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This is shaping up to be quite a sad year for the music world: 2016 has already taken David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Lemmy Kilmister and Natalie Cole—and today, it took the great Merle Haggard.

He passed away at his Northern California home on his 79th birthday, after suffering from complications from pneumonia.

Merle Haggard was a larger-than-life figure in country music. He was an outlaw in every sense of the word: Theft, bad checks and robbery were part of his criminal past, which eventually landed him in San Quentin Prison, where he began to turn his life around.

In the early 1960s, when Merle Haggard began his recording and performing career, he and Buck Owens were instrumental in forging the Bakersfield sound, a subgenre of country music that protested the commercialization of Nashville’s country-music scene. It’s a never-ending trend in country music, it seems, to commercialize the music of the day by turning it as “pop” as possible; many Americana and alt-country acts today can relate to what Merle Haggard went through five decades ago.

There are many great Haggard songs, but the one he’ll probably always be remembered for most is “Okie From Muskogee,” a controversial song he released in 1969 about how the hippie movement was destroying America. It earned him an audience that would give him thunderous applause whenever he’d start playing the song.

Yes, Merle Haggard was a man who was not afraid to take a strong stance—and tell the whole world about it. However, while he was pegged as a blue-collar conservative, he went on a successful tour with Bob Dylan in 2005.

He’s admired in alt-country and Americana circles as much as he is in the mainstream country world. He’s been referenced in songs. His song “Mama Tried” was often covered by the Grateful Dead. He recorded songs with artists from Willie Nelson to Jewel, and was even on punk label Epitaph Records’ sister label, ANTI-, with people such as Tom Waits and Roky Erickson.

Last year at Stagecoach, Merle Haggard’s surprising performance eschewed much of the Bakersfield sound, as well as the outlaw country sound. Instead, he went for a more polished live presentation with a horn section. Still, he was magnificent and proved that he still had it as a live performer.

It’s worth noting that earlier that day, Merle Haggard was seen on the side of the stage while Sturgill Simpson performed. He seemed in awe of what Simpson was trying to create: yet another country sound that rejects the commercial stuff coming out of Nashville.

The deaths of Johnny Cash in 2003 and George Jones in 2013 were crushing blows to the country-usic world, and now comes the death of Merle Haggard. There are very few of the originals left. It’s undeniable: Merle Haggard is one of the guys who made the genre something modern country musicians can hang their hat on.

It was another great day in the Palomino Tent at Stagecoach on Sunday, April 26, when the audience got to enjoy both new talents and familiar faces.

Starting things off at 1 p.m. was singer-songwriter Andrew Combs. “We haven’t had anything to drink yet, so this is rough,” Combs said to the small audience. Combs’ songs, a mix of country-rock and folk, were deep and sentimental. He announced his ballad “Suwannee County” was “a song about a conversation I had with an older gentleman about fishing and God.” Before noting the beautiful landscape and departing, he played “Emily.” The chorus was catchy: “E-m-i-l-y, why, why, why, tell me why, Emily.”

Following Combs was a rising talent in Nashville: Logan Brill. She gave a nod to Andrew Combs and his song “Month of Bad Habits,” asking, “Can you keep the party going one more day? I want to see bad habits until Monday morning.” The highlight of Brill’s set was an electrifying cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”; her lead guitarist played one hell of a solo. She ended her set with a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” While her original songs were quite mainstream, Brill was an upbeat and fun performer to watch. Her energy is incredible.

Following Brill was another rising Nashville talent, Chris Janson. Janson explained he was a successful independent artist who, after a lot of iTunes sales, finally nabbed a record label. He played a mean harmonica, and managed to draw quite an impressive crowd. Many of his songs embrace the stereotypes of country music—in other words, referencing things like hotrods, trucks, boats, hunting and trailers. In fact, he talked about being in his artists’ trailer, saying, “They make trailers a lot nicer now than when I grew up in one,” before playing his song “White Trash.” He also led chants of “TRUCK YEAH!”

Speaking of the Rolling Stones: A group that opened for the Rolling Stones in the ’70s, Outlaws, followed Janson to the Palomino stage—and the band brought a triple ax attack! The crowd thinned after Janson finished, but throughout the Outlaws’ set, the crowd grew—as did the volume of the reception the band received after every song. Outlaws’ Southern-rock sound is still strong today; the band was marvelous.

If there was one performance that seemed a little out of place at Stagecoach, it was the show by Eric Burdon and the Animals. Burdon and the Animals were key figures of the British Invasion, and have a heavy psychedelic-rock bent. Still, Burdon and the Animals put on a worthy performance. Some of the best songs were “When I Was Young,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” During most of the performance, a sweet smell was blowing around in the air, if you know what I mean.

It was fantastic to see the large, intergenerational crowd that gathered for the Oak Ridge Boys after Burdon. The country legends were in a spot similar to that of AC/DC during Coachella: They played to many younger fans who grew up listening to them thanks to their parents. The Oak Ridge Boys declared that they love Stagecoach, saying it had the best country audience in the world, because attendees support all the musicians, ranging from the younger, independent acts doing something different, to the big names on the Mane Stage. When the Oak Ridge Boys finished their set, the almost-overflowing Palomino Tent crowd gave them a loud ovation.

The act that closed out the Palomino Tent for 2015 was George Thorogood and the Destroyers—and the group sounds like Thorogood grew up playing guitar while using an idling motorcycle as a metronome. While Throrogood may be written off by some as just another white boy playing the blues, he’s pretty damn good at it. “I promise all I can do to go to jail tonight, and if anyone is going to jail for rock ’n’ roll, it might as well be me,” Thorogood told the crowd in between songs. Some highlights were “I Drink Alone,” “Get a Haircut,” and, of course, the closer, “Bad to the Bone.”

’Tll next year, Stagecoach!

Published in Reviews

The Podunk Poets performed in the Honkytonk tent at Stagecoach—and they felt right at home.

“I think for all of us, being invited into a festival that’s so massive—Stagecoach is a dream,” said Podunk Poets’ Kelly Kidd; he and Cindy-Lou Jollotta chatted with the Independent the day after the band’s Friday, April 24, performance. “We’re still independent, so were like the band that keeps taking baby steps.”

The Podunk Poets are not new to the area; the group has performed in the past at Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace.

“There was lots of love there,” said Jollotta. “The crowd there was happy, receptive and energetic. That’s what it’s like at Pappy’s: It feels like a stamp of approval to play there.”

Kidd agreed. “It has such a history, and it’s so nostalgic. In the Americana world, you sort of have to pay homage and pay your dues at Pappy and Harriet’s to keep going.”

The band’s sound is a feel-good throwback to the days of Hank Williams and old-time country. However, it’s hard for independent bands such as the Podunk Poets to go beyond small venues.

“I read an article, and I can’t really quote it, but it said, ‘Country needs its Nirvana,’ and talks about how country music has, in some people’s eyes, become like the hair metal of the ‘80s,” Kidd said. “People who aren’t necessarily fans of big country love the bejesus out of us. It’s sort of like how Amy Winehouse gave a nod to Phil Spector’s sound. We have people who come up to us who don’t like commercial country and say to us, ‘This is the kind of country that my parents listened to. Your sound is what I love and my parents love.’ I think that’s the draw for us: Bringing back that nostalgia feel.”

They also enjoy the show business aspect of their music.

“We don’t just get up and sing,” Jollotta said. “Every show is a party; it really is.”

The Honkytonk Tent, a place that also hosts line-dancing tutorials and country-music DJs, offered the Podunk Poets a perfect place for them to start a party.

“We tried to yell out some dances if we knew our songs were a 10-step or a two-step,” Jollotta said.

Kidd said that the feel of the audience in there worked well for them. “It was cool, because the generations mashed together, too—the gray hairs two-stepping next to the younger generation. It’s sort of like Coachella—the smaller stages are cool. Years ago, I saw Jenny Lewis on a small stage at Coachella, and you just see them starting out and having fun. Then people like that explode a few years later, and that’s really fun to see.”

Where did the band name come from?

“We sort of stumbled on it. We went through a few names in our naming process,” Jollotta said. “We have a really classic sound, and people tell us they think they’ve heard the songs before, and they don’t realize we’re actually a band that performs originals. ‘Podunk’ is the sound.”

Kidd said he thinks the name has a nice sound to it.

“‘Podunk Poets’ had a sophisticated, small-town feel, and we like to write on current elements, too. We touch on things that are edgy for country,” he said. 

I’m a country/Americana-music purist who prefers vintage sounds, and the best places at Stagecoach to find acts that play this kind of music are the Mustang and Palomino tents.

Therefore, when I arrived for the second day of Stagecoach 2015 on Saturday, April 25, I headed straight for the Palomino Tent, and the 1 p.m. performance by Daniel Romano. He performed without drums, and his troubadour style came out quite nicely. He gathered a fine crowd for a performer who was kicking off the day. Later, I interviewed him, and he came off as rather hostile toward the whole Stagecoach experience, which is a shame: He was a talented performer who perfectly illustrates the musical diversity of Stagecoach.

After Romano, John Moreland took the Palomino Stage. It was quick transition given, Moreland needed just a chair and his acoustic guitar. Those who have heard his new album, High on Tulsa Heat, know his singing voice is magnificent—and his voice is just as powerful live as it is in the studio. Many attentive faces watched Moreland and hung on to every word he sang—they felt the emotion of his songs.

Later in the Palomino, Mac Davis, a songwriter for people such as Nancy Sinatra and Elvis Presley, performed to a large crowd. He explained the meaning of his songs in between, and discussed the people for whom he wrote. In a way, Davis could be considered country music’s Neil Sedaka; his sound is a throwback to the ’70s, before country music was sterilized into the modern Nashville sound.

If there was one performer in the Palomino who stole away a nice chunk of the Mane Stage crowd, it was Charles Esten. He has a role on the TV series Nashville (and, strangely enough, was once a featured performer on Whose Line Is It Anyway?), and his performance was a departure from the Americana and classic country typical in the Palomino: Esten played loud, mainstream-style country. He repeatedly reminded the audience about his role on Nashville, a show which has not yet officially been renewed, telling them at the end, “Three episodes left! Keep watching!”

After Esten, it was time for Gregg Allman. Allman has been trying to get back to normal after a liver transplant, and he’s been open about and his long, hard road to recovery. Good news: On Saturday, he looked much healthier, and he performed beautifully, both behind the piano and on the guitar. Playing a combination of solo material and Allman Brothers hits, he was a real crowd-pleaser, and the large crowd that had gathered showed him a lot of love. Of course “Midnight Rider” was included on the set list, with “No Way Out” being the last song he played. My favorite? His performance of “Jessica” early in his set.

If there was one Palomino Tent performance that should have taken place Mane Stage, it was the show by ZZ Top. After Allman’s performance, his crowd stayed, with even more people pouring in to see the bearded bluesmen from Texas.

When ZZ Top started at 9:15, it went dark, and what appeared to be a trailer for a fictional Western film starring the members of ZZ Top played on the two onstage screens. One thing is certain: Dusty Hill’s bass sound is something you can’t ignore. I wouldn’t say it’s “mighty”; I’d say it’s more like a sledgehammer to your ears, and it gives ZZ Top’s live sound am impressive personality. Both Hill and guitarist/vocalist Billy Gibbons were spot-on. The Palomino, full from the front to the very back, went wild when the trio played “Gimme All Your Lovin’” during the earlier part of their set. The band saved songs such as “Sharp Dressed Man,” “Legs” (which required a guitar change for Hill and Gibbons to their trademark white shag fuzzy guitars), “La Grange” and “Tush” for the end.

ZZ Top brought their A-game, that’s for sure. 

Scroll down to see images from Stagecoach 2015's second day.

Published in Reviews

Daniel Romano gave a solid performance in the Palomino Tent to kick off the second day of Stagecoach 2015, on Saturday, April 25. He then went to the Toyota Tent and gave an additional, fine performance.

However, he may have put on the best show of all during his brief interview with the Independent in the press tent.

The musician and visual artist cited a couple of big names as influences.

“I grew up listening to Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. That kind of stuff, my parents had on, and I understood what a good song was early on,” he said. “I’ve just been trying to make good songs ever since, but that idea of music, stylistically speaking, invoked the urge in me.”

He said the songs he writes come to him naturally.

“There really isn’t anything that inspires me other than the need to write,” he said. “It mostly comes out of thin air; I try not to think about it. I feel like it’s bad to over-think things like that, and where it comes from, why it’s there. If I thought about why I’m doing it, I probably wouldn’t do it.”

I asked him how Stagecoach was treating him. That’s when the show really began.

“Nothing is really interesting here,” he said. “The scenery is beautiful, and I played Coachella a couple of years ago, so I’m familiar with the area and the landscape. It’s gorgeous. Yesterday, I went up to Calico, which is a ghost town, and that was pretty cool. It was amazing to see, given it was a mining community from the turn of the last century, so that’s nice.

“But as far as music festivals go, it’s pretty much the worst place to be in.”

I pointed out that Stagecoach was exposing him to new audiences who were discovering his music for the first time.

“That would be the sole purpose of doing it, I think. I think that’s good,” he said.

Romano is from Ontario, Canada. I asked him about the variety of country music coming from Canada, especially Calgary’s notable country music scene.

“There really isn’t any country music in Canada,” he said. “There’s probably some in Calgary, but I don’t know—maybe.”

Romano truly is a talent; he takes an old country music sound and makes it his own. I asked him how he developed his sound—and the answer was perhaps the most interesting part of his performance during our chat.

“I don’t know. It’s better than this shit,” he said, referring to the other music at Stagecoach. “This is fucking terrible. It’s not even music, man. It’s jocks; it’s not art. Jocks and art don’t belong together; it’s nature. It’s the only way to look at it if you’re honest with yourself.”

He discussed his latest album, Come Cry With Me.

“It was done very quickly and sort of set aside for what became too long,” he said. “I sort of lost a connection with it, but I made another record really fast and came back around to the other one from a long separation. You have to progress quickly in this world, and because of that, sometimes the newest thing you did is always the best—and the album wasn’t the newest thing, so it was hard for me to come back around to it. I sort of shed the new light that I had developed back onto it and rejuvenated it, so I’m happy and proud of it.”

Stagecoach 2015 started on Friday, April 24, with high winds, cooler temperatures—and a lot of great music.

If you’ve never been to Stagecoach, I highly recommend arriving for the opening of the grounds on the first day of the festival. Right at noon, the Monday Night Football theme blasted throughout the grounds, and people took off running toward the Mane Stage. The music also changed to things such as the Benny Hill theme or “Reveille.” Many festival employees stopped what they were doing to film the spectacle with their cell phones. It’s quite a contrast to what happens at Coachella—where they simply snip the caution tape, and people slowly walk onto the grounds without a scene.

The Haden Triplets kicked things off on the Mustang Stage. The daughters of the late jazz bassist Charlie Haden, who are signed to Jack White’s Third Man Records, have a neotraditional country sound—with some Carter Family-style folk thrown in. Their harmonies were impressive, and Petra Haden’s violin playing was quite beautiful.

Pegi Young and the Survivors performed on the Palomino Stage around 2 p.m.—and the sound was similar to what you’d hear in a classic honky-tonk. It was a little bit of country, and a little bit of rock ’n’ roll. Young dedicated her tune “Better Livin’ Through Chemicals” to the pharmaceutical companies; she spoofed the TV-commercial disclaimers that reveal all the nasty side effects—and said that after that, you’d still be “skippin’ through a flower patch” just like on the commercials.

In 2013, The Lone Bellow played Stagecoach for the first time; the band was back this year, and frontman Zach Williams mentioned how special that first appearance was for them, because it was the first festival at which this Americana group from Brooklyn ever played. The Lone Bellow’s performance sounded like country should sound in the modern age: There were folk elements, bluegrass elements and rock elements. The audience in the Palomino Tent was a mix of shirtless cowboys, ladies who wanted to dance, and some old-timers—and all who watched were impressed.

Last week at Coachella, I mentioned being blown away by a gentleman who performed named Sturgill Simpson: He was magnificent, he managed to woo the Coachella audience with his country sound. At Stagecoach, in the Palomino tent following The Lone Bellow, he put on just as awesome of a performance—and while some boot scootin’ went on, the Stagecoach crowd was nowhere near as generous to Simpson as the Coachella crowd was. Simpson has denied sounding like Waylon Jennings—but he definitely does sound like Jennings, albeit with Simpson’s own originality and creativity.

The Time Jumpers, featuring Vince Gill and Kenny Sears, followed Simpson—and even one of their collaborators, Riders in the Sky frontman Ranger Doug, was in Oregon and didn’t perform with them, the old-time country band, with all its jazzy and country roots elements, was magnificent. It was a feel-good, throwback country show.

Steve Earle took the Mustang Stage at 7 p.m. and started with some of the blues material from his most recent album—but he still performed the classics. Stagecoach was a long time coming for Earle, and his hour-long set was a delight. During his biggest hit, “Copperhead Road,” a group of line dancers cleared a space and put on an impressive routine that got a lot of attention. Unfortunately, after “Copperhead Road,” many people wandered off to other stages, and Earle finished with a smaller crowd than he started with.

Closing out the Palomino Tent was a true icon of the Bakersfield sound: Merle Haggard. Haggard was about 10 minutes late for his 7:45 p.m. set, but considering Earle was closing out the Mustang Stage, and many people who had spent all day in front of the Mane Stage were walking over to hear Haggard, it was wise to give attendees some extra time. While Haggard was magnificent, a polished horn section removed some of the edge and twang from his songs. Still, it was fantastic to hear the legend in top form toward the end of the first day of Stagecoach 2015.

Scroll down to see photos from Stagecoach 2015's first day.

Published in Reviews

It was a first for Pegi Young and her band, the Survivors—and she was more than happy to be there.

Young has been in music since 1983, when she sang in The Pinkettes, a group that backed her now ex-husband, Neil Young. In 2007, she released her self-titled debut album.

During an interview at Stagecoach, she expressed excitement for playing at the festival for the first time.

“We are very excited to be here today,” Young said. “I’ve never been here before, but they really dress the place up great. People have been friendly, and they’ve checked our wristbands about 100 times. We’re in the right place!”

In 2014, she released a new album, Lonely in a Crowded Room.

“It feels like ancient history in my head. We recorded a bunch of it at Redwood Digital, and we did some sessions at Capitol, and we put in the backgrounds in Philadelphia,” she said about the album. “We had a little break in the tour, and I knew there were some good gospel singers in Philadelphia. As luck would have it, there was a gospel choir there, and there were these two sisters that broke off and sung backup on our record.”

I asked her whether it was becoming more normal to use gospel singers on Americana-style records.

“I didn’t even know it was a possibility of being cliché,” she said. “I guess I’m not listening to enough music. When you listen to the record, it’s not like traditional gospel. … It just gave me the sound I was looking for.”

A cause has been close to Young’s heart for years: education for children with special needs who suffer from severe physical and speech impairments. She founded the Bridge School with Neil Young in 1986, and every year, there has been a concert to raise money for the school. Her son, Ben, suffers from cerebral palsy.

“I do sit on a board called Artistic Realization Technology, which is art-therapy-based education. At Bridge School, our focus is to really enable kids to access their education by way of low-tech, high-tech or no-tech devices, and of course, I have a 36-year-old son with cerebral palsy. The genesis for founding the school was trying to find education-based programs that existed to fit his needs, and finding none in 1985 or 1986, that’s where we got the big idea to start the school.”

Both the Bridge School and the Bridge School Benefit have grown through the years; it’s an acoustic-based annual concert in Mountain View, Calif. Bands and musicians who have played include Metallica, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Sonic Youth, Pearl Jam and Willie Nelson, just to name a few. Young discussed the first show, back in 1986.

“We had no idea what the heck we were doing. Neil had this idea to make it an acoustic concert, which was a brilliant idea, because this was before MTV Unplugged and that whole thing,” she said. “We were winging it. We didn’t know what we were doing except going out there to raise money to get the school started. Indeed, it has grown, both the concert and the school. I did have big, wild dreams about where this school could go.”

Regarding her career: Young said a new album is in the works, and she’s enjoying playing for live audiences.

“I got a stack of new lyrics for a new record, so when we’re done here, we’re going to go back and work on some melodies for some of my lyrics,” she said. “I was really happy with my current record. We all love the record. We did a tour right after Bridge School Benefit last year and played for about a month, and we’ve been on a hiatus until now.”

Steve Earle will tell you that he’s an outsider in country music, despite a wildly successful career—including a stop at Stagecoach on Friday, April 24.

At the age of 14, he ran away from home while in San Antonio, Texas, so he could follow his idol, Townes Van Zandt. In 1974, he moved to Nashville, where he began writing songs and playing bass for Guy Clark. He joined the music publishing company Dea and Carter and wrote hit songs for Johnny Lee and Carl Perkins. Eventually, Earle signed a seven-record deal with MCA Records. His Copperhead Road included a single, with the same name, about the Vietnam War; it would go on to be one of his biggest hits. Politics, broken relationships and historical perspectives are all common themes in Earle’s records, and he’s known for his left-wing political stances.

During a recent phone interview from Nashville, where he was rehearsing for his tour, he explained why he feels like an outsider in country music—which is one reason why he currently resides in New York City.

“My move to New York was because I needed Major League Baseball and live theater,” Earle said. “I also needed to be able to open my door, walk down the street and see a mixed-race same-sex couple holding hands and not be afraid, even as white and heterosexual as I am.

“Things have been pretty scary for the past few years or so. I still have my house in Nashville, and I’m standing in it right now, so I still have a presence here. I haven’t been played on country radio in a long, long time. There are a few bands that come from more of a bluegrass world that I share bills with all the time, but the mainstream country acts—I don’t even know who half of them are anymore.”

Before the Dixie Chicks were speaking out against George W. Bush, Steve Earle recorded albums that included protest anthems. Jerusalem in 2002 included a song called “John Walker’s Blues,” in reference to John Walker Lindh, an American national who was sympathetic to the Taliban and al-Qaida. In 2004, he released The Revolution Starts Now, which included “Rich Man’s War.” The album earned him a Grammy.

Jerusalem and The Revolution Starts Now are pretty much the same record. Jerusalem was my immediate post-Sept. 11 reaction,” he said. “I won my first Grammy for The Revolution Starts Now.

“I don’t expect everybody to be political. I was raised in an era where it was just what you did, and all of your songs can’t be about girls, even though I write more songs about girls than anything else, but I write about what’s going around me, and that was a pretty big thing going on around me at the time. I grew up during a war that was always on television, and before it was over with, I was almost drafted, but I wasn’t, because my lottery was the one that didn’t happen. I thought it was dangerous and more of the same. You have to be able to write a political song that isn’t just beating people over the head.”

While his songs are often controversial, they are always thought-provoking.

“People don’t care what I think; they care about what we have in common,” he said. “Sometimes, I have people who come up to me and say, ‘You changed my mind because of the songs you write,’ and that’s pretty fucking gratifying and worth any risks. I probably could have made much more money if I would have kept my mouth shut, but I’m completely OK with it. … I make plenty of money, and you can only spend so much. In my experience, ex-wives and lawyers get it all, anyway.”

Earle has devoted a lot of time to his stance against the death penalty. His correspondence with a prisoner on death row named Billy Austin became the subject of a song.

“Growing up in Texas, I was living north of Houston and close to Huntsville, where they started executing people again,” Earle said. “People started contacting me because they heard that song. I decided it was important, and it’s a movement that’s grown and gained momentum and is in the national debate again. A lot of people stood together and hung in there a long time ago, and we’re getting less and less willing to kill. The European Union has gotten together and decided we can’t have the lethal injection chemicals anymore.”

I mentioned to Earle that old killing methods such as the firing squad are being brought back as a result of a lack of lethal-injection drugs.

“That’s fucking good, because they’re going to find that harder to do. I witnessed an execution by lethal injection, and it looks painful to me. He didn’t move much, but he jolted hard enough on the first chemical that it knocked his glasses off. It’s suffocating people to death and collapsing your lungs. It’s got to hurt, man. I had 11 guys who I corresponded with, and five of them were in Texas, and I knew people who worked in that prison system. They had to quit because they couldn’t deal with it anymore.”

In 2011, Earle released his first novel, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. The story features Hank Williams (and shares the name of a song of his) and centers on a morphine-addicted doctor who has lost his license and is performing back alley abortions around the time of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

“It took a look time for me, because I had never done it before,” Earle said about his novel. “It was just historical interest in Hank Williams and that story about the guy traveling with him when he died that wasn’t really a doctor. I already had this idea of why a real doctor would do that and would claim to be able to treat alcoholics with a drug like that. I was there at the airport when Kennedy landed the day before he was assassinated; I was 8 years old. My father was an air-traffic controller, and he called my mother and said, ‘Get Steve out of school and bring him down here. because President Kennedy is going to land at 1 o’clock,’ so we went. It’s about Roe v. Wade; it’s about the Kennedy assassination; and it’s about Hank Williams, and all those things interest me.”

Earle released his latest album, Terraplane back in February. Per usual, it rocketed up the Billboard charts, reaching No. 3 on the Country chart and No. 39 on the Billboard 200—even without the help of mainstream country radio. He explained his approach to Terraplane and his desire to venture into the blues.

“I’ve never written blues songs before, and it’s sort of a challenge to write something sometimes as you get older and you’ve covered a lot of territory. The best way I can explain it is it’s like you’ve been coloring with a 32-color box of crayons, and you limit yourself to 8. There’s a jolt that comes from that, and you have to work a little harder. That’s what working within a relatively limited format like the blues feels like.”

In 2013, Earle’s son, Justin Townes Earle, played Stagecoach; this will be the first Stagecoach appearance for Steve Earle. He said it’s been something he’s been meaning to do for a while.

“We’ve been looking forward to it. I’ve never played that festival before, so I don’t know what to expect,” he said. “There are some people in my audience I have something in common with, and Justin is one of those people, even though Justin likes to think the audience he has is completely different than mine. They overlap a lot more than he’d like to admit. We got an offer last year, and we were already committed to Australia. We always go to Australia in April, and next year in April, I’ll be in Australia again.”

Published in Previews

While the 2015 Stagecoach headliners are larger than life, there are a lot of other acts you should include in your schedule. Here are our suggestions.

Friday, April 24

Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys

It’s always a good thing to hear the upright bass and banjo at Stagecoach. Featuring singer-songwriter Lindsay Lou, this folk group has a beautiful sound—and Lindsay Lou can sing.

The Lone Bellow

These days, the term “alt-country” is (over-) used to describe country music that doesn’t fall in with the mainstream. Well, The Lone Bellow is often described as an alt-country band, so take that for what it’s worth. Hailing from Brooklyn, N.Y., this group has some great tunes that are heartfelt—and isn’t afraid to rock.

Steve Earle

Sugarland wrote a song called “Steve Earle” for a reason: The chorus goes “Steve Earle, Steve Earle, please write a song for me.” He’s one of the best songwriters in country music; heck, he’s even written a novel. He’s also a sensible lad who has written a lot of politically themed songs championing left-wing causes. (Check out our interview with him next week here at

Merle Haggard

The legendary Merle Haggard is one of the champions of the Bakersfield sound—and he has quite an extensive history that includes a stint in prison, making him a true outlaw. While Haggard has written some tunes that have angered some people, such as “Okie From Muskogee,” he’s still mentioned in the same breath as Waylon Jennings, George Jones and Willie Nelson.

Saturday, April 25

Old Salt Union

There’s a touch of bluegrass in this group’s acoustic rock sound. In fact, Old Salt Union was named the Best Bluegrass Band by St. Louis’ Riverfront Times, and the band has toured all across the country. Show up early to take these guys in.

The Cadillac Three

If you’re looking for some Southern rock, The Cadillac Three are your band. The group has even recorded with Dierks Bentley (who is also performing). These guys have a dirty Southern sound that would make Lynyrd Skynyrd proud; listen to their song “I’m Southern.”

ZZ Top

I last saw ZZ Top about 15 years ago when I was living in Cleveland—and I left disappointed. Here’s hoping they’ll put on an epic show at Stagecoach. The beards of Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill are legendary, and the group reportedly refused millions of dollars from Gillette to shave them. They remarked: “We’d look ugly without them.”

Sunday, April 26

Ben Miller Band

Confession: I’ve been fruitlessly hoping that The Rev. Peyton’s Big Damn Band would be booked at Stagecoach for the past couple of years—but the Ben Miller Band is not a bad consolation prize. Both groups excel with washboards, spoons and a vintage blues sound. These guys should bring the house down on Sunday.

Oak Ridge Boys

In 2013, I had the honor of interviewing Richard Sterban of the Oak Ridge Boys. These guys have stayed relevant for four decades, making great music throughout their career. This is one of the vintage country acts you need to see at Stagecoach.

The Band Perry

The Band Perry, likely to appear on the main stage, is excellent. The group has some hints of bluegrass with a Nashville sound. This family act features Kimberly Perry on vocals—and she has earned her stripes as a powerful voice in Nashville.

Published in Previews

The Devil Makes Three is used to being “the odd band out”—yet that has not stopped the band from enjoying a lot of success since its founding in 2002.

After touring with big names such as Willie Nelson, and playing at festivals such as Austin City Limits, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza, the band will be sharing its folk-bluegrass sound with the crowd at Stagecoach on Saturday, April 25.

The Devil Makes Three’s members—Pete Bernhard (vocals, guitar), Lucia Turino (upright bass) and Cooper McBean (banjo, guitar)—originally hail from Brattleboro, Vt. During a recent phone interview, Bernhard talked about the band’s name.

“To be honest, it was just sort of convenient, because there were three of us,” Bernhard said. “When we first started the band, we were all arguing over what the name should be, and no one could agree—and we had already recorded our first album. We were really needing to put the album out, and we didn’t have a band name. A friend of ours suggested it, and it instantly sounded like it was the right thing. Everybody simultaneously agreed—which is really rare in a band—and we went with it.”

While they call Vermont home, the members all eventually made their way to California.

“We all moved out West separately,” Bernhard said. “Cooper went to Olympia, Wash. I went to Northern California, and we all started gravitating toward Santa Cruz, eventually. I think when we were kids in Vermont, we thought California was about as far away from home as you could get—and that was just really appealing to us. We all sort of fell in love with Santa Cruz, and that’s where we eventually started the band, and where we lived.”

The Devil Makes Three’s music often features storytelling and dark themes.

“Most of the songs are inspired by things that have actually happened,” Bernhard said. “Occasionally, I write a song that’s a character-driven song, which is almost like writing fiction. Most of the time, it’s stories of people I know, or songs about political events or satire. I just try to write a song that makes sense, and not to write a song that’s typical with the sound of the music we make, which is very old.”

The band has had success—including a series of Top 10 albums on the bluegrass chart—and it’s come, in part, because the band often plays to audiences that are not used to their type of music.

“We’re almost always the odd band out,” Bernhard said. “We’ve played with all kinds of different bands. We’ve played with punk bands; we’ve played with rock bands; we’ve played with experimental bands, and straightforward country acts and folk acts. No matter what, we tend to always never fit in. It’s just sort of the nature of our group, and when we first started the band, it made things really hard for us—but now, I think of it as a positive attribute. Being a band that is hard to define is a good thing.”

The Devil Makes Three’s newest album, I’m a Stranger Here, released by New West Records, has been the band’s most successful. Produced by Buddy Miller, the album was recorded at Easy Eye in Nashville, a studio owned by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys.

“This album was the first album we ever worked on with a producer,” Bernhard said. “… We also put a lot of extra instrumentation on the album that we usually don’t do, so that was very different. The process of songwriting was partially in the hands of Buddy Miller as well. It was about as different of an approach as we could get compared to our previous albums.”

Bernhard said Auerbach’s studio is basic—in a good way.

“It’s a very simple studio,” he said. “It’s one live tracking room that’s fairly big, and it’s sort of a low concrete building. It has a lounge and a control room—and that’s really about it. It really lends itself to recording. There’s no isolation like in other studios, where there’s a room for the drums, a room for vocals, and a room for a guitar amps. His studio has nothing like that at all. It’s like the Sun Records studio and those old studios that were two-track recording studios, so basically everything had to be live.”

The simple, live approach works well for the Devil Makes Three.

“We always play live in the studio,” he said. “We’re definitely happy after making the last record with Buddy—that was his approach, too. He was like, ‘We all play together, and we try to get the best take.’ That’s what you hear on the album. His approach was to get not nitpicky, and he told us, ‘When we have the best take, that’s what goes on the record.’ That’s really how we like to do it. We’re a band that needs to play together at the same time to sound good. That’s the approach we’ll take on future albums as well, and that’s the best.”

After more than a decade with the Devil Makes Three, Bernhard said he has no regrets.

“I think for us, most of our tough times came early on,” he said. “We really struggled for a lot of years with a lot of hard touring and no money. That can be hard and really tough. We were also in our early 20s, and that brings another host of problems. We were just young and didn’t really know what we were doing.

“Even though it’s taken us a really long time to get where we are now, I don’t think I would do it another way. We’ve had a chance to learn how to be in a band before we were a big enough band to where it was necessary to know it all.”

Published in Previews

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