Megan Kirpatrick of San Diego holds an American flag as she dances during… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)
INDIO — Just a few hours into the annual three-day country-music jamboree Stagecoach, Nashville veteran Connie Smith introduced what she described as "one of my favorite country-gospel songs."
The small but attentive Friday afternoon crowd listened as she sang "Peace in the Valley," a song popularized in the '50s by Red Foley. She struck a tone of steadfast piety as she declared, "There'll be no sadness, no sorrow, no trouble I see."
The line felt like a bulwark against the gloom that might've settled in at the Stagecoach Country Music Festival after the death Friday morning of the great country singer George Jones. His influence looms large over virtually every one of the 48 acts — from Lady Antebellum to Dwight Yoakam to the moonlighting actors Jeff Bridges and John C. Reilly — scheduled to perform through Sunday across the festival's three large stages at the Empire Polo Club.
But Smith's defense wasn't necessary: By the time afternoon turned into evening, it was clear that the tens of thousands of country fans here had come not to mourn but to party.
"Anyone drinking besides me?" Toby Keith asked during his main-stage headlining set, and the crowd's lusty response carried no trace of sadness or sorrow.
As for trouble, there may have been some.
Stagecoach has long enjoyed a reputation as the lower-key counterpart to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival — which earlier this month brought a huge roster of rock, dance and hip-hop acts to the same sun-scorched desert setting. Fans here, who paid at least $239 for a three-day pass to the event, skew older than those at Coachella and prefer cowboy hats over hippie headbands. They're also perceived to be Bud Light drinkers, judging by L.A. concert promotion firm Goldenvoice's choice of official festival beer; at Coachella it was Heineken.
But now in its seventh edition, the country music festival feels considerably rowdier than its hipper cousin, with louder carousing and a higher-profile security presence.
Less than halfway through the festival Saturday, 53 arrests had been made by late afternoon for various drug- and alcohol-related offenses, according to Benjamin Guitron of the Indio Police Department. Last weekend, Coachella had a total of 80 arrests. In 2012, 171 arrests took place at Stagecoach's one weekend — the same number as both weekends of Coachella combined.
In what appeared to be an attempt to tamp down any potential trouble, Goldenvoice (which also puts on Coachella), instituted new guidelines this year for Stagecoach. Camping in tents and cars is forbidden on club grounds, and attendees planning to sleep in recreational vehicles were asked to write a short essay describing why they'd like a spot.
Yet that unruly streak at Stagecoach isn't just a product of the crowd. It's also palpable among the performers — especially compared with the nostalgic, often dull exercises of Coachella's headliners, which included the Stone Roses and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Five minutes into his show Friday night, Hank Williams Jr. abruptly broke from his set list and told his band he wanted to play "Keep the Change," a pugnacious bit of libertarian invective in which he wonders, "United Socialist States of America / How do you like that name?"
Keith happily pushed political buttons too, as when he brought onstage a group of servicemen — whom he referred to as "the only thing that protects our Constitution … from evil" — for a snarling rendition of his post-9/11 hit "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)."
Other acts steered clear of controversy but got boisterous in other ways. Joe Nichols spiked his set of genial love songs with a sly cover of Sir Mix-A-Lot's randy rap hit "Baby Got Back," while the Honkytonk Angels Band played punked-up twang-rock early Saturday for a crowd peppered with guys wearing hats assembled from 12-pack beer boxes.
None of this means that Stagecoach has lost the family-friendly promise it's fighting to preserve. In addition to countless bikini-clad women (and the men who carry them on their shoulders), many festival-goers pushed strollers across the polo field Saturday; some even set up portable cribs next to their blankets and lawn chairs. You see far more older people here than you do at Coachella, as well; one couple sat on a hay bale Friday for a performance by the revivalist string band Old Crow Medicine Show.
And a number of artists lowered the volume to pay their respects to Jones, including Keith, who called the late singer "the face of country music," and Trace Adkins, who did an usually tender version of "The Grand Tour."
"I'm really glad to see the bands here doing tributes to" Jones, said one attendee, Barbara Hubbard of Palm Desert. Added Rose Alsup of Palm Springs, "He was so important to the music going on here — to the foundation of all this."
Still, moments of calm — such as Norah Jones' sleepy performance with her country cover band, the Little Willies — seem like the exception so far at Stagecoach. More typical was Keith's leading a gigantic Friday-night audience through a raucous ode to his preferred beverage container.
"A red Solo cup is cheap and disposable / And in 14 years they are decomposable," he sang, "And unlike my home, they are not foreclose-able / Freddie Mac can kiss my" — well, you can figure out the rest.