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Pop music review: Stagecoach takes country fans for a ride

The two-day festival in Indio largely relegates the more authentic country artists to smaller venues while more formulaic purveyors like Kenny Chesney and Rascal Flatts command center stage.

May 02, 2011|By Randy Lewis, Los Angeles Times
  • Headliner Kenny Chesney performs on the Mane Stage at the Stagecoach Festival.
Headliner Kenny Chesney performs on the Mane Stage at the Stagecoach Festival. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

A college logic professor I once had liked to use a TV commercial for Country Time lemonade as a case study in the way savvy marketing people can create an illusion of authenticity with the right choice of words and images. The same idea, it turns out, can be applied to the musicians at the fifth annual Stagecoach country music festival over the weekend in Indio.

In the ad, a white-haired grandpa in suspenders and a casual, open-collared shirt sat in his rocking chair on the back porch of an old house watching young children frolic on the lawn on a hot summer day. To the rescue comes a smiling mom holding a tray with glasses of ice-cold Country Time, a concoction of powdered chemicals and whatnot with little or no actual lemon juice.

Somewhere along the line, country music turned into artificial lemonade, an imitation of the real thing being marketed and sold with carefully deployed catchphrases and stock imagery. Not all country music, mind you, but the strain that dominates the sales charts, country radio playlists and the Mane Stage at Stagecoach, where the vast majority of fans hung out during the two-day festival.

There was Saturday's headliner, Kenny Chesney, singing his hit "Big Star" about the small-town girl with dreams of her name in lights, and in "I Go Back," reminiscing about sitting in the kitchen eating fried chicken on a Sunday. The bulk of the rest of his set was dedicated to virtual nonstop escapism through lightweight hits such as "Beer in Mexico."

Darius Rucker also makes the most of his newfound role as dedicated husband and father in "It Won't Be This Way Long" and "Forever Road," living a life in which rarely is heard a discouraging word. Sunday's headliner, Rascal Flatts, has built a career on insular material like "Bless the Broken Road," "My Wish" and "Here Comes Goodbye" that cater to a target demographic by exploiting stereotypes over fresh observations drawn from real lives.

Carrie Underwood tries for substance but often lets the power of her pipes overwhelm the emotional tone of a song, as she does in the shattering climax of "Small." She does, however, bring some individuality and character in a tune such as "Jesus Take the Wheel" that helps compensate for the calculation of the don't-get-mad-get-even genre where "Before He Cheats" lives.

It was all too present in the music of the newer acts being groomed for mainstream success, from Stealing Angels and Chris Young on Saturday to Easton Corbin on Sunday with his culturally jingoistic breakthrough hit "A Little More Country Than That." An exception to the trend was Sunday's Mane Stage opener, the Harters, a family trio out of Phoenix showing promise both in the songs they write and their tight sibling harmonies.

Listen to songs with references to dirt roads, fishing holes, pickup trucks and girls named Peggy Sue or Betty Lou, and you're hearing the work of writers whose favorite beverage is probably Country Time. The genre's true artists have rarely spent quality time crowing about how country they are; instead, they look long and hard at the struggles, and the joys, life presents and draw insights that can light the way for others who are on the same path.

Fortunately, the diverse Stagecoach lineup had a good representation from that camp on its smaller second and third stages, Kris Kristofferson being the shining beacon of authenticity, dragging a trunk filled with some of the most literate, erudite, funny and heart-rending songs ever written.

"I wish my voice were a little better," the 74-year-old singer-songwriter-actor said by way of apology during his set on Saturday, a late addition to the Stagecoach lineup after Loretta Lynn had to cancel following recent knee surgery. Kristofferson's gravelly voice was even grittier than usual, and his performance was marked by several coughs as he attempted possibly to clear the desert dust whipped up by strong winds. Then he added with a smile, "But it never was any good," a reality check in keeping with the tenor of songs he's written over the last half-century.

L.A. singer-songwriter David Serby opened Saturday with a set of acoustic folk songs attentive to the hardships working people face in tough economic times, a shift from the electric honky-tonk music that has defined his sound until now. "You'll hear plenty of rock 'n' roll later today, trust me," he told the small but enthusiastic crowd that arrived early enough to hear him.

There was nothing remotely generic in the hair-raising performance by Junior Brown, who weds death-defying technique on his "guit steel" hybrid of a standard electric guitar with a steel guitar with witty slices of life, such as the droll cautionary tale to speeding drivers in his "Highway Patrol."

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