Thomas Rhett and Maren Morris were the top-billed attractions on the Stagecoach Festival’s opening day, Friday but when it came to heightened emotions, and pure enthusiasm per-square-inch, Tanya Tucker’s climactic set in the Palomino tent might have ruled the day at the desert gathering.
The veteran of 50 years of country hitmaking seemed taken aback by the roar of the crowd, late in the set, and not just in a typical welcoming-the-roar way. “It’s hard for me to believe anybody would want to watch me,” she admitted, belying more than a hint of insecurity amid one of the brassier facades in the business. Lightening up a little, she added, “Somebody must have put something in your drink.”
Tucker was joined at the very end of her set, for the final round of her 1972 smash “Delta Dawn” (released when she was 13), by Orville Peck, who will be doing his own set in the same tent to round out Saturday’s bill. Tucker and Peck were not newcomers to one another; they’d co-headlined a warmup show the previous night at Pappy & Harriet’s further out in the desert.
Tucker did have another guest during her set, albeit via FaceTime. The 63-year-old country legend had a video conference on-stage with Brandi Carlile, whose set was to follow hers in the Palomino tent, until she had to cancel Thursday due to a case of COVID. Tucker, who called Carlile the greatest singer alive and “my hero,” before announcing that they’d just recently been in L.A. wrapping up a second album together with Shooter Jennings in L.A., following the trio’s earlier Grammy-winning “While I’m Livin’.” And not for the first or last time of the night, Tucker snuck a surprise into a typically spontaneous set list: an a cappella excerpt of Carlile’s “That Wasn’t Me.”
The singer was nothing if not the model of candor, from the discomfort of some slimming undergarments (Tucker wondered aloud whether it was really necessary to reign in fat onstage) to the fact that she had recently replaced her entire crew (“Sometimes you just gotta let some things go”). She even acknowledged that touring can be a slog for a performer of a certain age: “Sometimes I feel so tired just having the energy to get up and do this… But y’all made it worthwhile.” Tucker also was candid about wanting to sell some of her signature tequila brand, wearing a shirt advertising the product and passing shot glasses down to the women wearing “Tanya Mother Trucker” at the front barricade. Admitting the show made her anxious, Tucker took swigs straight from the bottle, herself.
Given that few if any of the other acts playing Stagecoach had a fraction as much propensity for flavorful ad-libs or last-second set additions, just about all of them could have been singing a variation on the old Waylon Jennings song: “I don’t think Tanya done it this way.”
Rhett’s top-billed set more closely followed the parameters of a contemporary arena act’s, although he did have a couple of special guests, Ashton Kutcher and Hardy, who joined him in a robust cover of what be contemporary country’s signature song, Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places.”
“This is a freaking bucket list moment for me,” said Rhett, who was coming to Stagecoach as a headliner for the first time. When he last came to the California desert, in 2017, four years into his recording career, he’d been high in the lineup but still had to precede Kenny Chesney. (His ascent to arena-filler in the subsequent five years is not the only thing that’s changed: He updated “Life Changes” with an aside that he has four children now, versus the two mentioned in the autobiographically dated lyrics.)
Maren Morris, a headliner in her own right on the amphitheater circuit nowadays, preceded Rhett on stage with three albums’ worth (plus a “Middle’s” worth) of choice material to choose from for a set that more or less marked the kickoff to her first tour since the onset of the pandemic. She saved her crossover hit “The Bones” for last, noting that she’d never gotten a chance to celebrate it live as a No. 1, and that for many country fans it’d become almost the official love song of lockdown.
When she performed “All My Favorite People Do,” there might have been hope among the crowd that she would bring out that song’s collaborators, Brothers Osborne, since they’re on the bill for Saturday night. But they must not have made it to town yet, or maybe Morris was just indulging in some intra-family favoritism when the duet slot went to her husband, singer-songwriter Ryan Hurd. It was their second joint appearance of the day, as Morris came out earlier during a set by Hurd to sing the hit duet “Chasing After You.” In case there was any doubt that the heat between the two was real, Morris had posted a photo of herself with her spouse at the festival earlier in the day, with the caption: “I get to see him naked.”
The MVP guest of the day who didn’t have any official place on the lineup going in was Jon Pardi. He sat in with Midland for their golden-hour set on the main stage, singing their brand new collaboration “Longneck Way to Go,” from the group’s forthcoming album “The Last Resort: Greetings From.” And, perhaps inevitably after he established he was on the premises, Pardi also popped in with Rhett for their joint hit “Beer Can’t Fix.”
An MVP in absentia: Tom Petty. For reasons not always explicable, Petty remains in death, as he was in life, many country stars’ favorite artist, as is evident from the plethora of covers of “Free Fallin’” that have been staples of Stagecoaches past. But as the Desert Sun pointed out, the stars seem to have moved on to a different Petty cover of choice. Jordan Davis covered “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” as part of his main stage set. Up next was Midland, which wrapped up its set with a cover of… “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”
Other highlights of the day included a soulful-rocking set from the Marcus King Band, whose intersection with country music is minimal, at best, but who captivated a ready-to-party Palomino crowd; rising Black country star Breland doing a winning after-hours set in the Palomino tent that paid tribute to the origins of country/hip-hop crossover with a Nelly medley; Charley Crockett, who’s become one of the most beloved figures among country’s hippest fan subset by being one of the most traditionally inclined; and sets by an unusually high representation of female artists in the predominantly male genre, from mainstream breakout star Ingrid Andress to folk-oriented Americana riser Amythyst Kiah.
Carrie Underwood will headline Saturday night, followed by Luke Combs closing out Sunday.
The bulk of Stagecoach sets are being livestreamed on YouTube for the first time. For a schedule of streaming performances, see the rundown here.
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