How Stagecoach went from fliers in feed stores to one of the world's biggest country music festivals

With a handful of increasingly successful mega-events under their belts, the organizers of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio got the idea to spin off a country counterpart, the gathering that became the Stagecoach Country Music Festival.

The challenge, however, was that music was largely outside the wheelhouse of the folks at Goldenvoice, the promoter behind the rock, pop and dance music-leaning Coachella.

"We had no idea who the audience would be, or how to sell it," said Goldenvoice chief Paul Tollett, seated outside the trailer that acted as his base of operations during the second and final weekend of the Coachella festival.

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"We were putting up fliers in feed stores, Boot Barn stores, places that sell farm equipment," he said with a smile. "Once we saw who the audience was, we realized we just should have been putting them up on college campuses."

That was in 2007, when the inaugural Stagecoach festival was headlined by acts that had established their careers in the 1980s and 1990s, including George Strait, Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson and Brooks & Dunn. In that first year, attendance totaled about 27,500 a day over two days. Scoring the Eagles the following year, Stagecoach expanded to three days and pulled in about 40,000 a day. In 2012, the festival sold out in advance for the first time.

For this year's event, a new generation of performers has emerged. Topping the 2016 lineup for the 10th edition of Stagecoach, which gets underway Friday at the Empire Polo Club, the big guns are Eric Church, Carrie Underwood and Luke Bryan.

As of Tuesday, Stagecoach is officially a sellout, with attendance capped at 75,000 a day, up slightly from last year's figure of 72,000.

For Stacy Vee, Goldenvoice's director of festival talent who books Stagecoach each year while Tollett focuses on Coachella, the 10th edition of Stagecoach feels a lot like a school graduation commencement.

"This is pretty much our biggest year ever," she said. "Luke has worked his way up through the festival to headliner status. He played in 2008 and was second on the bill and has now come back four times. Eric was the first artist who opened the main stage at that first year, and to have him back for the 10-year anniversary is a big moment for us. The same with Carrie. They're all part of the fabric of this festival."

In all, 63 acts are slated this on Stagecoach's three main performance stages. That's well fewer than half of the 170 acts for each of Coachella's two weekends. But Stagecoach is handily the best-attended and highest-grossing country music festival in the world, according to Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar, the concert industry-tracking publication.

Last year, Stagecoach grossed $21.9 million, making it the third-highest grossing festival of any kind in the world, behind only Coachella ($84.3 million) and Outside Lands in San Francisco ($24.3 million).

One element that distinguishes Stagecoach from many other country music gatherings is the breadth of the lasso Vee throws in booking both veteran as well as up-and-coming country, Americana and even classic rock performers.

Along with the platinum-selling headliners, this year's bill includes such critical favorites as Emmylou Harris (back for the first time since she played the inaugural Stagecoach), her frequent collaborator Rodney Crowell, revered Texas singer-songwriters Robert Earl Keen and Billy Joe Shaver, tradition-minded singer Lee Ann Womack, dobro master Jerry Douglas and his bluegrass conglomeration the Earls of Leicester (a loose salute to Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs), and rising L.A. country singer-songwriter Sam Outlaw.

Vee said one way she discovers rising acts to bring to Stagecoach is by visiting the annual Country Music Assn. Festival in Nashville, which typically boasts a bevy of baby acts along with the heaviest hitters among current country stars. "I went out there last year and kind of went on a shopping spree," she said. "I picked up a few of this year's acts that way."

She's also brought in Chris Stapleton, the sole act this year to play both Stagecoach and Coachella, something she and Tollett typically try to do as a bridge between the two events.

"That was booked back in September, well before his CMA performance," she said, referencing the breakout appearance at the CMA Awards show with Justin Timberlake that helped catapult Stapleton to stardom.

"We love his album and tried to get him last year, but the timing didn't work out," she said. "We've featured him prominently on the poster, right next to John Fogerty. Even in September, we knew he was a rising star, but things have really just exploded for him. We had so much fun with him on stage at Coachella. It's fun to get to spend nearly a month with him."

On the classic rock front, this year's bill includes Creedence Clearwater Revival founder and frontman John Fogerty and the Doobie Brothers. The inclusion of such acts, which in recent years have included "American Pie" singer Don McLean and former Animals lead singer Eric Burdon, Vee said, "was just an experiment that has worked, plain and simple."

"Two years ago, when we had Lynyrd Skynyrd playing in the Palomino tent, we were taking a chance," she said. "We had no idea how successful it might be. But Paul and I loved the idea, the staff loved it. Walking over that night from the main stage I was shoulder to shoulder with people who were coming to the tent to see them.

"Those tents are magical," she said of the Palomino and Mustang stages, where more of the fringe acts and country and bluegrass veterans play. "They're something we pour our hearts into and care so much about. It's so wonderful to see people learning about new music and learning about old music in those tents."

Generally, however, she said there's no single road to assembling the balance of acts that appear each year at Stagecoach.

"We don't necessarily set out to meet a quota for any given genre," she said. Nor does she tend to give special consideration to acts from Southern California, although the region generally is well-represented at Stagecoach each year.

"We take it year by year, see what inspires us and go after who we can't stop listening to."

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