review than I did last time.

And hey, guess what? I don’t even have to try. Perhaps this is a sign that the desert is winning, or that all the dust has finally traveled the short distance from my lungs to my brain, but holy hair product, PopWatchers, I thought Rascal Flatts put on a relatively watchable show (for Rascal Flatts) last night. It was hardly the best set of a day that encompassed the true width and breadth of what country music has to offer, but it didn’t send me screaming down the streets of Palm Springs, either. So let’s save those sparkly men for the end (where they belong, chronologically), and talk about the rest: Luke Bryan, Riders in the Sky, Ryan Bingham, Bucky Covington, Taylor Swift, Cross Canadian Ragweed, Dierks Bentley, The Judds, and Earl Scruggs, after the jump. Come on along! It’ll be more fun than a junkyard dog in a prom dress!

addCredit(“Naomi and Wynonna Judd; John Shearer/”)

Let’s start with a two-pack of young men from opposite ends of the same spectrum: Luke Bryan is a clean-cut Georgian who had a big year in 2007 with “All My Friends Say” and hit the main (er, “Mane”) stage to get a little honky-tonk action started. Ryan Bingham is a scruffy Texan and former rodeo rider who peered out from under his wide-brimmed cowboy hat and announced he’d be playing the rock n’ roll. The latter definitely hews closer to my tastes– his wrecked voice and insistent guitar reminiscent of the Drive-By Truckers School of Music That Makes Whitney Want To Drink Lots Of Whiskey– but Bryan’s already proven to be a radio winner, which tends to be how these things work themselves out.

Of course, neither could compete with the act operating on the stage in between them: Opry favorites Riders in the Sky, who dress up in garish Western wear, sing old cowboy songs, and perform a defiantly ancient brand of comedy that weaves itself in and around the music with a skill and alacrity not found in the younger generation. (Sample line, apropos of nothing: “If this were a logical world, men would ride side-saddle.”) Since I don’t get to the Opry all that often, I’ll admit to being completely charmed by their yodeling, “good clean family face playin’,” and overall level of showmanship. Also, they played “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky”– which I assume is some sort of contractual obligation– and those yippie yi yays still work, people, over 50 years later. That’s effective songwriting.

Speaking of effective songwriting, that transition has nothing to do with Bucky Covington. From the time I got to the photo pit until the time I left, there was a pack of women stationed as close as physically possible to the stage shrieking, “BUCK-YYYYYYYYY!!” and trying to explain to the security guard exactly why it was important for them to be allowed over the barricades. (Let it be said that these women were all old enough to know better.) Having forgotten Bucky has a twin, I spent a little time watching said twin set up bongos while wondering why Bucky couldn’t hire someone to do that for him, and when the proper Mr. Covington did emerge, I was saddened to discover that his voice is still just not all that exciting, though his stage presence is much improved. (It appears Chad Kroeger has been putting out a line of instructional videos.) Despite all that Idol fame, the kid is still lacking the material to fill a 50 minute set; thus did we come to Bucky Covington’s Happy Fun Time Classic Rock Hour, in which we were treated to covers of “Suspicious Minds” (making me regret missing Dwight Yoakam’s set two weeks in a row even more than I already did), “Fortunate Son” (his strongest performance of the day, though, hey, wasn’t John Fogerty, like, just here?), and “Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2” (this field is cursed).

Probably the best thing I can say about Bucky is he ate up all my snark so I could better appreciate tiny young phenom Taylor Swift, who took the stage in a flirty, sequined sundress and– despite some sound issues that made her voice sound reed-thin– generally succeeded if you consider that, at age 19, she was able to captivate the capacity crowd by just sitting on a stool and singing a song. I think she’d much prefer to pull moves from the Jennifer Nettles Handbook (and toss her hair a lot), but the kid’s a good little writer, and because of that talent, I choose to forgive her for “Teardrops On My Guitar.” Still, I rushed away as fast as my faithful feet would carry me to the raucous Southern sounds of Cross Canadian Ragweed, who played the loudest set I’ve heard in the desert this year, Coachella included, and needed only one verse of “Cold Hearted Woman” to make me forget that I ever knew about Drew and how he is just so fun-nee.

Ragweed led right into their brother-in-arms, budding superstar Dierks Bentley, who’s become something of a regular round these here PopWatch parts, and as usual, he turned in a set worthy of my ongoing hype. The officially certified Bud Light Real Man of Genius took the stage for magic hour, backed by his usual group of either “savagely attractive” or “violently beautiful” musicians (depending on which band member you ask), and when confronted with the lawn chair armies before him, made it his personal mission to get them on their feet. (This was a marked contrast to the reported behavior of Shelby Lynne on Friday, who apparently pitched something of a fit and started cursing out the empty VIP seats down front.) Emerging from under Rascal Flatts’ special ramp platform thingy, Dierks covered every available inch of stage surface while jumping, running, and tripping his way through my Show of the Day™, and though the folks down front got the lion’s share of his attention– including one ecstatic teenage girl who was hauled up on stage to dance with Dierks during “Come a Little Closer” and soon found herself standing alone with the mic, leading the crowd in a singalong as the band snuck off stage behind her– the rail-thin singer spent plenty of time extending his lithe, nearly-emaciated* body out towards the back of the field, using the skills he’s picked up over years of tireless touring to make everyone feel included. And sure enough, by the time he summoned his “little white tank top army” for “What Was I Thinkin’,” the field was en fuego with hats waving, girls jiggling, and Bentley’s Stagecoach revival complete.

Already thrilled enough for one evening, it seemed impossible that I would now get to see the Judds, whose sound helped define my years growing up in Texas perhaps even more than I realized. “Have Mercy,” “Rockin’ With the Rhythm of the Rain,” “Give a Little Love”– I’ve osmosed them all, it seems. After taking 17 years to kick Hepatitis C, Naomi needed a hand getting out on stage, but was soon merrily twirling her party dress back and forth (get this woman on Dancing with the Stars, stat), while daughter Wynonna held down the fort at a mic stand, reminding us what a miracle it was that Naomi could join her yet again. (“Do you think they realy get along that well?” a woman behind me asked her companion. “No,” the other woman replied. “It’s a lie.”) Most of their saucy-yet-inspirational banter pushed at the edges of what I’ll accept outside of an episode of Oprah— “Don’t ever give up on your dreams,” Wy encouraged in her best “sister-mother” tone of voice, “And let your mom get her own bus”– but when a full thirty percent of your songs have the word “love” in them, I guess it’s inevitable you’ll pick up a certain amount of accompanying fruity dialogue. So we all stood there, remembering our spirit save for one awkward moment where Wy instructed Taylor Swift to “get a good lawyer and save your money” (bitter or wise?), and let the sound of these women wash over us. Naomi took a break for a quick Wy solo set that started with the powerful redhead forming a one-woman gospel choir for Foreigner’s “I Wanna Know What Love Is” and ended in a big ol’ group belt of “No One Else on Earth”; then they brought it home with “Young Love,” “Mama He’s Crazy,” “Why Not Me,” “Grandpa,” and an encore of “Love Can Build a Bridge.” Man do I ever miss the ’80s.

“God bless us, every one,” Naomi said in parting. “No exceptions.” This was a sentiment I decided to carry with me into the last set of the night, and thanks to a quick stop in the tent where Earl Scruggs– the 84 year old “father of the five-string banjo”– was jangling in front of a worshipful crowd, I found myself rested and ready for what was to come. But picking my way across the lawn-chair-strewn field in the half-dark to the sounds of a “Billy Jean”/”Don’t Stop Believing”/”You Give Love a Bad Name” mashup, I felt the terror rising in my throat: What if I hated Rascal Flatts again? Could I be honest about it? Would another 600 commenters show up to call me an alcoholic man-hater? Oh, how to proceed?!?

Well, let’s make it short and sweet, and focus on the positive. The quick-moving festival structure is not suited to large productions, so the Flatts were forced to leave many of their flashpots and high-def video screens at home. This meant the show was marginally more about the music than usual. And the good news on that front was that Gary LeVox appeared to not be sick for a change, and though he still makes constipated faces– and has never met a note he can’t melisma to death– he projected hits like “Me and My Gang,” “My Wish,” and a snippet of “I Melt” in strong, intelligible fashion. And finally, the songs I actually like– “What Hurts the Most,” “Broken Road,” “Stand” (or as the dude behind me called it, “Motherf—ing STAND!!!!!“)– made me realize just how lucky I am to be alive, or something. Of course, upon hearing the opening notes of that infernal “Life is a Highway” cover, I fled to my car. I can only be so professional, people. And I was pretty bummed that my dream of the Flatts boarding an inflatable pig-hoisted gondola to soar over the audience didn’t come true.

That’s it! Whew, yesterday maybe could have been broken into two posts. I’m wiped. Think I’ll take a quick dip in the pool before giving myself a nice St. Crispin’s Day speech and heading out for Trace Adkins around 4. Tonight, Carrie Underwood and Tim McGraw will be closing out my sixth and final day on the Indio polo fields– won’t you check back in tomorrow to read all about it? Then we can get you out of my grimy pocket until Bonnaroo. I think the fresh air will do you some good.

(*totally a joke; do not contact the authorities)