The 2023 Stagecoach Music Festival: “Now That’s What I Call Country…ish”

By Bruce Fessier


producer would be hard-pressed to find 15 uniform acts at Stagecoach for a recording of “Now That’s What I Call Country.”

The three-day Indio festival is still called Stagecoach: California’s Country Music Festival. But the April event featured more than 70 acts from as far away as Norway playing music that is becoming more difficult to define by neo-traditional country standards.

Stagecoach has always been eclectic. Since its 2007 launch, Stagecoach has featured bluegrass pioneers, ’70s outlaws, country rock progenitors, Grand Ol’ Opry icons, cowpunks, and country-leaning pop stars. Rock has long been part of the Stagecoach mix.

But, except for 2008, when Stagecoach added a special day for the opportunity to feature the Eagles and John Fogerty, the headline slots have always been filled by modern country artists.

That changed this year when Chris Stapleton advanced from the 2016 Palomino tent to the Mane Stage. The Black Crowes played there in 2022, but only as a support act. Not even past Palomino stars Lynyrd Skynyrd, Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson have earned Mane Stage headline slots.

Stapleton delivered by upstaging another Mane-stay, Brooks & Dunn, the iconic, Grammy Award-winning Nashville duo making its third appearance in a Mane Stage supporting slot.

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Jon Pardi

Mane Stage artist Jon Pardi was surprised on the opening night of Stagecoach when Guy Fieri, host of the festival’s Guy Fieri Smokehouse cooking demonstrations, directed Pardi to a video of Country Music Hall of Famer Alan Jackson officially inviting him.

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The bearded, long-haired Kentucky native did it with a soulful, guitar-driven sound sans big production numbers. In 2016, Goldenvoice producers Stacy Vee and Paul Tollett recognized Stapleton’s distinction from Nashville artists by booking him in both Stagecoach and Coachella. I noted he showed his “outlaw roots.” But his introspective vocals and jams are now embraced by Nashville and rock pundits, who trace his lineage to the rootsy Americana sound Bob Dylan pioneered with The Band outside of the neon limelight of the psychedelic summer of 1967. His solos are more functional than redundantly extended and his band’s interplay is dynamic.

Stapleton launched the Southern rock anthem, “Free Bird,” with the makings of a Stagecoach moment. But, instead of employing Lynyrd Skynyrd-type guitar histrionics, he kept it real by segueing into “The Devil Named Music” with its contrasting lyrics, “I miss my son/ I miss my wife/ But the devil named music is taking my life.”

More than 50,000 people sang spontaneously to Stapleton’s fourth tune, another long, lonesome road song titled, “Starting Over.” He followed the show biz tradition of saving his biggest hit, “Tennessee Whiskey,” for last, but he seemingly got there without contrived bells and whistles.

That complemented the other Mane Stage headline sets by Kane Brown and Luke Bryan.

Luke Bryan, who debuted on the 2008 Mane Stage as an afternoon precursor to Taylor Swift, Dierks Bentley, The Judds and Rascal Flatts, represented Nashville’s modern country mainstream. His celebration of the neo-tradition included “Huntin’, Fishin’ and Lovin’ Every Day,” and “Drunk On You,” his first hit to cross over to the Billboard Hot 100. As an “American Idol” judge, few country artists are more mainstream than Bryan. The former business major from Georgia Southern University brought 12 “American Idol” finalists to the Stagecoach artists village and provided a lesson on how to work a crowd. He opened with the sentimental “I Don’t Want This Night To End” (10 hours after the festival began in brutal heat) and wove “Sunrise, Sunburn, Sunset” into a narrative that seemed fashioned for this festival.

The biracial Kane Brown talked about how remarkable it was for a guy with his background to make the Mane Stage. His father has been incarcerated since 1996 and Brown grew up moving around the South while listening to country and R&B. His first song, “Lose It,” features a traditional country fiddle while subsequent songs revealed contemporary R&B influences. He also threw in snippets of songs as varied as “Needed Me” by Rihanna, “Simple Man” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Redneck Woman” by Gretchen Wilson and “Friends in Low Places” by Garth Brooks.

The Mane Stage opening acts also were integrated with Palomino-type artists. Elle King, who played the big tent in 2017, appeared Friday on the Mane Stage in a lime green pant suit while holding her son, Lucky Levi. She preceded her 2015 pop-rock hit, “Ex’s & Ohs,” with the alternative “Chain Smokin’, Hard Drinkin’ Woman,” but seemed more traditionally joyful with songs like “Tulsa” and “Down the Mountain.”

Morgan Wade, nominated for Americana Music Honors & Awards Emerging Act of the Year in 2022, was another Mane Stage evening act that would have been relegated to the Palomino five years ago. Heavily tattooed and wearing mountain boots instead of cowboy boots, Wade covered the ’80s hits, “I Don’t Want To Lose Your Love Tonight” and “Jessie’s Girl,” but finished with “Wilder Days,” her song about falling for an older man.

Up-and-coming artists were given early afternoon slots on the Mane Stage in front of general admission crowds in a VIP area, and Warren Zeiders, 23, used that opportunity to shine. An alternative act being touted by the Warner Bros. team that predicted Zach Bryan’s success in 2022, Zeider only sang three songs in his 100th show ever. But he strutted the stage in all-black attire with the confidence of a seasoned veteran. The rocking “Ride the Lightning” indicated he’ll be back for a longer set on the Mane Stage in the next few years.

Impromptu Line Dancing Class Photo by KM Morgan

Sierra Ferrell Photo by KM Morgan

49 Winchester Photo by KM Morgan

Sierra Ferrell Photo by KM Morgan

One Palomino act that should have been on the Mane Stage was Tyler Childers, who won the Americana Music Honors & Awards Emerging Artist of Year in 2018. Childers’ crowd ballooned farther outside of the tent than any artist I can recall, including legends like Gregg Allman and Smokey Robinson. And the outsiders looking in still sang along to his material.

Canadian pop rocker Bryan Adams generated the loudest Palomino response. He entered to great fanfare, singing “Kick Ass” like a repressed ’70s rock star. But the crowd just wanted to sing along to his sentimental ’80s and ’90s hits, like “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You,” “It’s Only Love,” “Back To You,” and “Summer of ’69.” The response was so voluminous, Adams stopped twice to take videos of the crowd. He began his 2022 single, “So Happy It Hurts,” with two minutes left in his allotted time and kept on going. He finally ended with a solo rendition of “Straight From the Heart” with some fans living his every word.

The good news for those devotees is, Adams returns to the desert July 28 at the Acrisure Arena in Thousand Palms with Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. It’s one of the few times Goldenvoice has waved its radius clause and the fact that it’s for a venue associated with its main booking rival, Live Nation, is noteworthy.

Other top Palomino acts included Melissa Etheridge and ZZ Top, playing back-to-back. Etheridge played a longer, more revealing set last year at the McCallum Theatre for a female-dominated crowd. In her first Stagecoach appearance, the queer icon had to ask to hear the women. But she dazzled the eclectic crowd with her energy, singing an all-hit six-song set that ended with an extended jam on “Like the Way I Do.”

Melissa Etheridge Photos by KM Morgan

ZZ Top, returning to the Palomino after a triumphant 2105 show, delivered a strong set of hits featuring the late Dusty Hill’s guitar tech, Elwood Francis, filling in on bass and backing vocals. Group leader Billy Gibbons, a desert resident or visitor since the 1970s, sings lead on most ZZ Top hits, so the only big song missing from the set was “Tush,” which featured Hill on lead vocals. A rendition of the country standard, “Sixteen Tons,” more than made up for that. On “Sharp Dressed Man,” an MTV classic inspired by “Stardust” composer Hoagy Carmichael, who was once Gibbons’ Palm Springs neighbor, Gibbons humorously turned over his guitar to show it saying, “Beer.”

ZZ Top Photos by KM Morgan

Other festival highlights included:

Flamin’ Groovies, a San Francisco garage-rock band that formed in the ‘60s, gained traction in the ‘70s and sounded better in 2023.

Sammy Kershaw, a 40-year country star who brought back memories of George Jones (who he opened for at age 14) by singing Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Kershaw recalled how rock music didn’t go over well in honky-tonks in 1972, so he’d listen to it on his car radio. He then played Eric Clapton’s “Lay Down Sally” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Gimme Three Steps” to an audience that now loves ’70s rock.

Keb Mo, a neo-bluesman in the 1990s who now seems like an authentic old blues guy at age 71. I’m just sorry he didn’t sing “Dangerous Mood,” the minor hit he wrote with Palm Springs songwriter Candy Parton.

Nikki Lane, a 2015 and 2017 festival returnee whose most recent album, “Denim & Diamonds,” was produced by Palm Desert native Josh Homme with his Queens of the Stone Age band members. She mixed plenty of sass into her engaging set, but I would have loved to have seen Homme sit in on the album’s title track for her finale.

Embla and the Karidotters, a band from Bergen, Norway, that played the tiny Horseshoe Stage in the Nikki Lane Stage Stop Marketplace. Embla, a hilariously cornball singer-guitarist, wore a baseball cap from a Landers (Missouri) merchant that said “Cowboy Hat.”

Mary Chapin Carpenter, one of the most acclaimed vocalists of the 1990s, who sang several sublime ’90s hits, starting with her 1993 rendition of Lucinda Williams’ “Passionate Kisses.”

Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives, featuring banjo legend Earl Scruggs’ grandson, Chris Scruggs, on bass. This amazingly proficient band covered material by Woody Guthrie, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, and the fiddlers’ national anthem “Orange Blossom Special,” featuring Stuart on mandolin. Stuart, once Johnny Cash’s lead guitarist, even led a Dick Dale-styled surf instrumental. He also sang compelling material inspired by this desert, including the finale, “Time Don’t Wait,” which is now my theme song.

I cannot wait for the May 19 release of Stuart’s next cosmic desert Americana album, “Altitude.” It could be a soundtrack for climbing boulders in Joshua Tree National Park.

Sammy Kershaw

Sammy Kershaw and Crowd Photos by KM Morgan

Sammy Kershaw

Gabby Barrett Photo by KM Morgan

Mary Chapin Carpenter Photos by KM Morgan

Marty Stuart

Marty Stuart, seen at center in his traditional Nudie suit, performed on the Palomino stage with members of his Fabulous Superlatives band, including guitarist Kenny Vaughn at left and bassist Chris Scruggs at right. Photo by Bruce Fessier

Bruce Fessier has covered every Stagecoach festival since its 2007 beginning. Contact him at and follow him at and

American Aquarium Photo by KM Morgan

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