Once more unto the breach, dear PopWatchers, once more did I go, and thus did I witness the final day of Stagecoach 2008, a.k.a. the final plastic cup-and-cigarette butt atrocity to be visited upon the Empire Polo Fields of Indio, Calif., for another year. Backpack slung tight upon my back, flip-flops protesting under my filthy feet, I strode the dusty grass one last time, feeling none of the reservation and/or maudlin need to reminisce that one might associate with, say, the end of summer camp. Instead, I mostly looked for ways to pass the time between sets so I could hear me some music and get the hell home.

This is not to say the second-annual Stagecoach wasn’t a success — in fact, for a sophomore effort (of any sort) it was damn near a triumph. The bands were good, the people were well-behaved, and by this morning the security team seemed to have finally worked out proper methods of lawn-chair corralling, which left those of us on the move with plenty of room to roam. A wide cross-section of country music was represented, if perhaps not as many of the alt- acts I found here last year. And if you like hearing bands play covers of the songs of other bands, there was no place you’d rather be than in the field with me on this ominously cloudy Sunday afternoon. How cloudy was it? There was a point at which I legitimately thought it might rain. Apocalypse… or apocalypse?

After the jump, Trace Adkins, Gretchen Wilson, Big & Rich (sort of), Jack Ingram, George Jones, Ralph Stanley, Carrie Underwood (pictured), and Tim McGraw close things out with — well, if not quite a “bang” (dammit, that pig has ruined it for everyone), then at least a very respectable set of performances. Slap your daddy and feed the kids a bone, we’re off to the races! Yee-haw!

I meant to roll in just as Trace Adkins’ set was beginning, but it was too chilly to swim in my hotel’s pool and I got bored. So I drove over to the festival with a good hour to spare and — after walking rapidly in the opposite direction from a man and woman wearing very aggressively sloganed Confederate flag T-shirts — decided to use the extra time to visit the barbecue cookoff. For $10 I got the chance to sample the pulled-pork/brisket/rib-tip wares of five different smokehouses, awarding a yellow ticket to my favorite (which shall remain confidential, mostly because I can’t find a site to link and it won’t mean a lick to any of you back home, but let’s just say the pork was sweet but not too fatty, soft but not wussy, and the spicy sauce had just the right kick). It was perhaps the best way I’ve killed an hour in weeks, even if it did leave me wishing for baby wipes and toothpicks, and feeling like I needed a very, very long nap. Note to self: Chew, then swallow.

No time! Trace Adkins– king of the hard-livin’ rednecks and Celebrity Apprentice losers, as acknowledged by the dude with the “HEY TRACE YOU’RE FIRED” sign– was swinging his tree-trunk arms across the stage, which made the middle-aged ladies in the crowd sweat up a storm. Seriously, I have it on good authority that someone’s mother finds Trace attractive, and the lady behind me just kept shrieking about how hot he is… to her husband. Me, I sort of started giggling the first time he thrust his crotch at my camera, and then I couldn’t stop, and had to get out of the pit lest he swat me with his ponytail. There’s something so wonderfully absurd about that dude, with his low, low voice and faux-dangerous “sexuality,” but at the same time, I sort of find myself addicted to his current single, “You’re Gonna Miss This,” mostly because it’s so sweetly out of character. Not that such things last forever: Once what he called “the wholesome portion of the show” was over, he happily moved on to women who love chrome, women who love country boys, and women with large rear ends, or whatever exactly a “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” is (besides ridiculous).

Shortly after Adkins finished, the ongoing charity auctions on the mainstage put up one of his signed guitars for the bidding. This apparently valuable item went for a whopping $18K to a lady with a daughter who seemed either hysterically in love with Trace or unable to comprehend the fact that her mother was dropping so much coin on a mid-tier country artist’s guitar; meanwhile, those of us in the photo pit who understand what it’s like to make $18K a year immediately started coming up with ways in which we might auction ourselves off to the VIP section, who clearly have more than enough expendable income to gas up their massive SUVs, purchase reserved folding chairs for a music festival, and bid willy-nilly on useless memorabilia.

As it turns out, this whole auction distraction was the most interesting thing that would happen at the mainstage for a while, as the Muzik Mafia hijacked the joint for two of (what I thought were) the least-exciting sets of the festival. Okay, well, one and a half. I’ll explain: First up was Gretchen Wilson, whose debut album was all kinds of ginormous and stayed in constant rotation on the Aunt Whittlz iPod for months and months, and whose subsequent two CDs I can only call “a disappointment.” But had Gretchen come out and played all old originals, I’m sure I would have walked away happy. Instead, she started with “Here for the Party,” “Homewrecker,” “One Bud Wiser”… then took a detour into new material. Her upcoming single, “Growin’ Up Down South,” is a nice enough track, but it’s all “yes sir, no ma’am,” whereas back in her redneck woman days she said “hey y’all” and “yee-haw.” I miss that chick. And I’m worried she thinks filling the back end of her set with note-for-note covers of Journey’s “Separate Ways” and Heart’s “Barracuda” is enough to keep us interested. For me, it wasn’t, even if the wind did pick up to blow her hair about in a very ’80s-appropriate fashion. No, all this cover block did for me was provide an opening here to comment on Rascal Flatts’ take on “Don’t Stop Believing” from last night, which, because I was all busy being positive, I didn’t get a chance to mention was horrific.

The photographers and I next clustered backstage awaiting the appearance of Big & Rich, and upon reaching the pit, we were greeted by Two Foot Fred, the band’s official pet sidekick, who is, in fact, two feet tall. (Somewhere, someone cries a silent tear for the late Joe C.) After wrapping their minds around Fred’s existence, the photo corps were next faced with the greatest mystery of all: Who is this enormous black man rapping at us, and why is his belt buckle so big? Yes, PopWatchers, the first twenty minutes of Big & Rich’s scheduled set time were occupied by waiting, a little person, and Cowboy Troy. Cowboy Troy, god bless him, did FIVE SONGS. I suppose it’s nice of B&R to give their prodigy (or whatever he is) a nice-sized slot to promo his upcoming album, Black in the Saddle (couldn’t make that up even if I tried), but for those of us who were scheduled to see Jack Ingram at 7:10, the ongoing clatter of Troy at 7:20 just wasn’t worth standing around for.

That’s a long way of saying, I left. And the closest I got to Big & Rich later in the evening was dropping by the back of the field to hear “8th of November” get dedicated to the men and women of the military, active or retired, and then hear “8th of November” get sung in what sounded to me like an awfully out of tune fashion. I also caught most of Big & Rich’s cover of “Fat Bottomed Girls,” though I missed their surely-genius take on “You Shook Me All Night Long.” I’m not sure if it’s clear yet, but I really, really do not “get” or “like” Big & Rich. Willman does, though, and I know he was there, so perhaps stay tuned for his thoughts on what I heard from numerous sources was actually a very entertaining spectacle. Me, I can’t take it for a second.

Therefore, YAY, Jack Ingram! If the thousand or so people who chose his set over B&R weren’t Texans, they’re honorary ones now. (I’ll even include the Confederate flag couple, who I spotted close to the front and who I assumed had also walked away from Cowboy Troy, though for different reasons than me.) To please the crowd, Ingram seemed content to work through most every track off This Is It, all of which read better live than they did on the album– even that unfortunate cover of Hinder’s “Lips of an Angel,” to which I embarrassingly may have sung along. But this ability to make songs shine in person isn’t news: Ingram was one of the hardest working live acts on the scene before he softened up a bit to make a splash on radio. Wearing a t-shirt that read “Piss off a politician: VOTE,” the gregarious, floppy-haired troubador confessed to loving the first season of The Bachelor, encouraged hugs, pointed out the gorgeous, cloud-enhanced sunset, and sprinkled a few well-worn faves here and there, with “Barbie Doll” and “Keep On Keepin’ On” both eliciting enough crowd participation to drown out the B&R rumblings across the way. He may not have blown the roof off the joint– as he pointed out, tents tend to have a lot of elasticity– but I hope he gained some new fans, who will now take the time to work backwards towards the heart of Texas music.

I wish I’d had more time to stay at both George Jones and Ralph Stanley next, but here were the set times I was dealt: George, 8:30. Ralph, 8:40. Carrie Underwood, 8:50. There is no way to navigate that (and the field) successfully, unless Big & Rich go like 20 minutes over their allotted time, which’ll create some breathing room. Still, I don’t know that I missed a lot at either of the legendary gentlemen’s stages: George came out looking more like a televangelist than ever and needed two teleprompters to keep “Why Baby Why” going; meanwhile, there were 53 people watching Dr. Ralph (by exact count), and the bluegrass legend was more or less just emceeing for the musicians around him. (Willman reports Stanley did sing later, and apologized for being hoarse.) Cannot honestly say that either of these experiences is going to really stick with me, which is a shame considering the impact those dudes had on the genre, and music in general. This, I suppose, is why we have the internet.

And then everything seemed to accelerate, as if in a dream, PopWatchers. I shuffled into the Carrie Underwood photo pit, I shot some hasty pictures in some awkward lighting, I shuffled out. Retreating to my usual spot down stage right, I sipped a tasty Bud Light and listened to the former Idol prove that Bucky Covington really did need to finish 8th or whatever, because that girl can sing. I do not know where in her body all that gutsy noise comes from, but as she belted her way through the hits– how did she get so many hits already?– I found myself totally in awe. Some have accused her of oversinging, but the way she pulled back on “So Small” revealed an artist in control, and I’ll take a solid, clear, loud tone over fancy runs and tweedle-dee-dee any day of the week. Her voice cracked but once– during the last of “I Know You Won’t”‘s six endings– and my only complaint was with her personal choice of cover: “Paradise City” is too predictable (plus Jason Aldean covered it at Stagecoach 07), and you’d think if it is in fact now mandatory to throw a karaoke number into the set, she’d at least have the decency to do “Alone.” Ah, but all was forgiven during “Before He Cheats,” for which the crowd happily joined in. Yep. We know the words to that one.

Last but certainly not least, Tim McGraw took the stage to close out the evening, and the weekend, and the fortnight. Not sure what he did for the first three songs, so busy was I trying to get a decent shot of his sleepy eyes from under his hat, but as I made one final lap of the field, I heard “Back When,” “Last Dollar” (complete with piped-in children, which has to be a nice sound for dad to hear on the road), “Where the Green Grass Grows” (which I realized tonight is structured identically to Sugarland’s “Baby Girl”), new single “Kristofferson,” and that all-important song-by-someone-else, Ryan Adams’ “When the Stars Go Blue” (granted, this was on a McGraw greatest hits album a while back, so it’s not as gratuitous). You’ll notice I am not saying very much about Mr. Faith Hill’s specific behavior this evening, but that’s because the dude just sort of sings. It’s a bit like listening to the radio. So certain was I that there would be nothing visual of note to come– and because I was okay with missing any sort of husband/wife antics one might have hung some long-shot hopes upon– I waited for the end of “Blue” and headed for my car. If I did miss a notable moment, I encourage you to post it in the comments below. Dear god, someone please post something. I’m so lonesome I could cry.

SHORTEST DENOUMENT EVER: As I unlocked the door of my now-filthy Accord, I caught a whiff of one last Tim McGraw song, and decided it would be the perfect paraphrase for the end of this blog. Over the course of these three days in the desert, I’ve seen a bunch of acts, a bunch of covers, a bunch of drunk people, a bunch of security rules that changed by the minute, and a bunch of things that confirmed my suspicion that country music and its hearty fanbase are going to save us all. And so, to sum up Stagecoach 2008: I liked it. At times I even loved it. I DO NOT, however, want some more of it. Good night, Indio!