If you’re not familiar with Stagecoach — aka the “country Coachella” — then you’re missing out on a whole down-home subculture that crops up right after Coachella finishes its two-weekend staycation in the desert. This year’s iteration of the beloved country-focused fest included a spectacular set from Kacey Musgraves, one of the first live shows since the release of her country masterpiece Golden Hour, and though I’m loath to attend the carnival that is Coachella, heading up to the desert to drink in some soothing, folksy tunes is right up my alley.
As someone who grew up with country music and still loves it, Stagecoach is not as unfamiliar a domain for me as it may be for some. Plus, this wasn’t my first time making the trip up for the more under-the-radar fest, and I consider myself something of an expert on the event. As part of the trip up to Palm Springs, Chevy gave a crew of journalists each a truck to make the trek up, and while I pride myself on being a great driver, the four-door truck we were assigned made me feel like the king of the road, yes, but occasionally put me in a situation where I was getting honked at when I tried to change lanes in such a big rig. It was an adjustment, but by the time we got to the desert, I’d finally gotten a handle on both the gas pedal and our playlist jumping between Jason Isbell, Kelsea Ballerini, Kacey Musgraves and none other than Garth Brooks, who was slated to headline the final night of the event. (Coincidentally, trucks are really important to the history of country music, and remain so even up through the modern era. I hypothesize this is because they’ve all but replaced the mythical steed that elevated cowboys of yore from cowhands to legends, but it could also be because working class people tend to need them for work, and the correlation just stuck.)
That said, stepping onto the Stagecoach grounds in Indio can feel like stepping into an alternate world. The style here is typified by American flags, red, white and blue, cowboy hats, boots, and all manners of cowboy couture. Fresh flower crowns — complete with lights — sold for $25-$35, next door, a booth housed row upon row of rings handmade with real crystals, kettle corn was everywhere, and the honky-tonk dancefloor blared everything from Hank Williams Jr. to Nelly (Another theory I have is that it is statistically impossible for a music festival to take place without “Get Low” being played at least once.)
My best advice for any music festival is to catch as many acts as possible on the first day. That’s the only time when you have fresh legs, your enthusiasm, and no dogged sense that you’ve been through all this before. Our first day was packed out with a Mane stage (get it?) set from Lindsay Ell, the tail end of a blistering set from the legendary Tanya Tucker, and another Mane stage performance from Chris Janson, who is well on his way to headlining status — and you can quote me. By the time Kelsea Ballerini took the stage that evening, as dusk fell, the pit was crowded with fans eager to catch the history-making star following her recently released album Unapologetically. Though Jake Owen and Florida Georgia Line followed up, Kelsea was the end of the night for me — I wanted an early jump on Saturday’s day-long haul.
The second main point you should take away from this guide is to make Saturday your main food day. All the vendors are stocked and ready for that sweet spot middle day, which doesn’t come tainted with Friday’s work-day vibes or Sunday’s dreading of the week to come: Saturday is the golden festival day, and vendors know this. With this knowledge in mind, we rolled up to the festival around 3 PM on Saturday and spent a good portion of the early afternoon in the Guy Fieri-curated Stagecoach Smokehouse, which featured barbecue vendors handpicked by Guy — from all across the country — dishing out brisket, chicken wings, ribs, sausage, mac and cheese, coleslaw, and every other kind of southern, down-home, mouth-watering grilled and fried goodness.
The standouts included a lot of LA and Cali locals — Bludso‘s buttery, fall-apart brisket almost made me tear up, Black Sugar Ribs are hands down the best I’ve ever tasted, Big Dev out of Lemon Grove, California (near San Diego) outdid himself with a concoction of chips, barbecue, baked beans, and mac and cheese that was somehow greater than the sum of its parts. The only thing that could’ve possibly topped this meal was a fitting dessert — an emotional, awe-inspiring set from Jason Isbell, and a festival-stealing performance from Kacey Musgraves a few hours later.
For the final day of the festival, a true insider knows to rest up, and keep their energy high for the final headliner — country legend Garth Brooks. After lounging by the Ace Hotel pool for most of the afternoon, sipping on Pina Coladas in honor of one of Brooks’ biggest hits, I headed back to the grounds in the early evening to get a good spot for that final concert. And when it comes to closing out a three-day event, there is no one on this planet who can rival Garth Brooks; his energy was unlike anything I’ve experienced at a live show, his litany of hits continued on and on, and then, as if that wasn’t enough, he brought out his wife Trisha Yearwood to deliver a couple of her own, including “American Girl” which soundtracked a good deal of my childhood.
Another pro-tip of mine is leaving during the final song, so you’re not quite as caught up in the stampede to get out of the crowd when the show ends. So as the final notes of “Friends In Low Places” played, I walked back to my giant truck to start the long drive home, blasting that iconic song through my rolled down windows and out into the night.