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Why Country Music Really Needs Kacey Musgraves

(promo photo)

At a time when mainstream country music is perceived as too pop, Musgraves has the potential to bring it back to the basics -- and in a progressive fashion, too.

Since her debut album Same Trailer Different Park (2013), Kacey Musgraves has been the most talked about progressive voice in mainstream country music. The song for which Musgraves is most celebrated is “Follow Your Arrow”, an ode to independence that has become an LGBT rights anthem and won the Country Music Award for Song of the Year in 2014. With lyrics like “make lots of noise/ kiss lots of boys/ or kiss lots of girls if that’s something you’re into”, “Follow Your Arrow” sends a powerful message that not everyone in the country music industry discriminates against the LGBT community, despite the many fundamentalist politicians in the South who do.

This is significant when we remember the states in the US that banned same-sex marriage before the Supreme Court’s June 2015 decision (Obergefell v. Hodges) to legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states. The majority of the opposing states make up the South, such as Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Musgraves’ home state of Texas. These states significantly encompass the country music community, including the “home of country music” in Nashville, Tennessee.

Given this cultural context, what explains Musgraves’ success? Some have tried to answer this question. Hollie McKay, for example, reports that the country music community is less conservative than it was when it banned the Dixie Chicks after lead singer Natalie Maines criticized the Bush regime’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.Randy Lewis, on the other hand, reports that the country music establishment’s approval is no longer necessary in an Internet age that makes country music more accessible to other parts of the world, and when mainstream country music in particular “is a little less country, and a little more pop”. Both McKay and Lewis bring up fair points, but they don’t tell the full story.

While it’s true, for example, that the country music community is more progressive than it used to be, the vast majority of southerners still identify as conservative. ("Political Ideology: ‘Conservative’ Label Prevails in the South", Lydia Saad, Gallup, 14 August 2009) At the same time, even though Musgraves has achieved significant success outside of the South, the country music community has embraced her with open arms. She’s not some fringe artist who’s too much of an outsider to be invited to the party.

Musgraves’ success has less to do with her progressive message and more to do with her traditional sound. Unlike many of today’s mainstream country music stars, Musgraves sounds like your grandmother’s country music, and I mean that as a compliment. With her reliance on acoustic string instruments and the pedal steel guitar, Musgraves reminds many country music lovers of that traditional, more authentic country sound from yesteryear, before the genre was infiltrated by pop-friendly power ballads. This isn’t to say that Musgraves is the only one who records real country music today, but she’s the only one who plays this kind of music who has recently entered the mainstream.

The song “Merry Go Round” from Same Trailer Different Park is a fitting example. The main sounds we hear on the track are an acoustic guitar, banjo, and Musgraves’ twangy voice. From a sonic perspective, it’s one of the purest country tracks in years, especially compared to country pop power ballads like Carrie Underwood’s “Little Toy Guns”. At a time when mainstream country music is perceived as too pop, Musgraves has the potential to bring it back to the basics. Unlike her contemporaries, she doesn’t seek crossover success, and she avoids the trappings of country pop. In effect, she has made the country music community an offer it can’t refuse. Don’t let her association with Katy Perry fool you: Musgraves is country to the bone.

Musgraves is the 21st century heiress to Loretta Lynn. In addition to her sound, her lyrical content mirrors Lynn’s “write about what you know” philosophy. Musgraves grew up in Golden, Texas and knows a lot about the South. For example, the aforementioned “Merry Go Round” speaks to the boredom of small town life. When she sings, “we get bored/ so we get married/ and just like dust we settle in this town”, she appeals to anyone who has ever come of age in a small town, which she cynically refers to as a “broken merry go round”.

Upon first listen, “Merry Go Round” might sound like a kiss-off to the hand that feeds Musgraves, but it’s actually more complex than that. The song isn’t anti-South. It’s an honest portrayal of small town America, in which young people often struggle to conform to social expectations. Musgraves opens the song with a sardonic declaration: “If you ain’t got to kids by twenty-one/ you’re probably gonna die alone/ least that’s what tradition told you”. Many young people in the South, especially girls, are pressured to practice traditional customs, and when they don’t, they feel alienated and isolated from their communities. Musgraves taps into this honest sentiment.

“This Town” from Musgraves’ sophomore album Pageant Material (2015) is less cynical about small town life. When Musgraves sings, “somebody's mama knows somebody's cousin/ and somebody's sister knows somebody's husband/ and somebody's daughter knows somebody's brother/ and around here, we all look out for each other”, she paints small town life in a more positive light. She refers to a form of southern hospitality that she most likely experienced first-hand as a youth. Unlike “Merry Go Round”, “This Town” perpetuates the idealistic portrait of small town life in which everyone is kind to you and everyone knows your name.

“Merry Go Round” and “This Town” express a full range of emotions about Musgraves’ life experiences in the South. The former is a sad song that focuses on the downsides of small town life, whereas the latter is an upbeat track that highlights the benefits. Musgraves’ refusal to sugarcoat her upbringing is part of her charm, especially for country music fans who can relate to the contradictions.

Just as Lynn expressed pride to be a “Coal Miner’s Daughter” in her signature song, Musgraves is equally happy to be a “Dime Store Cowgirl”. In this quintessential country track, Musgraves insists, “you can take me out of the country/ but you can’t take the country out of me.” This is similar to Lynn’s declaration, “if you’re lookin’ at me/ you’re lookin’ at country!” in 1971. It makes sense, then, that the two performed Lynn’s classic “You’re Lookin’ at Country” together at the 2014 Country Music Awards.

Like Lynn, Musgraves is an outspoken feminist for the country music community. She has sass and attitude, and isn’t afraid to speak her mind. Lynn recorded a number of female empowerment anthems throughout her long career.

“The Pill” and “Rated ‘X’”, for example, were released in the early ‘70s at the height of Lynn’s popularity, and they are her most controversial songs. “The Pill” is a comic ode to birth control, in which Lynn sings, “this old maternity dress I've got is goin' in the garbage/ the clothes I'm wearin' from now on won't take up so much yardage/ miniskirts, hot pants and a few little fancy frills/ yeah I'm makin' up for all those years since I've got the pill.” A number of country radio stations refused to play the record at the time, but it has since become one of Lynn’s well-known songs.

In “Rated ‘X’”, Lynn boldly claims, “if you’ve been a married woman/ and things didn’t seem to work out/ divorce is the key to bein’ loose and free/ so you’re gonna be talked about”. Less a celebration of promiscuity and more a cautionary tale, the song nonetheless enraged conservatives in the South for its frank discussion of divorce and casual sex. Like “The Pill”, contemporary critics cite “Rated ‘X’” as one of Lynn’s most important songs.

The sassy “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’” became Lynn’s first number one country single in 1966. In the song, Lynn defiantly stands up to her drunk of a man. She explains, “well you thought I'd be waitin' up when you came home last night/ you'd been out with all the boys and you ended up half tight/ but liquor and love, they just don't mix, leave the bottle or me behind/ and don't come home a-drinkin' with lovin' on your mind”.

Despite the well-documented suffering in her marriage with her long-time husband Oliver "Doolittle", Lynn’s no-nonsense persona made her a feminist icon. Musgraves inherits Lynn’s attitude, as well as her wit.

In “Step Off”, for example, Musgraves explains that “it’s a real fine line between telling a joke and turning a knife”, before instructing the trash-talker to “keep climbing that mountain of dirty tricks/ when you finally get to the top/ step off.” In “Good Ol’ Boys Club”, Musgraves wants nothing to do with “cigars and handshakes”, and like any strong professional woman, could care less about being admitted to the “good ol’ boys club”. In “The Trailer Song”, she tells a nosey neighbor, “You say that you’re watching the birds out the window/ well I’ve got a bird you can watch”.

Musgraves also seems to be inspired by Lynn’s stage presence. Whenever Lynn performed, she stood tall with a smile on her face, a guitar in her hands, and simply sang her song. She avoided unnecessary theatrics, and forced the audience to focus on her musical talent. Below is an early performance of “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’” that illustrates this point.

Musgraves follows this formula. The stage craft is obviously updated for the 21st century, but the simplicity is the same. At a time when most popular “musicians” today overdo it with stage craft to cover up their lack of musical talent, Musgraves keeps the focus on her musical talent. She has nothing to hide. Her stunning performance of “Pageant Material” in the video below is an example of her simplistic approach to performance.

In many ways, Pageant Material is the perfect representation of Musgraves' country heart. Her debut album Same Trailer Different Park was a critical and commercial success, and won the Grammy Award for Best Country Album and Academy of Country Music Award for Best Album in 2014. If Musgraves were like other mainstream country artists such as Underwood or Swift, her sophomore album would be bigger, louder, and more pop-friendly. Instead, Pageant Material is more intimate and country-sounding than Same Trailer Different Park. This isn’t to say that generalists won’t dig it, but it’s purposefully made for country music lovers who have turned their backs on mainstream country pop. This is a bold follow-up album by a young artist who isn't afraid of traditional country music.

As Musgraves tries to bring authentic country music back into the mainstream, the country music community has no choice but to tolerate her progressive political positions. Her presence is too important, and her music is just too damn good.

Since her emergence, Musgraves has used her platform to speak out about political issues that matter to her. For example, on 26 June 2015, Musgraves tweeted “PROUD to be alive on this historically fabulous day” in response to the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states. On 27 June 2015, she retweeted the Bipartisan Report’s celebration of Bree Newsome, the activist who took down the Confederate flag in South Carolina. The tweet’s hashtag is “FreeBree”, which finds Musgraves in clear support of Newsome’s act. These off-the-stage social media expressions set a wonderful example that should be applauded, and I hope that the rest of the country music community follows her lead. (For more on the Confederate flag’s connection to country music, see Sterling Whitaker’s article "Accidentally Racist? Let’s Be Done With the Confederate Flag in Country Music" in Taste of Country, published 26 June 2015)

At the end of her day, however, her success stems from her authentic country sound. It’s true that mainstream country music lacks progressive voices, but it's more significantly starved for an authentic sound in this era of manufactured country pop. It is this gap that Musgraves fills most successfully, especially after Taylor Swift’s latest pop transition with 1989. Like Swift, Musgraves is a relatable young woman who writes songs about her life, but her sound is more influenced by Lynn and Alison Krauss than Faith Hill. Musgraves’ adherence to a timeless country music sound allows her to make political points without much backlash from the country music community, just as Lynn was able to freely speak her mind in her era.

Without Musgraves, mainstream country music would be less authentic and lose credibility, and the country music community knows this. Despite whatever political message Musgraves promotes, the country music community can never turn on her like it did with the Dixie Chicks, because mainstream country music needs Musgraves more than Musgraves needs mainstream country music.

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