Even without the support of country radio in the SoCal market, and in spite -- or, perhaps, because -- of Tollett’s inexperience in the genre (viewing the entire boxed set of Hee Haw was part of his education), Stagecoach immediately became, and remains, arguably the most important country music play West of the Mississippi.
In the ensuing 10 years, Tollett and talent buyer Stacy Vee have been frequent visitors to Nashville. Vee, just in Nashville in September, has played an increasingly larger role in the talent acquisition for Stagecoach, as well as interaction with the Nashville music business, and is now the festival’s chief talent buyer.
But in the early days of Stagecoach, Nashville and its traditionally insular country music business was an unknown entity for Goldenvoice, Vee admits. She says that she and Tollett “fed off the excitement” of those they approached about launching Stagecoach, providing all the encouragement needed.
“We were committed to the idea, and were so eager to learn everything we could about the genre and it’s fans,” Vee tells Billboard. “Country music is so diverse, as is its audience. We knew we were on to something.”
In the decade since, the country genre has continued to explode, as has the country music festival market. Live Nation Country Music president Brian O’Connell has launched Goldenvoice and AEG have created seven country festivals, and AEG/Goldenvoice has launched four, including Big Barrel in Dover, Del. (in partnership with Firefly producers), and Country Superfests in Baton Rouge, La., Jacksonville, Fla., and Columbus, Ohio (all in partnership with Jazzfest producer FPI).
Even with this increase in country fest competition, Stagecoach itself has continued its own growth, expanding to three days in 2012. Stagecoach put up its best-ever numbers in 2015 with Tim McGraw, Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton as headliners, grossing $21,879,744 and selling 70,000 tickets, according to Boxscore. By comparison, Stagecoach’s first year grossed just over $5 million, with attendance of 55,164.
Vee attributes several factors to Stagecoach’s ongoing success, but says that the Empire Polo Grounds and artist and fan amenities like permanent restrooms, a family area, petting zoo, barbecue cook-off and a honky-tonk (complete with hard wood floors). “We have a site that is second to none, in a beautiful area of the country, and a staff that cares so much,” she says. “We focus a lot on ‘extra-curriculars’ and comforts as well. Being at a festival all day for three days isn’t easy.”
Still, it is Stagecoach’s unique approach to talent booking that sets it apart. While the festival has hosted virtually all of the contemporary country music hit makers, the festival is not afraid to test country’s boundaries, nor honor its history. For every Kenny Chesney, Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley and Toby Keith that has played Stagecoach there is a Merle Haggard, George Jones and Willie Nelson, as well as genre-leaping acts like Drive-By Truckers, the Eagles, and the Del McCoury Band. Luncinda Williams, Waddie Mitchell, Sam Bush, Alejandro Escovedo, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Glen Campbell, Jerry Jeff Walker, Lynn Anderson, Kris Kristofferson, Junior Brown, Leon Russell, Dave Alvin, Connie Smith, Charley Pride, Don Williams, Duane Eddy, Asleep at the Wheel, John Prine, Michael Nesmith,
“What many people may not realize is the fact that two-thirds of the artists we book on Stagecoach aren’t mainstream radio acts,” Vee points out. “We have a formula, or ‘anti-formula’ as it may be, where folks come to expect the unexpected and discover new talent with us. We love diving deep into bluegrass, alt, classic, and outlaw country. We have even dabbled in a little Southern rock the past couple of years, and have had an awful lot of fun with it.”
Stagecoach is also quick to recognize new talent and give it an audience. “We were early adopters to Sturgill Simpson,” says Vee, adding that Simpson, “is someone we are excited to see grow and look forward to welcoming back again and again throughout his career.”
Coachella, Stagecoach to Remain in Indio Through 2030
The 2016 lineup stays true to that formula. In addition to the previously mentioned performers, the 2016 Stagecoach bill includes Eric Paslay, Jana Kramer, A Thousand Horses, Dustin Lynch, Chris Stapleton, Drake White and the Big Fire, Jason Boland & the Stragglers, Lee Ann Womack, Rodney Crowell, Johnny Lee, Billy Joe Shaver, Dale Watson, Pokey LaFarge, and Sam Palladio.
Vee points out that many of the developing acts that Stagecoach booked early on have since become arena, if not stadium, headliners. “To look back and see Eric Church, Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan and Miranda Lambert play early slots in 2007 and 2008 is literally the coolest thing,” she says. “These artist, and so many others, have become part of the fabric of Stagecoach, they’ll always have a place here. We like to think if we treat the artist right, pay them a fair wage, and provide a setting that enhances their talent, they’ll come back and see us again.”
Both artists and media have found ways to maximize a West Coast visit early in the touring season. “All of the SoCal radio stations set up shop at Stagecoach, and artists are in and out of their trailers all day long,” says Vee. “Country artists are so kind to their fans, most opt to do meet and greets. We also have the pleasure of seeing a lot of the industry come out to Stagecoach. Many of the artists are able to meet with their agents, managers and labels while out at the show. Most do West Coast runs in and out of Stagecoach as well.”
Ten years on, Stagecoach is in “a great place,” according to Vee. “We are already counting the days to hanging out with our favorite people and seeing some good music,” she says. “You will find that the biggest fans are the Goldenvoice staff themselves; we usually watch from house right, so please come and say hello.”
Complete Stagecoach Lineup (poster below):
Friday, April 29
Eric Church, Chris Young, Sam Hunt, Emmylou Harris, Eric Paslay, Marty Stuart, Robert Earl Keen, Jana Kramer, Lucero, Kristian Bush, Billy Joe Shaver, Whitey Morgan, Dale Watson, Drake White and the Big Fire, The Malpass Brothers, Cody Jinks, Carl Anderson, Tigerman WOAH!, Haley Georgia, Leroy Powell
Saturday, April 30
Carrie Underwood, The Band Perry, Dustin Lynch, John Fogerty, Chris Stapleton, Lee Ann Womack, Sam Palladio, Rodney Crowell, Langhorne Slim and the Law, Pokey LaFarge, Mo Pitney, Sam Outlaw, Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear, Jamestown Revival, Waddie Mitchell, Rainey Qualley, Caitlyn Smith, Luke Bell, Aaron Watson, These Wild Plains, Susto
Sunday, May 1
Luke Bryan, Little Big Town, Joe Nichols, The Doobie Brothers, A Thousand Horses, RaeLynn, The Turnpike Troubadours, Old Dominion, Jerry Douglass Presents the Earls of Leicester, The Marshall Tucker Band, Jason Boland and the Stragglers, Amanda Shires, The Deslondes, Johnny Lee, Midland, EmiSunshine, Ruthie Collins, William Elliot Whitmore, ChessBoxer