Kacey Musgraves: Style, Substance, and Why it’s OK to Have Both (A Live Concert Review & Other Musings)

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Last Friday night, my wife and I went to see Kacey Musgraves at the Tennessee Theatre here in Knoxville.

Almost immediately, I knew that this show was not like any I had been to recently. In fact, in many ways, it was unlike most shows I typically attend. Musgraves came out on stage in a flashy outfit flanked by a band decked out in matching Western suits complete with flashing Christmas light accents. The stage was decorated with giant neon cacti, plastic flamingos, and smoke machines that puffed out punctuations to certain lyrics.

It was a spectacle.

Of course, if that had been all it was, this would be a very different review.

You see, the thing about Kacey Musgraves, is that behind the glitz… the glamour… the style… there is also some serious substance. By the time she hit the first chorus of the show opening “Silver Lining,” everything else became an afterthought. The loping opener (which also leads off her album Same Trailer Different Park) is built around a series of well turned phrases and established immediately the strength of Musgraves’ pen as well as her presence.

Six songs into the set, Musgraves tackled Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again” and proved her vocal prowess as well. After the first line, my wife and I shared a nod and an approving smirk. You don’t come into East Tennessee and try to cover Dolly unless you can. Musgraves could.

The rest of the night was filled with a few more well chosen covers (the reverent, show closing “Happy Trails” and the raucous “These Boots are Made for Walkin'”), a couple puzzlers (if Nickel Creek can cover Brittany Spears’ “Toxic,” so can Musgraves, I guess), and a string of killer originals. Again, it’s that latter category that separates her from most other contemporary Country artists.

The songs Musgraves crafted for her album alongside songwriters Brandy Clark, Josh Osborne, Luke Laird, and Shane McAnally are smart and progressive in a Country Music landscape that increasingly embraces neither ideal. Performed live, “Follow Your Arrow” becomes even more of an anthem for love and acceptance than it is on the record. Hearing the audience merge their voices with Musgraves on that song (as they did a good portion of the night) proved those messages are being heard.

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Anyone who has listened to me on the radio for the last couple of years knows that I spent some time struggling with what to make of an artist like Kacey Musgraves. I always recognized the talent and the songwriting, and I always enjoyed the music. I listened to Musgraves’ album in my spare time even during a period when I wasn’t playing her songs regularly on my radio show. What I struggled with was that, like the show Friday night, Same Trailer Different Park had a few elements of sleekness to it that initially caused me to wonder how it would fit in an Americana setting.

What I’ve come to realize is that it doesn’t matter if there’s a neon cactus on the stage, or if the record is little more produced than what I’ve grown accustomed to. If the substance is as substantial as it is with an artist like Musgraves, the style starts to not matter as much.

What Musgraves has done with Trailer is pretty much unprecedented in the Country/Americana world as far as I can remember. She managed have a Top Ten single at Country radio (“Merry Go Round”) from an album that would also reach #11 on the Americana Album Airplay Chart. It’s a type of mainstream success and underground acclaim that doesn’t come around often (Civil Wars? The Dixie Chicks’ Home record pre-Country radio fallout?).

Recently, Musgraves announced she will be releasing a new single next week from an album that will hit later this summer. She played the new single (“Biscuits”) as well as a second track from the upcoming album (“Cup of Tea”) Friday night. Judging from the solo acoustic versions we were treated to, the songs are of a songwriting caliber that should once again connect with more discerning listeners. At least one account of an early leaked version of the studio track for “Biscuits” says the track just might have have what it takes to connect with a mainstream crowd as well.

But, whether Musgraves’ new music does or doesn’t connect with one crowd or the other seems beside the point. At least it does to Musgraves herself. When I spoke to her after the show, she said to me the one thing I want to hear most when I speak to a young songwriter like herself… that she isn’t concerned with writing songs specifically designed to climb the charts or please the latest trend. She’s going to write songs that say what she wants to say, and she’s going to write them how she wants to write them. The rest, she figures, will sort itself out.

I read a blurb today that said Dwight Yoakam is the only artist who has ever played both the Stagecoach and Coachella Festivals. Musgraves expressed a similar desire to me to be the kind of artist who would not seem out of place at either Bonnaroo or CMA Fest.

If she continues to follow her own arrow and make the music she wants to make, I have no doubt she will get there.  There’s no reason an artist like Kacey Musgraves can’t belong to us all.

P.S. – I think John Prine agrees with me.

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