Stagecoach 2023: Lainey Wilson, Chris Stapleton, and Nostalgia Dominate Country’s California Fest
This year’s Stagecoach Festival was a love letter to country music’s past and a nod to its wide-open future. While the festival — the genre’s largest, most rollicking reunion that takes place in California’s low desert the week after Coachella — was sparse on guest appearances (no Axl Rose, this time), the level of showmanship and raw talent was high.
The three-day affair weaved in and out of hat-tips from the likes of Luke Bryan playing “Where the Green Grass Grows” by Tim McGraw to Kane Brown performing a stripped-down version of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man.” The definition of country music continued to shift, too, as Breland flipped from hip-hop crowd-pleasers “Don’t Touch My Truck” to a pop-heavy “For What It’s Worth.” And RuPaul’s Drag Race star Trixie Mattel shattered boundaries as the first drag queen to perform at Stagecoach (an especially important appearance as states like Tennessee continue to introduce anti-drag legislation).
Bryan headlined Friday night after a slew of performances from rising stars: Breland, Tiera Kennedy, Jackson Dean, Drake Milligan, and Nate Smith all pointed to the future of the genre. Priscilla Block, who went viral on TikTok before signing her record deal, commemorated her unapologetic set by shotgunning a beer, proving it’s not just Luke Combs who can command a crowd with a cold one.
In a surprise that was equal parts touching and WTF, Jon Pardi was invited to become an official member of the Grand Ole Opry — by Guy Fieri, who appeared onstage chomping a massive cigar and introduced a video of Alan Jackson extending the Opry’s invitation. “I love California, baby. I moved to Nashville chasing the dream at 22 years old. I’m here and I love you guys, I love country music,” Pardi, a Dixon, California, native, said in reply, sealing the deal by throwing back tequila with the spiky-haired mayor of Flavortown.
On Saturday, Old Dominion, who had to cancel three shows last month after singer Matthew Ramsey was injured in an ATV accident, returned to the stage seemingly no worse for wear — even if the frontman did have a pair of crutches beside him. The Nashville band played all their hits, from “Break Up With Him” to “No Such Thing as a Broken Heart,” as well as one by Harry Styles, the ubiquitous “As It Was.”
Brown headlined the second day and delivered one of the most candid moments at this year’s festival when he spoked directly to the audience about mental health. “How many of you go through depression?” he asked. “Don’t be scared. How many of you? I go through it.”
The singer, the first artist of color to headline Stagecoach, shared how he and his wife have helped each other through their struggles — it was a heartfelt intro before he played his song “Memory,” a collaboration with singer-producer Blackbear. As Brown played for one of the biggest crowds of his career, the audience — a sea of cowboy hats swaying to the beat — was illuminated by a grand fireworks display.
Lainey Wilson, one of the must-see draws over the weekend, was a highlight of Sunday’s lineup that also included Chris Stapleton, Tyler Childers, Turnpike Troubadours, Parker McCollum, and Brooks & Dunn. The CMA Female Vocalist of the Year delivered potent performances of “Things a Man Outta Know” and “Wait in the Truck,” just ahead of Turnpike Troubadours, who thrilled fans with the live debut of the new song “Mean Old Sun.”
Parker McCollum took the stage at golden hour, singing his radio hit “Pretty Heart” and previewing songs, like “Hurricane,” off his upcoming album Never Enough. During Brooks & Dunn’s set, the duo nodded to another huge show happening at the same time in Los Angeles: Willie Nelson’s 90th birthday concerts, where guests included Billy Strings, Kris Kristofferson, and Keith Richards. But Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn had a guest of their own: Lainey Wilson, who handled Reba McEntire’s part in “Cowgirls Don’t Cry.”
By the time Chris Stapleton took the Mane stage to wrap up Stagecoach, the desert winds were whipping. The singer-songwriter opted for a barebones performance that emphasized his voice and his expertly crafted songs, like “Nobody to Blame” and “Parachute.” With his wife and singing partner Morgane Stapleton by his side, he tore through “Cold,” “Midnight Train to Memphis,” “Arkansas,” and “Fire Away.” Of course, it was “Tennessee Whiskey” that got one of his set’s biggest reactions — a song more than 40 years old that, when sung in unison by the young crowd at Empire Polo Field, summed up both country’s past and present.