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What do Beyoncé and Garth Brooks have in common? They both brought something amazing to this year’s world-renowned local music festivals.

On Sunday afternoon, Garth Brooks and his wife, Trisha Yearwood, appeared in the Rose Garden at the Empire Polo Club for a press conference, where Stacy Vee of Goldenvoice announced this year’s Stagecoach had set a record with 75,000 attendees.

Brooks started off by thanking Goldenvoice CEO Paul Tollett and Vee, Goldenvoice’s festival talent-buyer, for the invite to play at Stagecoach. He also mentioned that Yearwood had played the festival 10 years prior in 2008—its second year.

I asked Brooks during the press conference how many times he had been approached to play the festival, and what made him finally decide to say yes this year.

“We’ve been very lucky that Stagecoach has asked for us to be here,” Brooks said. “We retired back in 2001 and raised our babies, and that’s when the festivals really started to take off. We went from places like Jamboree in the Hills … that were just kind of thrown together, so the art of the festival is still somewhat new to me. But they were sweet enough to ask every year, and every year we’d say, ‘Thank you, but we’re raising our babies right now.’ Once we stopped having to raise them and got them off to college, we were on tour for three years and just couldn’t do it. So I promised them that the first available chance we had that we’d play here, and this year was the first available chance we had.”

Brooks was asked how he prepared to play Stagecoach after performing in Vegas and on tours.

“The main thing is this: If it’s five people or it’s 500, it’s still about connecting one-on-one,” he said. “It just always is. Getting to play the presidential inauguration, you’re lucky to step out in front of crowds of that size, and what I have found is that the larger the size, the more (the crowd acts) as one.”

Later in the evening, Brooks’ Stagecoach debut came with the same high winds that Saturday headliner Keith Urban endured. Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road” played over the house music system; the lighting team apparently decided to distract the crowd by synching the lighting to the song—before Brooks suddenly appeared onstage.

Brooks’ choice of a headset microphone caused some technical difficulties—the wind could be heard blowing into his microphone. The wind also caused a wardrobe malfunction: His cowboy hat blew off, exposing his head before someone quickly ran out and gave him a blue baseball cap that he wore backward for the rest of his performance.

Wind-related problems aside, Brooks looked thrilled—and at times surprised—by the sight of the crowd. He told the crowd: “I know you’ve been here for three days, but you’re going to be here all night!”

The performance was billed as “Garth Brooks with Trisha Yearwood,” and close to an hour into the set—right after Brooks played “The Thunder Rolls”—Yearwood finally came onstage, after Brooks joked with the crowd: “I know I’m biased because I’m sleeping with her, but this woman has a voice like no other.”

While Brooks took a breather, Yearwood performed “XXX’s and OOO’s (An American Girl),” her big hit “How Do I Live?” and “She’s in Love With the Boy.” Brooks then returned to the stage and continued his performance until just before midnight—making it a marathon more than two hours long.

After years of rumors, Goldenvoice had finally triumphed and brought Garth Brooks to Stagecoach. One has to wonder where the festival will go from here.

Here are some other highlights from the day.

• Lukas Nelson (son of Willie Nelson) and his band, Promise of the Real, started off their set in the Palomino by dedicating their set to his father, who was celebrating his 85th birthday on Sunday, and performing “Turn Off the News.” Nelson at one point mentioned he had written a song about alien life; he said he really wanted to meet an alien, and that he’d written that song while watching an episode of Rick and Morty. Hmm. Anyway … Nelson’s performance was a combination of country, psychedelic rock and folk music—and it was fantastic. Fans were hanging on through every minute of it.

• Folk-icon Gordon Lightfoot was the final act to perform in the Palomino on Sunday. Unfortunately, it wasn’t loud enough. No matter where you stood, people talking were enough to drown him out—and right next to the stage, you could hear motorcycles revving from the nearby Harley Davidson exhibit over his voice. From what I could hear, the 79-year-old sounded as if he still had it. I wish I could have heard more.

Check out some images from Day 3 below, from Kevin Fitzgerald.

Published in Reviews

Keith Urban may be from New Zealand, but his brand of country music is as American as it gets.

On Saturday night, Keith Urban returned to Stagecoach for the first time since 2010—a day after releasing his new album, Graffiti U.

Despite blustery winds on Saturday night, Urban put on a magnificent performance. When he started his set by playing the first few chords of “Somebody Like You,” the excited welcome from the Stagecoach crowd was just as loud as the music.

The wind was a challenge for Kacey Musgraves, who performed just before Keith Urban and appeared frustrated a few times—but the wind didn’t seem to faze Urban. As the wind blew Urban’s hair all over the place, he joked with the audience, “This was exactly what I was looking for tonight, Stagecoach.” He added a little later that it “smells like it’s pretty cool down in the front,” before singing a few lines of the Brothers Osborne’s “Weed, Whiskey and Willie” a cappella, and then playing “Never Coming Down.”

While the daytime heat and the intense winds that came on early in the evening hindered the day for some, it couldn’t stop the beer-drinking, barbecuing, dancing and great music that took place throughout the day and into the night.

Here are some other highlights from the day:

• Ronnie Milsap’s afternoon performance in the Palomino tent was sort of bittersweet. While it was a delight to see him, his voice is simply not what it used to be; it was difficult for him to the hit high notes in some of his songs. He told the audience that a recent CD compilation included a lot of his hit songs from the ’70s and ’80s, and said, “My life is condensed into 21 CDs, or 100 8-tracks.” Personally, I loved his performance of “What Goes on When the Sun Goes Down.”

• When Jason Isbell appeared in the Palomino, he told the nearly packed house, “Personally, I feel like we’re playing on the best day of the festival,” noting that Dwight Yoakam would be playing later in the evening. Isbell talked about touring with Yoakam, saying that he couldn’t wear tight jeans, because Dwight was better than him at that. “I don’t have an airbrush, so I’m not going to beat him,” he quipped. The former Drive-By Truckers guitarist has definitely gained much-deserved appreciation among the rock and country crowds. His wife, Amanda Shires, backed him on violin, and really shined.

• Dwight Yoakam packed the Palomino tent beyond capacity and put on the best live performance I’ve ever seen from him. He paid tribute to the late Merle Haggard and performed “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down.” Of course, he also performed his collaboration with the late Buck Owens, “Streets of Bakersfield.”

See some photos from Day 2 below, from Kevin Fitzgerald.

Published in Reviews

The 12th iteration of Stagecoach kicked off Friday—and festival attendees had one less stage to enjoy than they’ve had in previous years.

The Mustang Tent—which hosted many bluegrass, folk and alt-country bands over the years—is gone. There are now only two stages with music going at any given time, and the alt-country, bluegrass, folk and classic-country acts have been scaled way back. The Mane Stage opens later in the day (the SiriusXM Spotlight stage fills the gap before 4 p.m.), and the Palomino Tent is smaller. Considering previous Palomino headliners like the late Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Lynyrd Skynyrd drew crowds that could fill the current Palomino Tent way beyond capacity, this may or may not have been a good decision.

Does this mean Stagecoach is no longer any good? No, it doesn’t; Stagecoach on Friday was still a fantastic time—even if some of the cutbacks, leading to a less-diverse set of acts, were disappointing.

I primarily hung around the Palomino Tent on Friday. Here are some highlights:

• Banditos started things off in the Palomino on Friday afternoon. The Birmingham, Ala., outfit known for mixing things up with Southern rock, garage rock and bluegrass—with a touch of psychedelia—was a hit for the early-afternoon crowd. Vocalist Mary Beth Richardson had a Bohemian look, and her singing was top-notch. Considering this band once played 600 shows over three years, the members know each other—and it shows.

• Joshua Hedley most likely felt the high temperatures as he stepped onstage in a green suit, embroidered with a tiger and an alligator. Some fans in the crowd were shouting “JOSHUA!” in between songs, to which Hedley replied: “That’s my name; don’t wear it out. I know you are, but what am I?” Hedley just released his first album, Mr. Jukebox—and his Stagecoach performance was an epic celebration.

• The queen of outlaw country, Tanya Tucker, took the stage decked out in what appeared to be white denim with a white Ralph Lauren American flag T-shirt. She came out with swagger and a rather catchy intro before singing “Some Kind of Trouble.” Tucker played to a packed house; even Guy Fieri came down from flavor town to witness Tucker’s set and was shown on the video screen in the crowd. Tucker noted that she had years of hits and not very much time to perform them all—but she did well during her 45-minute set, and even played a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”

• When Molly Hatchet took the Palomino stage on Friday evening, the band made the audience sit through Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” before a rather dramatic classical choir intro—complete with sounds of thunder. Sadly, things went downhill from there: Singer Phil McCormack didn’t seem to be on top of his game, and his vocals didn’t come through well over guitarist Bobby Ingram and bassist Tim Lindsey. People began leaving shortly after the performance began—leading to a sparse crowd later on.

Check out some photos from Day 1 below, by Kevin Fitzgerald.

Published in Reviews

DJ Bad Ash is a well-known club DJ in Los Angeles—and at Stagecoach, she’s taken her talents to the Honkytonk Dance Hall.

The singer-songwriter, whose real name is Ashlee Williss, stopped by the press tent on Friday and told me what inspired her to become a DJ.

“I’ve always been a singer-songwriter,” Williss said. “I’ve done amazing things in my career, but I’ve never made it. Several years ago, the day I released my big single, my boyfriend at the time passed away. It kind of broke me for a while, and I gave up music for about a year. I couldn’t get out there and sing and give my heart. Somehow, I was missing something and needed some type of music back in my life. An agent of mine suggested, ‘Hey, why don’t you DJ?’ I was like, ‘Oh, no! I’m a singer; I play guitar, and I come from the country world!’

“I thought, ‘I need to open my mind.’”

After taking a DJ lesson, she was hooked.

“It was so fun, and I was a natural. Honestly, it brought my spirit back to life. It made me want to get back out there and learn about all these kinds of music I never enjoyed before. Now, I’m really excited, because I get to incorporate the country music part as well as being a DJ. Now I’m unique, and I’m the first female country DJ who has been in the festival scene. It happened by accident. It was the element that was missing all along, and it was so fun. I’m really excited to be at Stagecoach, and it’s a dream to perform here.”

Learning how to DJ was a challenge, she said, but she has gotten better at it.

“I will say that the technical part—it’s still horrible,” Williss said. “It’s just like a computer, and you don’t know when it’s going to say, ‘I’m not going to work right now.’ It can freeze in the middle of a set, and that can be very scary—and everybody is looking at you like you messed up. The more you do it, the more you learn. It’s best to just get out there and be forced to figure it out. That’s what I did.”

Is country music becoming more popular in the DJ world? Williss answered with a resounding yes.

“Since I started singing years ago, I was always doing a dance-y and sexy kind of thing. Nobody ever understood it before. Now, they get it,” she said. “Now I think because I’ve added just the DJ element, people are starting to understand it. You can remix country, and I think it’s the next big thing.”

DJ Bad Ash also plays music from genres beyond country.

“Most of my gigs in Los Angeles are not country. There aren’t a lot of country events in Los Angeles or Las Vegas,” she said. “When I get the country gigs, it’s what I love and what I know best, but there are a lot of EDM and hip-hop gigs that I’ll take around the country.”

DJ Bad Ash given just released a single.

“It’s called ‘Rodeo,’ and it’s country, but a line-dance kind of country: fun, sexy and cheery,” she said. “I feel like it could become a country anthem for girls. It’s very powerful, female-driven.”

DJ Bad Ash had advice for anyone who wants to get into performing.

“It’s really just about having fun. If you’re enjoying the mix, that’s honestly what it’s all about,” she said. “If you’re having a good time and playing good songs, people are going to love it also. Let your passions come out. For any kind of artist, that’s what it’s about. It’s not about money or fame; it’s about doing what you love.”

If you’ve never heard of Lewis Brice, stop what you’re doing, and check out this new country-music artist.

Brice—he’s Lee Brice’s brother—not long ago left South Carolina for Nashville, and he’s determined to make a name for himself in country music. He will be at Stagecoach on the new SiriusXM Spotlight Stage on Sunday, April 29.

During a recent phone interview, we discussed his music video for “Best Ex Ever,” which may be a first in country music: It’s a song actually praising an ex-girlfriend.

“When I was writing that song, I thought, ‘I have a few exes, and they don’t hate me,’” Brice said. “I told this one story that’s half true where I got into a sticky situation and had one phone call on a pay phone to use, and I remembered my ex-girlfriend from a couple of years before—and she picked up a collect phone call from Lewis Brice. That got me out of my sticky situation, so I wrote a song about it.

“The video was so fun to make. It was my first video where I got to be the actor. We shot it right in Nashville, where a lot of our friends ride by. I was all done up in makeup like I was beat up, so a lot of my friends were stopping in the middle of the shoot, asking me, ‘You OK, man?’ and I was like, ‘Can’t you see I’m shooting a video? Don’t you see all the cameras?’ It was a fun day. I did all my own stunts and had the bottle broken over my head and all that.”

Growing up in a musical family in South Carolina, Brice sang religious music during his upbringing.

“I have my own beliefs, and I think everybody has their own beliefs and whatnot, but when it comes to music, I think it’s a very broad form of having fun,” he said. “Whether it’s singing for religion or singing about the good times and the bad times you’ve been through, I think music is an all-around universal language. Just sing, and have fun.”

While country star Lee Brice—performing at Stagecoach on Sunday, April 29, on the Mane Stage—is his older brother, Lewis Brice is determined to make music his own way.

“When I moved to town, I had my whole life in the back of my truck,” he said. “I was a young kid, and my brother had been up here for a couple of years and had some success. When I pulled up, they were having a little party for me, and before I could get out of the truck, he came up and said, ‘Lewis, I love you, and you made a great decision by moving here, but you have to make your own way up here. I’ll help you in any way I can, but you have to take initiative and do it yourself.’ I thanked him for that. There are a lot of politics here, and people told me being the little brother would haunt me a little bit, but I think it drove me more. My brother is very hard-working, and I learned a lot from him, but he does things his own way, and I have my own way. I’m persistent, and I’ve been lucky with the relationships I’ve had in the business. Between networking and lucky passes, this music business can work out—it really can.”

Brice released his self-titled debut EP last year with six songs, and he said he’s preparing another one that should be out soon.

“I’ve got so many songs. When I play an original set, I can play up to two hours of my own music,” he said. “I really pride myself on that. I played a lot of cover songs, but I got to the point when I got here that I wondered how far I could get if I just sang other people’s songs. It’s worked out well, and I think I’m making that turn and learning a lot from it.”

Country music is one of the genres that continues to do well in the United States; Brice sees that as an opportunity.

“Country music is already a huge platform, and I see it going to an even bigger platform,” he said. “Right now, country music is very accepting to different types of music like pop, deep-rooted country and Southern rock, and I see it getting bigger, because the audiences are accepting country music. I turned on a pop station the other day and heard four country music songs from artists I normally hear on just country stations. That’s a great thing for a country artists when they cross over. I think it’ll just get bigger and bigger, with a broader audience.”

Brice was a late addition to Stagecoach.

“I’m so excited, and I love playing in California. The crowds out there are really awesome,” he said. “When I got the email a couple of weeks ago, I was like, ‘Stagecoach? Wow, that’s a pretty big deal!’ I’ve heard it’s a crazy festival, and I’m honored to be a part of it.”

Published in Previews

Stagecoach has always offered attendees a lot of variety in terms of country-music subgenres—but this year, the lineup seeks to skimp on alt-country, Americana and old-timers (like Willie Nelson).

Still, there is a lot to see. Here are my Stagecoach recommendations.

Friday, April 27

Jade Bird: It’s shocking, yes, but this young woman who excels at Americana … is British. Regardless, she has one hell of a voice. Her music would perhaps better fit a Coachella crowd, but she’s likely going to be awesome at Stagecoach. Her main showcase is her vocals. I highly recommend her single “Lottery” and her song “Something American.”

Joshua Hedley: It’s no surprise Joshua Hedley was named one of the “10 New Country Artists You Should Know” by Rolling Stone in 2016. He’s a throwback to the era of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. He’s a purist, thank you very much, and does not wish to change anything about his vintage sound. Jack White’s Third Man Records will be releasing his debut album, Mr. Jukebox, on April 20, which will make this show pretty sweet.

Molly Hatchet: For country fans who have a bit of a rock edge, Molly Hatchet can’t be missed. The band is certainly one the edgier Southern-rock bands with an extensive history, but it is down to only one original member, bassist Tim Lindsey. If you’ve ever longed to hear “Flirtin’ With Disaster” or “Gator Country” live, here’s your chance.

Saturday, April 28

Tyler Childers: Country music has long had a dark side, and Tyler Childers is continuing that tradition by telling the stories of hardships and day-to-day challenges in his native Kentucky. Fun fact: Sturgill Simpson produced his album Purgatory. Considering storytelling via songs that were darker in nature made the careers of Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and many others, Childers should be a hit at Stagecoach.

Ronnie Milsap: Here’s one of the relatively few old-timers! Ronnie Milsap had one hell of a ride in country music in the ’70s and ’80s, when he took Nashville by storm. His sound was a hit with both pop-music and country audiences. The music from his heyday was absolutely unique for its time, and there is not anyone like him. The good news is he’s still going strong. His set will definitely be a highlight of the weekend.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: One of the most-recognized songwriters in the alt-country music scene, Jason Isbell found new life after leaving the Drive-By Truckers in 2007. He found sobriety in 2012 after an intervention that included his management, his wife and singer-songwriter Ryan Adams—and he’s made three fantastic records since. Isbell has played Stagecoach before, and he’s always been welcomed by a large audience.

Sunday, April 29

Colter Wall: He’s from Canada … but there’s a lot of great country music coming from Canada these days. Colter Wall (below) has a rough-and-tumble voice, but his songwriting is top-notch. He has a lot of high-profile fans, from professional wrestler Brock Lesnar, to Shooter Jennings, to Lucinda Williams.

Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real: I must have caught Lukas Nelson on a bad day last year when I interviewed him before his show at Pappy and Harriet’s. Regardless, he’s one of the best young artists in country music. Yeah, he’s Willie Nelson’s son, but he and his band have accomplished a lot on their own—including backing Neil Young, and doing so marvelously. He’s sure to have a big crowd waiting for him.

Gordon Lightfoot: One of Bob Dylan’s most-comparable contemporaries is Gordon Lightfoot—a true folk-pop icon. Bob Dylan has even covered some Gordon Lightfoot songs, so that says something. Lightfoot has put out more than 200 recordings, and he’s a legend in the business. If you go to Stagecoach and don’t take in Gordon Lightfoot … what was the point of going in the first place?

Published in Previews

If you saw Jack White perform at Coachella in 2015, you couldn’t miss his violinist, Lillie Mae.

Well, Lillie Mae is an accomplished musician in her own right; she has released two country albums on Jack White’s Third Man Records, her most recent being last year’s Forever and Then Some.

She’ll be performing at the Stagecoach Country Music Festival on Sunday, April 29.

During a recent phone interview, Lillie Mae—her full name is Lillie Mae Rische—talked about her humble beginnings growing up, including busking around the country with her family, traveling in an old RV.

“You can’t set the bar too high,” Rische said with a laugh. “I’ve had a very unique life, growing up and traveling in a motorhome. We were playing music in new places every day. I’ve been steadily gigging forever. … I’ve done the same thing in different forms. I’ve had a lucky layout. Our family band—it was my father’s dream, and it was the family’s income. It was no picnic, and it was rough. But as time has gone on, I’ve become truly grateful for it, and I love that way of life so much. I still prefer to sleep in the car—and I sleep better in the car. When you grow up traveling in a motorhome, you’re willing to accept such things later on.”

Rische learned how to write songs at an early age by performing—but it wasn’t until her teenage years that she truly discovered she was a songwriter.

“I knew that it was always in me, because I remember coming up with melodies when I was like 4, 5 and 6,” she said. “I didn’t know then it was writing and that I would later do something with that. … I didn’t start finishing songs until I was about 14. It didn’t click until then.”

When Jack White came to Nashville to open Third Man Records’ physical location in 2009, Rische didn’t even know who he was.

“It took me a long time to find out who he was. I was out of the loop like I still am now, and even when I was playing music with him,” she said. “I hadn’t been turned on to his music yet at the time.

“My sister worked at a hot dog restaurant called Hot Dog Diggity Dogs, and I was over there all the time; I also worked there for a very short time. Jack White had bought a building on the street over from there. It was in a rough part of town, and so was the hot dog stand. It was a big deal when he came to town, because it was going to clean up the neighborhood. That’s how I first knew who he was—by buying that building.

“They called me in when they were recording, and I did a bunch of session work over there, and when it came time for him to go on tour, he asked me if I wanted to be a part of it. My family band had broken up not long before that, and so I went out with them, and I’m so glad that I did. I had the time of my life. It was a very special gig.”

Working with Jack White has also given Lillie Mae a sense of artistic freedom, she said.

“I love working with him so much. I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” she said. “People have a tendency to walk into a studio and be like, ‘I’m going to do this, this and this,’ but then you realize you don’t work so well with people. For instance, with my personality, if you tell me to do something and be like, ‘Hey, can you play this?’—I can’t do it. I’ll say that ahead of time: If you ask me for a specific thing, I can’t do it. I do what I do, and it’s a comfort thing. Jack has created this atmosphere where he lets you be yourself. It’s so important. There’s a room full of instruments, and you have the freedom to play them.”

Lillie Mae’s songs are emotional and hard-hitting; there’s no way to describe with words how well the vintage bluegrass and gospel sound comes through her lyrics. She talked about her songwriting process.

“I don’t see what the point is in hiding something or sugarcoating it,” he said. “We’re sugarcoating all over the place, and it’s everywhere. When I write music—I’m blessed to have grown up in a creative atmosphere, and the way that my brain works, I’m grateful for it. It’s an emotional thing. I saw a friend of mine where a situation happened with a relationship. They aren’t together anymore. I just saw this girl heartbroken; it hit me like a freight train. Within two minutes, I’m writing something about this. I had to leave and write this thing down. All these words came pouring out. It’s our obligation as writers to bare all.”

After being onstage most of her life, Lillie Mae said it’s one of the few places she feels totally comfortable.

“I’m playing constantly. I can’t not play,” she said. “If there’s a gig happening, I’m there. Am I going to sit at home? No! The people I play with are very influential to me, and I always look forward to it—every song, every day, I look forward to it. I’m constantly influenced by people who are around me, and that’s why I’m here.”

Published in Previews

When you hear the word “Banditos,” perhaps you think of the Frito Bandito. Or maybe you think of the Bandidos Motorcycle Club.

However, you really should be thinking of an awesome rock ’n’ roll band—because that’s exactly what the Birmingham, Ala., six-piece is. See for yourself when Banditos play at the Stagecoach Country Music Festival on Friday, April 27.

I was blown away by how many different things I heard in the sound when I listened to Banditos’ self-titled record from 2015. You hear the Rolling Stones in slower songs, ’60s rock with a kick in the ass on others—and all the songs have an Americana/outlaw country vibe, including banjos. The band’s newest release, last year’s Visionland, sounds as if the members were channeling Ty Segall and the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.

During a recent phone interview, vocalist and banjo player Stephen Pierce said the band’s varying styles provide a lot of great songwriting opportunities—and fun recording sessions.

“I think it makes it easier at the end of the day, especially with having different influences,” Pierce said. “We all kind of have the same influences, too, which makes it all over the place. One of us will say, ‘I want to do a boogie kind of thing,’ or, ‘I want to do a Bobby Darin smoother kind of jam.’ We all kind of get the same language that we’re speaking when we don’t really have the right words to say to each other, and we just come up with abstracts--and we know what we’re talking about. I think we’d sound even crazier if we were just one style of music, and only played country or something like that. We’d go insane, and the well would run dry real quick.”

Banditos quickly became known for the band’s marathon of tour dates—600 over three years—before putting out the 2015 self-titled debut.

“It was grueling, but totally fun,” Pierce said. “It was a time when we were rarely home, and we had places we kept our stuff at, but not anything really set up; we didn’t own animals or plants or anything like that. That was just out of the picture. It was a lot of time in the van, a lot of meeting a lot of people—and it was a lot of highway, for sure. It was a lot of hitting places for the first time and being a big question mark, and being surprised, because we had a big team behind us pushing these shows as well. It was great to see the returns we would get. We played the Southeast a ton, and we had gone up through New York and out toward Austin, Texas; those places were really good to us. Colorado and California have been great as well. One of our stronger markets is probably Oakland.”

The band has also had the pleasure of touring Europe.

“It was overwhelming. It was so cool, and people really appreciate this music over there,” Pierce said “We’ve really only been in Scandinavia, but this next European tour we’re going on (this fall) is more spread out through Europe. But as far as Scandinavia goes, they are the most respectful crowds, and everyone is pretty quiet—still rowdy, but quiet when you’re playing. We didn’t feel like we were animals in the zoo; we felt like they were really appreciating this stuff and taking it in. I think they have good taste, for sure. I’m sure we’re interesting to them, being a bunch of Alabama folks getting out there and freaking them out.”

An endorsement from Taco Bell’s “Feed the Beat” campaign helped get the band food while they toured—and also gave the band a little promotion. John and Bridgette Seasons of Haunted Summer also took part in the campaign, and told me that Taco Bell did not make for good band food. Pierce laughed when I told him this.

“I would certainly agree! But we just can’t get away from it,” he said. “You always feel like the dog that got in the trash afterwards and think, ‘Oh, God, why did I do this?’ But it was so good at the time.”

Like many musicians, past and present, the members of Banditos moved to Nashville.

“It was not that hard of a decision. It just was a kind of thing that happened,” Pierce said. “We had been living for a year in Birmingham; we’ve known each other since we were kids, and we were all living in one house. Things got a little too easy in Birmingham. We were comfortable in our home, comfortable in the bars, and we knew everyone in our town. We wanted to have things to do and make it a bit more difficult, to light a fire under our asses. Nashville was the most obvious choice. … It’s been a fantastic move for us.”

Pierce said there is one type of venue where he and his bandmates don’t like to play.

“There have been a few shows in our earlier years when we would play those sit-down dinner kind of places—where you play for three hours, and you’re the band,” he said. “Those felt more difficult to get rolling, because they’re sitting down eating, and you could be anyone up onstage, and they just want noise going on. We haven’t had much of those in the past couple of years, though.”

While Banditos have a “T” in their name, and the Bandidos Motorcycle Club a “D,” the band members are asked quite a bit about the motorcycle club’s feelings about the name.

“We’ve come across a few of (the Bandidos) at shows in El Paso and Laredo, and some in California, too,” Pierce said. “We, for sure, try our damnedest not to act like we’re affiliated with them, because that’s never our intention. But they’ve had a pretty positive response to us and have bought a sticker and a shirt. One guy put one on his bike and was like, ‘THIS IS PRETTY COOL!’ They’ve been pleasant, and we hope to keep our relationship with them that way. We’re definitely not out to step on their toes.”

This will be the first time Banditos are playing at Stagecoach.

“It’s going to be wild,” Pierce said. “We’re really looking forward to it, because we’re huge ’90s country fans, and fans of country music in general. A lot of names on there we’re excited about, for sure. It’d make my world to meet Garth Brooks.”

Published in Previews

The 11th edition of Stagecoach is a wrap—and there was no better artist to close out the festival than Kenny Chesney … even if his fashion choices on Sunday were rather suspect.

Chesney made his fourth appearance at the festival—and it was his third time as a headliner. Considering that his Blue Chair Bay rum is selling well, and he writes songs with which every Stagecoach attendee can relate (Beer! Trucks!), he was probably the most anticipated headliner of the weekend.

When he took the stage on Sunday evening, he started off with “Beer in Mexico,” which was loud and electrifying. Chesney probably has more guitarists in his band than he needs, given most of the song consisted of guitarists trading solos.

While Chesney likes to portray an image of a true-blue country musician, he performed in a pair of shorts and what appeared to be skateboard shoes, as well as a baseball cap that said “SURF MAUI.” I was not aware that country boys surfed so much.

There were rumors circulating that Chesney would bring out pop artist Pink for a song or three, but it didn’t happen. Still, the crowd loved Chesney—and he seemed happy to be back at Stagecoach.

Other highlights

• While the Hillbenders were blowing a decent-sized crowd’s minds by performing The Who’s Tommy, bluegrass-style, in the Mustang Tent, actor and musician Kiefer Sutherland packed the Palomino Tent.

• Late in the afternoon, the Cowboy Junkies closed out the Mustang Tent with their honky tonk-meets-psychedelic rock sound, and were well-received. Front woman Margo Timmins remarked that Stagecoach was probably the best-maintained festival she had ever seen. “Everyone is so nice, even in this heat,” she said. The band played a fantastic cover of the late Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane,” which seemed to get those in cowboy boots dancing around and swaying.

• Ever since the lineup was announced, I was curious to see how East Los Angeles’ legendary Latin rockers Los Lobos would be received by the Stagecoach crowd—especially since the set preceded Palomino Tent headliner Travis Tritt’s set.

Los Lobos has built a career on Latin-meets-rock music, with some jam-band covers thrown in. The group’s sets often vary; they can be heavy on jams, or they can be heavy on rock and Latin songs, often sung in Spanish.

What happened? Well, Los Lobos turned in a performance that included some of their most well-known material, such as “One Time, One Night,” which I was personally thrilled to hear—but the only song from the band’s Latin-music repertoire was the always-saved-for-last “La Bamba.” Los Lobos was generally well-received, but the band didn’t exactly pack the Palomino Tent. I was hoping for some Latin music diversity to hit Stagecoach—but alas, that did not really happen.

The Who played Desert Trip at the Empire Polo Club back in the fall—and selections from the band’s rock opera Tommy were some of the most popular songs.

At Stagecoach, much of Tommy was once again played at the Empire Polo Club—albeit in a much different fashion.

The HillBenders on Sunday played a bluegrass version of the album in its entirety—minus four or so songs, given the group had to trim things down to fit into an hour-long set. It’s worth noting that the band pressed on sans bassist Gary Rea, due to flooding in the Ozarks.

After the performance, frontman Jimmy Rea discussed where the idea came from to record the entire Tommy album.

“It was actually a friend of ours’ suggestion,” Jimmy Rea said. “He had been wanting to do it for 25 years and was messing around with it. His name was Louis Meyers, and he was a banjo player. He was one of the guys who started South by Southwest and Folk Alliance. He was winding down, getting ready to turn 60 years old, and quitting his spot as director of Folk Alliance. He said that he had been wanting to do this for a long time and thought of us because we were enough rock ’n’ roll and bluegrass. I said, ‘Well, I love the record.’ The other guys didn't know the record too well; we recorded the demo and sent it to him. He said, ‘Let’s do it!’ It was a simple twist of fate.”

Jimmy Rea explained his love for the original album.

“It’s the music, not the story so much,” he said. “I think Pete Townshend was in a spot, and The Who was in a magical spot at the time. Pete was young enough; it was the right time, and it just caught on. He was furiously prolific and still is. He writes so many fucking songs.”

We talked about how the original was apparently inspired by Meher Baba, a guru from India who put a focus on silence and living a clean lifestyle.

“I remember reading Pete Townshend’s autobiography, and he mentioned him. It’s kind of an escape from the life of being a rock star,” Jimmy Rea said. “There were a lot of disciplinary things in Meher Baba’s world and in his teachings about eating and speaking and abstaining from drugs. I think it was something (Townshend) turned to that gave him stability in a crazy world.”

When it came time to record the HillBenders’ version of Tommy, the band turned back the clock, technology-wise.

“Many of the songs were easy, but there were a few problem children that I had to flip the rhythm, grass it up or keep it authentic to the album feel,” Rea said. “For the most part, it kind of flowed. We didn’t want it to be too bluegrass, but to have the album’s original feel. When we recorded it, we went to 2-inch tape. That was a big priority for Louis—to make sure we recorded it on tape. … It was a different experience for us. When that analog tape is rolling, whatever you get is what you get. There isn’t any clipping, posting or dragging. You have to get it right the first time.”

Rea said the reaction to the HillBenders’ Tommy has been largely positive.

“If people are familiar with the record, it really helps,” he said. “If people are traditionalists with bluegrass, it’s probably harder for them to grasp. It depends on how die-hard they are. For the most part, you don’t hear the negative criticism too often, but we have gotten a lot of good feedback from old fans of The Who who have matured and have listened to Americana, folk and bluegrass—old couples who have their kids with them and their kids who grew up on the record being played in the house. I was really surprised today by how many people were singing along.”

He added that the Stagecoach crowd was the Hillbenders’ ideal audience.

“Playing a festival crowd is much cooler,” he said. “The energy is there versus a theater setting where people are just sitting and listening.”

Rea said he was not aware that Kiefer Sutherland—yes, that Kiefer Sutherland—was playing in the Palomino Tent next door at the same time.

“I didn’t know that, but I love The Lost Boys!” he said. “I was really happy with the crowd, even though we didn’t have our bass player. But I was proud of the crowd, because I heard that two or three years ago, Del McCoury was here, and there were only three people watching. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know what bluegrass meant around here. It looked like people were really digging it, though. It wasn’t blaring down sun, either, like some of the festivals we play; it was nice to be covered, at least.”

I had to ask: Will the HillBenders record The Who’s second rock opera, Quadrophenia?

“We get asked that a lot, but I don’t think so,” Rea said, “unless Pete Townshend himself wanted us to do it, and then we might do it. We’re trying to think of what’s next on the agenda on our own vibe. We have a lot of new material, so we’d like to get it recorded.”

I also had to ask: What do the members of The Who think of the album?

“Louis Meyers, who actually passed away last March at 60 years old, was really wanting Townshend to hear the record and get some feedback,” Rea said. “He reached out to people over the years, and one guy who used to manage Pete Townshend still had his contacts, and Pete wrote the guy back saying he loved it. He’d already heard it through the Internet. … He invited us to The Who’s show in Nashville. We watched the show, were invited backstage, and got a vote of confidence from Pete. I was really surprised he took the time.

“A few months later, we got to meet Roger (Daltrey), who was at a teen cancer charity; Roger came to do a speech. We played Tommy at the pre-party. At the actual ceremony, we did one song for Roger and The Who’s manager, and had everyone on their feet singing and clapping along. We got a picture and got to meet Roger. Both were super gracious and very friendly.”

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