In January, Nash FM landed in New York City, the first country radio station to sound over the city’s airwaves in almost 17 years. New Yorkers can tune into 94.7 and blast Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert, Kenny Chesney, The Band Perry, or the Zac Brown Band out their trunk driving up the West Side Highway. In one of the most urban radio markets in the nation, country music is trying to capitalize on a cultural collision that, as it so happens, urban music is trying to do, too. The property lines of mainstream pop are disappearing and two of the more marginalized groups of music in the U.S. — two of the genre’s whose roots are deeply embedded in our country’s history — are finally becoming part of a larger conversation.
Kacey Musgraves, raised in the small town of Golden, TX, is here with no small thanks to the TV show Nashville and the country stars that came out of American Idol like Kellie Pickler or most notably Carrie Underwood. Before Musgraves’ name ever even came close to the words “cross-over artist”, she was child recording artist, first appearing on stage when she was eight years old, then later as a contestant on Nashville Star in 2007 when she was 19. She placed seventh, picked up her hat, and went back to writing songs in Nashville with musician Jedd Hughes. One of the songs the two wrote together closed out her set last night at Joe’s Bar in Chicago, “Things To Fix”. It was the most raw moment of the show, just her and her guitarist, both strumming acoustics, singing about how she doesn’t want her man to be “some lesson she had to learn.” The bemused melancholy and wit that appears on her latest LP, Same Trailer, Different Park, was whittled down to right to Musgraves’ bruised heart.
Real cunning of her to try to sneak this in at the end of the night, after an hour-long set of tunes that slapped a smile on every face in the room. The backseat drumming and just-the-facts guitar solos under Musgraves’ pop-twang voice require no prerequisite listening. Her sound is so rooted in the pop and folk tradition of Americana that it’s comforting and familiar like a wood-burning fireplace or sun shining through leaves. And while that’s all fine and good for a back-room bar venue in front of 300 people at a radio station-sponsored one-off show, the 24-year-old uses the old strains of country as her siren song. Just as you get comfy in the hard R’s of her voice, Musgraves sings an individualists’ anthem (“Follow Your Arrow”) that tells people to “kiss lots of boys/kiss lots of girls” and “roll up a joint” because that’s what she would do.
Or go into a twangy, spot-on cover of Weezer’s “Island In The Sun” and make me wonder why she didn’t have the foresight to record this on colored vinyl 7″ for Record Store Day. If her PR campaign was “Bethany Cosentino but country”, she would be playing indie rock clubs to stoners who would go “whoooo” every time she mentions weed — which she mentions quite a lot.
But that’s what’s so wonderful about watching Musgraves do her thing: it’s half old guard country and half post-internet culture collision. She not only knows all the words to every Charlie Daniels/Tanya Tucker song, but her idea of heaven is “burning one with John Prine” and doing covers of Weezer with nary a tongue in her cheek. On the outside, she’s Shania Twain, but inside she’s all Loretta Lynn and Stevie Nix and, sure, from my lens, Bethany Cosentino. She has some vestiges of affected pop-star pageantry in her stage presence, a constant smile, some rote stage banter, half-hearted attempts to get the crowd to wave their hands back and forth, but underneath there’s a powerful voice that panders to no one, and speaks to everyone.
It’s part of what made songs like the rousing “Stupid” or the plaintive “Merry Go Round” sound so great in that little bar. Even if you’re seeing Musgraves for the first time and aren’t catching all of her lyrics, her songs feel only vaguely informed by the country bubble. Moreso they are grounded in the present, where traditional country song structures, the three-verse story song, the puritanical undertones and themes are tossed aside for more folky traditions — real rural stories with plot twists and characters who hope and dream and live very much in 2013.
She laughed as she told us that her nana referred to her most-accomplished and nuanced song “It Is What It Is” as “the slut song.” And as she sang the lolling ballad about a lackadaisical love affair between two friends, and her voice wrapped around the words “Maybe I love you / maybe I’m just kinda bored,” and the band played a last-call waltz with the pedal steel guitar crying in the background, all the walls between country and pop and folk fell like Jericho.
The crowd talked throughout the night — mostly there on the dime of Blue Chip Casino and Chicago’s country station U.S. 99.5 — and gave the biggest response when Musgraves did a cover of Miranda Lambert’s gold-record hit “Mama’s Broken Heart”. Before she started the song, her voice took the slightest tone and she cracked the slightest smile, “This is a song I wrote.” While the crowd sang along, the song just didn’t jive with Musgrave’s own country honesty and puckish nature — she’s outgrown it. As a young country singer, she doesn’t need to think about whose boots to fill, she just needs to keep wearing her own.
Photography by Jeremy D. Larson.
Keep It To Yourself
Island In The Sun (Weezer cover)
Follow Your Arrow
It Is What It Is
Things to Fix