2022 Palomino Festival in Pasadena Pushes Cultural Boundaries in Country Music [Pictures]
The Palomino Festival on July 9 in the gorgeous hills of Pasadena, Calif., was only a one-day event, but packed with more talent than most festivals have in two.
Spawned from the growth of the Palomino Stage at the Stagecoach Festival, which contained more of the alternative country bands, the Palomino Stage paid tribute to the original Palomino Club, which existed in the San Fernando valley for decades before closing its doors in 1995.
With big names like Willie Nelson, Jason Isbell and Kacey Musgraves, the event was certain to bring people outside, but this festival wasn't just about entertaining country music lovers: It was a carefully curated, all-inclusive, welcomed (but long overdue) change to the country music genre. We caught up with Jason Gaulton, Director of Global Partnerships at AEG Presents to talk more about it.
Gaulton, in his Orville Peck T-shirt, met us at the MorningStar Farms food truck, a brand synonymous with plant-based food. Gaulton says brands like this have seen fans resonate with a meatless lifestyle.
“For their first festival partnership, it’s big that they chose one in the country music scene,” he says. “Ketel One is here with their botanical brand where, I think traditionally, you would have seen some sort of Texas vodka.” He says the partnerships are really about leaning into something that has been developing with country fans in recent years.
The lineup at this year's festival reflected that core value, with some of the earlier artists being the most interesting and cutting-edge. Women of color were represented in two Tennessee acts: Valerie June was a dynamic ball of fun and had the crowd dancing early under the noon time sun. Any audiophile trying to broaden their game would have loved catching the smoky-voiced, Amythyst Kiah. Kiah left the crowd wanting more when she ended her set with her snake stomping "Black Myself" from her debut album Our Native Daughters.
Jaime Wyatt and Logan Ledger represented the local SoCal scene, but surprises like Sierra Ferrell (Virginia) and Low Cut Connie (Pennsylvania) were a fresh, unconventional break. Langhorne Slim seemed to spend more time in the audience performing than on stage, joining his sun-drenched fans in simple appreciation. Nikki Lane with local Eli Wuffmeier on guitar delivered her usual chip-on-her-shoulder attitude she is known for. Lane also helped curate the unique merchandising for the festival, according to Gaulton.
Charley Crockett caught the golden hour of California light in his baby blue suit, with the crowd chanting his name. He opened with “Run Horse Run” as fans literally ran from Paul Cauthen’s set on the main stage to catch the stylish Texas Troubadour. Zach Bryan and the Turnpike Troubadours followed, but it was Orville Peck who solidified the vibe of this festival. The masked singer in white and red began his set with "Legends Never Die," appropriate for him. Watching the various types of people embrace his bold performance in unity was mesmerizing. It was also a reminder that the cross of change is carried on the shoulders of our most talented and versatile performers. He ended his set with “C’mon Baby, Cry," an invitation to vulnerability and kindness.
In our interview, Gaulton talked about the spirit of LGBTQ+ and people of color growing at Stagecoach. He sees it as something that it is helping to define the Palomino Festival.
“It’s also a great opportunity for fans who are country curious, like me.”
Gaulton says it’s artists like these that made him more interested in country music: “It’s bridging a gap in a lot of respects.”
The event is also geographically more accessible than Stagecoach, which often involves sold-out hotels, expensive tickets and tricky transportation. He talks about how this festival is easier to get to for fans from places like Bakersfield, and in speaking to some festival attendees, he is correct. We met several people who traveled from as far as Arizona just to see acts that they wouldn’t be able to see at other festivals. The options in hotels and other things to do in Los Angeles made it an easy decision for them.
When asked about how he felt feels the job the Palomino Festival has done with pushing the cultural boundaries of country music, Gaulton says, “I feel great about it. There is no other way to feel. The roots of country are still represented in acts like Willie Nelson. We’re not evolving past what has come before us, but we are taking cues from what is becoming a driving force with acts like Kacey, Nikki lane and Orville."
Willie Nelson is a highlight anywhere, and it’s even more of a treat when joined by his sons, Lukas and Micah. Opening with “Whiskey River" was a satisfying start — they also covered another ten or so of his hits, including “Always on My Mind." "Good Hearted Woman" is a beautiful reminder of his friend, the late Waylon Jennings, but one of the most beautiful pieces of the night was Nelson's Eddie Vedder cover of "Just Breathe," reminding us of just how well rounded Nelson has always been as a performer.
Lukas brought the blues with “Floodin’ Down in Texas," and Micah performed his song “If I Die When I’m High, I’ll be Halfway to Heaven," written from the perspective of his father. Lukas Nelson has been a force for the past several years, and it’s nice to see that we have another Nelson who is also very much his own person, but still chiseling out a great craft in songwriting.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit are a well-oiled machine, and for those seeing them for the first time, it’s hard to believe how mature Isbell's sound has become in such a short amount of time. He delivered with some of his best, like “24 Frames," “If We Were Vampires” and everyone’s favorite, “Cover Me Up.”
Lack of female headliners at festivals has been a thriving topic, but the Palomino Festival chose six-time Grammy winner Kacey Musgraves for the role. With her undeniable stage presence, it’s no wonder she’s been keeping this kind of company. “Good Wife," “Breadwinner" and her cover of Dolly Parton's “9 to 5” were all part of her setlist, but it was her duet with Nelson on "On the Road Again" that was the highlight.
“The number of acts that take their inspiration from being a little bit different shade of country is exploding right now," says Gaulton. He is right, and even though California has always been a leader in this type of change, these festival-goers certainly hope this kind of love gets shared. The Palomino Festival represents something that should be accessible everywhere.
Photo contribution from Matt Stasi.