Miranda Lambert performs Saturday on the Mane Stage at the Stagecoach Country… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)
INDIO — The Stagecoach Country Music Festival moved into its seventh edition this weekend, and even though that's young by festival standards, Stagecoach has become enough of a cultural force that participants and fans are beginning to use it as a yardstick on their lives, like penciled growth marks scribbled on a family's kitchen wall.
Acts that once were low in the ranks have sprouted up to the top of the heap, some elder members of the musical family have passed on, a few estranged relatives have returned to the fold, and new blood is welcomed into the mix with each succeeding year.
Jason Aldean and Miranda Lambert, the respective headliners of the Friday and Saturday bills, both remarked from the stage on the upward shift in their careers since they played earlier editions of Stagecoach. By comparison, Brad Paisley, who put out his first album in 1999, practically represented the old guard in making his second headlining Stagecoach appearance Sunday.
"I can't believe I'm playing last tonight," Lambert said Saturday as she gazed across a sold-out crowd on the second of Stagecoach's three nights. "This is crazy!" In a first for the event, 55,000 three-day-weekend passes sold out months in advance.
Likewise, Aldean was just another name on the undercard when he played the first Stagecoach festival in 2006, well before he had scored the biggest-selling country album of the year — a feat he achieved in 2011 with his fourth album, "My Kinda Party," which has elevated him to top-dog status as he now regularly sells out arenas and amphitheaters around the country.
"To come back here a few years later and go from opener to headliner of the show is pretty cool, especially the first night when you know everybody's excited to get it going," said Aldean, 35, stretching out in the back of a tour bus parked next to the Mane Stage a couple of hours before he was to go on Friday night.
Humility and congeniality largely ruled the weekend.
"It's such an honor to be here," Sheryl Crow said in her set Sunday evening that preceded Paisley's festival-closing appearance, which took place after press deadline. "I've got a lot of nerve following Martina McBride."
Crow's set unleashed the weekend's biggest impromptu group line dance session drawing in a couple of hundred fans near the stage.
Like a responsible and loving newly emergent matriarch, Lambert on Saturday shared the spotlight with others, giving portions of her set over to her other group, the wonderfully catty Pistol Annies, and she was joined by "The Voice's" recently eliminated 17-year-old country upstart RaeLynn on one number.
Blake Shelton, playing immediately ahead of bride Lambert, capitalized on his newfound fame from his role on NBC's "The Voice" and longtime onstage persona as a bad boy of country. He's a delightful loose cannon in an over-scripted world who's not truly threatening, and country fans love that he publicly displays not only his love but also his respect — and just the right amount of fear — for the Pistol he married last year.
Elsewhere across the grounds of the Empire Polo Club, a crop of up-and-comers took the spots that Aldean and Lambert once held on their way up.
Texas singer and songwriter Sunny Sweeney lived up to her name temperamentally and meteorologically in her Mane Stage set in the bright desert sun on Saturday afternoon, drawing on a small handful of initial hits that have helped her establish a foothold in the country community, a day after rising Illinois singer Brett Eldredge showed off dollops of Midwestern soul at times reminiscent of John Hiatt.
Two reunions brought cult-favorite bands — the Mavericks and the Unforgiven — back to life, the Mavericks using their time on stage Saturday not just to revisit the past but to bring up the curtain on a career phase by including a handful of songs from an album slated to arrive in September.
The boundary-bending Mavericks' reunion performance was as effervescent as fans of its '90s incarnation might have hoped. With plenty of support from five touring members along with the core quartet, singer Raul Malo once again demonstrated his remarkably evocative voice as the band coursed seamlessly through Bakersfield twang, Texas honky-tonk, Austin Tex-Mex and pan-Latin dance textures.
Country stalwarts from the '70s and '80s including Alabama and Kenny Rogers reconnected with old fans and stood in front of others who hadn't even been born when they were regularly visiting the top of the country charts.
Alabama deserves credit, or blame, for popularizing the trend in country to proclaim one's country cred in song after song more concerned with where life happened than what happened or why.