A lot of music critics can’t help themselves when it comes to Kacey Musgraves. Since there’s plenty about her self-presentation that resembles the indie artists they’re accustomed to–for instance, that she’s super casual about speaking her mind, smoking weed and sporting a delicate nose ring—they hold her up as the antithesis of the homogenous, retrograde bro-down they presume popular country to be. (The poptimist outlook that ushered in a critical embrace of so much music that was once dismissed as lowbrow–i.e. so much music identified with women, queer people or people of color–reaches its limits at country; as Nadine Hubbs has explained, classism has everything to do with it. Carl Wilson has briefly addressed this too.) As for Musgraves herself, she might roll her eyes at the notion that the contemporary country landscape, and her place in it, is so simplistic that the only two possibilities are complete conformity to countrified mass taste or wholesale rebellion against it.
The song most frequently offered up as evidence of her iconoclasm is the sing-along “Follow Your Arrow,” whose chorus breezily toasts the idea of people doing whatever they’re into doing, including locking lips with someone of the same sex. After hearing those lyrics, some made her out to be an artist-activist stumping for greater inclusivity in country music. In reality, she didn’t consider her viewpoints especially progressive so much as in sync with those of her millennial peers, and she repeatedly pointed out that her two co-writers on “Follow Your Arrow,” which was voted CMA Song of the Year, are vital voices in the country songwriting scene who happen to be openly gay, the implication being that a collab like that is a reflection of country’s new normal. Three years ago, while baking in the sun outside a Nashville café, Musgraves told me, “My ideas don’t feel that controversial. To some, I guess they are. But it’s just like whatever felt real and natural for me to say.”
Low-key tolerance certainly sounded natural coming from an artist her age. Despite characterizations to the contrary, a live-and-let-live attitude was nothing out of the ordinary for country music either. The real revelation was the deft way that Musgraves merged the two sensibilities, her tone of voice possessing both groundedness and a millennial nonchalance that was legible even to those who weren’t used to taking country expression seriously. In interviews, she’s continuously linked herself to a circle of savvy, young artists with kindred approaches to music-making, others of whom–including Maren Morris and Brothers Osborne–are now enjoying some mainstream success too. (I’ve described their contributions as generational, a new way of negotiating “the divide between resilient small-town identity and plugged-in, 21st Century fluidity.”)
In her lyrics, Musgraves has frequently trained her focus on small towns, the sort of setting that holds far more emotional weight in country than it does in many other genres, and she’s made it her mission to assert that finding meaning in provincial communities and feeling constricted by them aren’t mutually exclusive experiences. “Merry Go Round,” the lead single from her major label debut Same Trailer Different Park, dwelled on disappointment that can come with living according to entrenched social scripts. In “This Town,” a sprightly, string-swathed country-blues number on last year’s Pageant Material that recalled Bobbie Gentry’s orchestrated southern pop, Musgraves described the simultaneous comfort and discomfort of knowing every soul in a few-mile radius. She really drove her rural identification home with “Dimestore Cowgirl.” “Maybe for a minute I got too big for my britches,” she allowed, “but I’m just a dimestore cowgirl; that’s all I’m ever gonna be. You can take me out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of me.” She seems to relish the full-circle effect of her autobiography–from growing up with a singing cowgirl act in tiny Golden, TX to finding emo and nerd rock in adolescence, making inroads in the professionalized ranks of Nashville and burnishing an image not unsuited to the custom-made fringe shirts from her kid singer days.
Though there are ample throwback elements to Musgraves’ sound–the jauntiness of western swing, the gentle gallop of cowboy ballads, countrypolitan’s swaddling arrangements–a neotraditionalist she isn’t. Everything’s refracted through her easeful pop and singer-songwriter instincts and her powerful attraction to kitsch and camp. She has a knowing way of fetishizing and modernizing stuff that was once considered gaudy and low-class, like the neon cacti that have dotted her stage, the lawn flamingoes she tosses into the crowd and her flirtatious take on the rhinestone-encrusted, ranchwear-inspired showbiz costumes that were once embraced by so many country entertainers. Sure, Musgraves sang, “I ain’t pageant material” in the title track of last year’s album, but that was a wry rejection of respectable, middle-class standards of femininity; she marked the release of Pageant Material with drag show pageantry, inviting a Nashville industry crowd to don plastic tiaras and sashes and watch splashy, wig-wearing queens of camp lip sync to her songs in a gay bar.
Dolly Parton, a pioneer of parlaying the tweaking of femininity into broadened appeal, would’ve no doubt approved. Over the years she’s been famously quoted as saying, “It’s a good thing I was born a girl, otherwise I’d be a drag queen,” and she’s always attributed her idea of beauty to her childhood admiration of a woman looked down on as trashy by others. It’s illuminating to consider additional parallels between Parton’s self-positioning and Musgraves’. Eric Weisbard has described Parton as “a pop musician navigating intersections of entertainment and identity with a political acuity.” For her, and, in some ways, for Musgraves too, the flexibility of country performing identity allows commercial ambition and authentic expression to exist side by side. And like Parton did in decades past, Musgraves helped renew interest in wittiness from country women with her smartass word play and cute, clever manipulation of tone. Since her emergence, there’s been a little bit more appreciation of the slyly biting humor found in songs like Brandy Clark’s “Big Day In a Small Town,” Jennifer Nettles’s “Drunk In Heels,” Cam’s “Country Ain’t Never Been Pretty,” Maren Morris’s “Rich” and Tara Thompson’s “Someone To Take Your Place.”
To date, though, Musgraves has enjoyed success of a much more modest scale than Parton’s. It took two years for Same Trailer to go gold. The album was originally supposed to be released on the Mercury Nashville imprint Lost Highway, then home to alt-country archetype Lucinda Williams, which would’ve put Musgraves completely outside of the mainstream country format, in Americana territory. That’s a world that strives to position itself as separate from country, culturally and commercially, by promoting high-minded values that prioritize pure, roots-minded artistry over the pursuit of mass appeal. But Musgraves and Chris Stapleton, the rugged country-soul singer whose album Traveller became a sleeper hit, have complicated that schema; they’ve been proudly claimed by the country music industry, even if radio hasn’t taken to their singles as warmly, but they’re also each up for Americana Music Awards this September. At a different end of the spectrum, Musgraves has cozied up with pop stars, touring with Katy Perry and dueting with Miguel on a remix of “Waves.” On an EP that assembled hip-hop, psych rock and alt-electronic remakes of that song, she was the country representative. But an invite from a cutting-edge R&B artist alone isn’t what gives her credibility–that comes from having something fresh to say to a contemporary country audience.
Kacey Musgraves will perform at Northside Festival on June 11 as part of a co-bill with kindred spirit Conor Oberst. The show, taking place at McCarren Park, is a benefit for the Open Space Alliance for North Brooklyn (OSA), a nonprofit dedicated to building a stronger North Brooklyn by improving 45 parks and playgrounds and getting neighbors involved in their parks.
Special guests The Felice Brothers will open the show. Tickets are on sale now.