Travis Tritt rides into the dusty desert and steals the show at the Stagecoach Festival while bluegrass bandits, Steep Canyon Rangers, set up the heist.

The gorgeous Coachella Valley, in southern California, is bombarded with festivalgoers for three weekends straight every April, ending with one of the world’s largest music events, Stagecoach.  It’s shocking to enter the main gate and see the population of Sugar Land, Texas in the space of an outlet mall, already in full swing.   Pop country star, Jon Pardi is on the massive screens singing down over fans, but because the legendary icon, Jerry Lee Lewis is taking the Palomino stage in less than 20 minutes, no time can be wasted.  The challenge is finding that stage amidst thousands of Daisy Dukes, high-heeled boots and selfie huddles…and those are just the boys.  

People of all ages fill the covered Palomino space to watch Lewis’ story unfold on the screens in a mini-documentary. We watch the tale of Sun Records and how Lewis, creator of the rockabilly sound, shot to stardom with his hit “Whole Lotta Shakin”. The film fades, the light changes, the crowd hushes and then there is uproar as Lewis appears in a white suit, making his way to the grand Yamaha piano that has been perfectly tuned for him.  His fingers float across the ivory keys with lightning speed, while his black suited, bolo-tied band assists.  “Roll Over Beethoven” has most people dancing and some women crying.  With white hair, suave in the desert wind, he stays engaged for his remaining set, which includes “Great Balls of Fire”. 

38 Special takes over the space next and rocks hit after hit.  Each fan seems to have a favorite as they yell out requests.  Lead singer, Don Barnes, works the stage making sure he sees everyone. Teasing guitar riffs bring back nostalgia for anyone born before 1990.  “Hold on Loosely” was the most anticipated, so they saved it for last, which we all rewarded in uproar and dancing.  

On Day two, the polished and slick Budweiser Clydesdales put on quite a show of their own for our cameras.  Their nearby merch tent is making leather koozies with custom initials for free, but it would mean missing Aaron Lee Tasjan, so the koozie collection has to wait.  Tasjan opens his set with a killer version of “Ready to Die” from his most recent album, Silver Tears.  Nashville has sent their best to California with Tasjan, who can best be described as the Beck of Americana music.  Backed by a band full of talent, Tasjan uses his body as an additional instrument, and his live performing presence is something to behold. 

Brent Cobb begins his set at the smaller Mustang stage with “South of Atlanta” and there is only silence as listeners take him in.  The harmonies are perfectly tight when they launch into “Diggin’ Holes” and bassist, J Kott, shows off some mad skills.  Drummer, Steve Smith supplies a heavy, yet velvety back beat, perfect for Cobb’s southern Georgia sound.  Mike Harris on lead guitar comes out of nowhere with shocking riffs that leave everyone wanting to know his name.  Cobb and his band are the kinds of live musicians that can sell a pop fan on country music for a lifetime.  They are sweet enough to give you a cavity, yet hard enough to cut your teeth on.   

Margo Price, back on the Pioneer stage, is modern country’s answer to what is going right concerning female artists.  Her band, with the addition of spellbinding harmonica player Mickey Rapheal, comes in ready to kick up the dust as they launch into “About to Find Out”.   With her throwback voice and bold presence, Price brings a hipster band full of modern talent.  When she sings “Hurtin’ On The Bottle”, the energy is a good set up for all the greatness scheduled to appear on the same stage. 

With a new album, Highway Queen, since I last saw Nikki Lane headline at Bandit Town, her act is new and fresh.  Though she has a tough girl, edgy attitude, her live singing voice is clean, making for an interesting combination against her distorted rock instrumentals.  She is a non-conforming, leader who pushes her music forward in her own way.  Lane may not be everyone’s cup, as she trades personal vulnerability for coolness, but the people who love her do so with grand loyalty. 

Tommy James and the Shondell’s are throwing one hell of a party back at the Palomino.  They close to a jumping crowd with their hit “Mony Mony”.  With a heavily carded Saturday schedule, it’s hard to catch everyone and I immediately wish I could have seen more of these guys, along with Jonathan Tyler, The Walcotts and Traveller, all of whom were highly revered by friends who caught them.  

When Jamey Johnson takes the stage, some people in the crowd are already chanting his name.  There are those who have camped out all afternoon to be close to the stage for Willie Nelson and are hearing Johnson for the first time tonight.  Once he gets halfway through his second song, “High Cost of Living,” the entire area is shoulder-to-shoulder and everyone erupts with praise, beer cups in the air.  Chris Hennessee goes from stylized perfection on his Telecaster to heart soaring harmonica and then back again. When Johnson leads the adoring crowd in “Happy Birthday” for Nelson, it gets emotional.  He takes it in for a bit before wrapping up his set with “In Color”.   Completely elated, the crowd begins to close in tighter, anticipating Nelson.  

When actor, Bradley Cooper, takes the stage and wedges Hollywood elitism into the last place it belongs, it’s a big buzz kill.  We are informed that he will be shooting a scene from his self-directed movie, which also stars himself.  The idea of watching an A-list actor lip sing in between two of the most profound country acts of our time leaves us with the same feeling we have about thunderstorms; sometimes they can be cool and sexy, but when they happen in the middle of a great World Series game, its best to go get a hot dog and wait it out.   Some people seemed excited to be an extra in a crowd shot on their own dime, but others chose the hot dog.  

When Nelson finally appears, his voice is as pure as ever.  He satisfies with favorites like “On the Road Again”, “Beer For My Horses”, and “Always on My Mind”, which still makes people cry.  Neil Young even joins him for an incredible harmonica solo.  The Palomino is overflowing from every side with fans trying to get a peek at history in the making.

On Day 3, the Grammy award winning band, The Steep Canyon Rangers, grace California with a bluegrass sound that is pure enlightenment.  While the stand-up bass by Charles R. Humphrey III combined with Graham Sharp’s banjo pickin’ and deep voice are enough to make an entertaining band, that’s not even half of the incredulity this Appalachian sextet offers.  Fiddle virtuoso, Nicky Sanders, who has also played with Wide Spread Panic, is a scene-stealer when the Spirit gets ahold of him. These sneaky snakes had the lucky crowd dancing, laughing and playing together until their last note. 

Fellow Angelenos and multi-Grammy Award winning artists, Los Lobos, play back at the Palomino.   A note-worthy jam was their spiced up, soulful version of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl”.   Probably most known for their hit, “La Bamba”, people go crazy when they play it and run in from the concession stands so they don’t miss out. 

It was Travis Tritt in his all black get-up, who rode in and robbed Stagecoach.  The veteran performer and certified platinum artist knows how to sell country music with hit after hit of superior, generous, stadium-like showmanship. “I Wanna Be Somebody”, “Here’s a Quarter”, “and “It’s A Great Day To Be Alive” are only a small portion of his vast buffet of titles he served up.  He never stops smiling and that energy is contagious all the way through the crowd.  Tritt has filled the Palomino with euphoric, happy people, including some of the other acts that performed that day.  Those who came somewhat ambivalent of him, leave his performance Travis Tritt lifers.  It’s safe to say, he is nothing less a perfect country music performer.  

In three days with over 70 acts to choose from, Stagecoach offers something for all kinds of country music lovers.  The festival grounds are divided in a way that fans can easily choose their style of music and set up camp accordingly.  The event has a bit of a learning curve because of its size but is well worth the price of admission.

Travis Tritt
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Jamey Johnson 
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Margo Price
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Jerry Lee Lewis
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Brent Cobb
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Nikki Lane
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Los Lobos
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38 Special
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Steep Canyon Rangers
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Aaron Lee Tasjan
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Budweiser Clydesdales
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Event Date: 28-30-MAY-2017