Listen for any length of time to mainstream country radio and it's easy to conclude that the genre has become a one-dimensional realm of singers with little on their minds but when the next party starts.
"Country music is all about good times," proclaimed a deejay at one Southland radio station over the weekend in touting the annual Stagecoach Country Music Festival in Indio.
The restorative aspect, therefore, of a gathering as smartly curated as Stagecoach is that it serves as a reminder of the breadth and depth of topics still being explored with intelligence, sincerity and insight beyond the radio airwaves, from the deepest yearnings for love to the anguish of the broken-hearted to, yes, the joys that life can offer in its happiest moments.
The lineup for the 10th edition of Stagecoach assembled a characteristically broad expanse of country in all its forms, including the mass appeal hits of headliners Luke Bryan, Carrie Underwood and Eric Church, the connoisseur singer-songwriter camp inhabited by Emmylou Harris, Billy Joe Shaver, Robert Earl Keen and Rodney Crowell, and scintillating new arrivals such as Chris Stapleton, Rainey Qualley, Luke Bell and Leroy Powell. They played to a sellout crowd, Stagecoach officials said, with attendance at 75,000 per day.
As has been the case in recent years, there was room also for a few classic-rock acts, this year's slate topped by former Creedence Clearwater Revival lead singer, guitarist and songwriter John Fogerty along with the Marshall Tucker Band and the Doobie Brothers.
The tacit message at Stagecoach is that musical gold is still out there for those who seek it.
For those solely interested in kicking up their Tony Lama'd heels, Bryan came armed with a wagon load of feel-good hits from his 2007 breakthrough ode to over-imbibing, "All My Friends Say," and 2013's self-explanatory "Crash My Party" through his recent amorous duet with Karen Fairchild "Kill the Lights."
Underwood ratcheted up the musical and literal pyrotechnics on Saturday with song after song that danced across the fine line between empowerment and retribution and kept her titanium pipes cranked to 11.
The keepers of mainstream country have relied on a reductionist approach to the music that relies heavily on a template of '70s and '80s arena rock — full of gigantic beats and sung-to-the-rafters choruses, periodically folding in R&B and hip-hop-inspired programmed beats.
Yet the sonically jam-packed sound misses opportunities like Nashville-based avant-bluegrass trio ChessBoxer capitalized on early Sunday, tapping gently plucked fiddle and banjo and bowed upright bass that rendered a mournful melody deeply moving.
Across the grounds, a full slate of varied strains of country could be heard, from old-school honky-tonk and vintage-sounding string band workouts to Eagles- and Flying Burrito Brothers-inspired country rock¸ progressive Americana and heavily pop-leaning sounds.
Stapleton brought an unusually multifaceted performance to his set on the Mane Stage, which normally is heavy on high-energy uptempo anthems. But as he showed on last year's richly varied "Traveller" album, Stapleton isn't interested in pushing the obvious emotional buttons, and he unhurriedly worked through blues and country-folk confessional songs before turning in another stunning vocal performance on "Tennessee Whiskey," the Dean Dillon-Linda Hargrove song that introduced him to legions of country fans via his duet with Justin Timberlake at last fall's CMA Awards telecast.
Freshman country star Sam Hunt exploited his amalgam of catchy country and throbbing hip-hop beats on Friday in a set that also included a guest appearance by rapper Snoop Dogg. That moment was the real-life equivalent of a sponsored social media post, as Hunt, Snoop and fellow guests G-Eazy and Bebe Rexha helped one of the festival's beer sponsors promoting its product onstage during the segment.
Whatever divide may exist between music as artistic expression and as a sales marketing tool vanished in that moment.
On the other hand, for those interested in musical nuance, literate lyrics and a broad palette of subject material, they simply needed to visit the smaller Palomino and Mustang stages over the weekend.
A troika of Texas singer-songwriters — Shaver, Keen and Crowell — collectively delivered a master class in intelligent songwriting during their respective sets.
Take this cinematic scene from Keen's "Gringo Honeymoon," sketched with the economy of a poet and the painterly touch of a novelist:
"Met a cowboy who said that he / was running from the D.E.A. / He left his home his wife and family / when he made his getaway. / We followed him on down a street at dusk/ to his one-room rundown shack. / He blew a smoke ring and he smiled at us / I ain't ever goin back."
It's light years beyond the pedestrian level of, say, Florida Georgia Line's current hit, "Confession," in which the duo sings: "I'm rolling through the open wide / Searching for a song to drink beer to / And trying to find a place to disappear to."
Contrast that with Shaver's illuminating writing in "Old Five and Dimers Like Me," which demonstrates why one of country's greatest vocalists, Waylon Jennings, devoted an entire album to his brilliantly evocative songs: "I've spent a lifetime making up my mind to be / More than the measure of what I thought others could see / Good luck and fast bucks are too far and too few between / For Cadillac buyers and old five and dimers like me."
Harris similarly brought the exploratory spirit and unyielding intelligence and vocal beauty that have marked her music for more than four decades, perhaps best expressed on Friday when she sang "Orphan Girl": "I am an orphan on God's highway / But I'll share my troubles if you go my way."
Fogerty brought his Fort Knox-worthy trove of rock hits to an overflowing crowd at the Palomino tent on Saturday, showing that celebratory music can go hand-in-hand with thoughtful lyrics in rave-ups such as "Fortunate Son," "Lookin' Out My Back Door," "Green River," "Bad Moon Rising" and "Who'll Stop the Rain."
His set was that much more rewarding because he and his band took their collective foot off the gas pedal that had over-accelerated many of his signature songs when they played the Hollywood Bowl last year, giving his expertly crafted compositions the rhythmic room they need to fully come to life.
Stagecoach also brought opportunities for discovery among the many supporting acts over the three days.
This year's crop included the engaging instrumental and vocal interplay from Redlands musician Powell's Whiskey Wolves of the West, Wyoming-bred singer-songwriter Bell's old-school country-rock, St. Louis spark plug Pokey LaFarge and his band's invigorating mariachi-klezmer-western swing, and musician-actress Qualley's neo-country soul that made her sound a bit like Adele's American little sister.
Just as the final weekend of the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival turned into a posthumous salute to Prince a week earlier, Stagecoach had no shortage of musical tributes on the heels of the death in March of one of country's greatest singers and songwriters, Merle Haggard.
Church, of course, included his 2006 ode "Pledge Allegiance to the Hag," and elsewhere Crowell offered "Sing Me Back Home," Mo Pitney also brought an original, "I Met Merle Haggard Today," the Malpass Brothers essayed "Workin' Man Blues" and rocker Dale Watson chose "Here in Frisco" among several others.