"I don't think I've ever seen so many hats in an audience before," said Norah Jones to a crowd taking in her performance Friday night at the Stagecoach Country Music Festival in Indio.
The sight of tens of thousands of cowboy hats may have given the three-day hoedown a certain visual uniformity, but the 48 acts it featured across several stages were anything but unified in their approach toward country music.
The festival, which took place on the grounds of the Empire Polo Club where the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival had been earlier in the month, featured everything from Lady Antebellum's polished balladry to the bumptious honky-tonk of Hank Williams Jr. to the roots music of Justin Townes Earle.
George Jones' death mere hours before the festival was set to begin provided a bit of common purpose, with many artists doing affectionate renditions of some of Jones' songs. But otherwise Stagecoach, which ended Sunday, cut a wide path. Here are glimpses of the ground it covered.
Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back in Town" blared over the main-stage loudspeakers before Trace Adkins' performance Friday, and the song turned out to be a portent.
With back-to-back sets by Adkins, Williams and Toby Keith, Stagecoach on opening night felt like an old-fashioned guys' club full of gun talk, sex jokes and plenty of songs about trucks and booze.
Keith kept things exceedingly loose, mixing hits like "Should've Been a Cowboy" and "I Love This Bar" with Jones' "White Lightning."
Yet as raggedy as some of the music got, the singer stayed sharp in willfully provocative odes to American exceptionalism such as "American Ride" and "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)."
Williams was even more outspoken — and, at times, more thrillingly pugnacious — in his performance, which included a rollicking version of his libertarian cri de coeur "Keep the Change." "I'll keep my freedom, I'll keep my guns," he sang, fronting a punchy eight-piece band, "Keep the government out of my business, and y'all can keep the change."
With its traditions and signifiers, country music provides great cover for moonlighters, quite a few of whom played Stagecoach.
Doing material from his self-titled 2011 album and from the 2009 film "Crazy Heart," Jeff Bridges sounded fine Friday evening, his craggy vocals a good match for the atmospheric grooves churned out by his four-man band.
But nothing about the set felt exceptional in a musical sense; Bridges was merely hitting a bar that all of the acts at Stagecoach seemed capable of hitting. What lifted the performance were the bits that drew on his Hollywood background: stories about working with Kris Kristofferson on "Heaven's Gate" and with T Bone Burnett on "Crazy Heart."
Norah Jones was more distinctive fronting her country cover band, the Little Willies. Yet the group's performance still felt woefully genteel: Singing Dolly Parton's "Jolene," about a woman beseeching the title character not to take her man, Jones wasn't begging so much as making a polite request.
"Thank you, Coachella!" shouted Charles Kelley from the main stage Saturday — and, sure, he might've been referring to the desert valley in which the Empire Polo Club is located. More likely: Lady Antebellum's frontman had forgotten which festival he was headlining.
You couldn't blame him. There's roots music in the group's lightly twangy guitars and in Kelley's and Hillary Scott's close vocal harmonies, but not much. Give the guy some time (and maybe a collaboration with Coldplay's Chris Martin) and he might actually end up at Indio's other big show.
Dierks Bentley preceded Lady Antebellum, and though he charmed with his banter, songs like "Come a Little Closer" and "Home" landed with little impact. An arena-rock aspirant obsessed with bluegrass, Bentley was trying to supersize down-home verities for an enormous audience. But the music felt hollow — volume with no density.
More exciting than either of those marquee names was a marquee name from a previous era: Dwight Yoakam, who powered through old stuff like "Little Sister" and tunes from last year's "3 Pears" with a driving intensity sharpened by decades spent on the road.
Veterans and newbies coexist peacefully, if sometimes noisily, at Stagecoach. Florida Georgia Line, the group that won best new artist of the year at the recent Academy of Country Music Awards, got a shot Sunday on the Mane Stage in front of the majority of festival attendees.
Front guys Tyler Hubbard (Monroe, Ga.) and Brian Kelley (Ormond Beach, Fla.) pump out plenty of rock energy while attempting to inject rapped lyrics into several of their songs. But they're only too happy to fall back on the bane of mainstream country music: cliches about what "country" means.
"I like fried chicken right off the bone / I like my peaches homegrown … With a little Garth on the radio / A little bit of Florida, A little bit of Georgia / And a lot of country in my soul."
That's not a song — it's a Chamber of Commerce marketing campaign.
One of the most invigorating facets of Stagecoach is the left-field bookings to complement the big guns who bring the big crowds with their big hits.
Exhibit A on Sunday: L.A. indie-pop singer-songwriter Becky Stark. On her own and as a member of Lavender Diamond and the Living Sisters, Stark lives in a musical universe light years removed from the likes of this year's headliners Toby Keith, Lady Antebellum and Zac Brown Band.
Her short and intensely sweet set at the outset of Sunday's final day of country music in the desert found only tangential stylistic connections to what most fans here expect of their country music. But she did demurely announce, "I'm kind of a country girl, I guess."