Artist Spotlight: Kacey Musgraves
Kacey Musgraves is a critically-acclaimed country music singer and songwriter. Claire Soh wants to make sure her music does not go unappreciated.
One can be forgiven for thinking that country hits of today are comprised mainly of middle-aged men in plaid shirts, crooning about girls in blue jeans and Cadillacs. In 2015, radio consultant Keith Hill controversially cautioned radio stations against playing music by female country artists, referring to them as the unwanted “tomatoes” to the lettuce of “Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton” and the like.
Despite not always receiving the radio airplay they deserve, the late 2010s have seen the rise of the female singer-songwriter, who are usually songwriters to start before they turn those creative sparks into LPs of their own. Kacey Musgraves, once an independent artist and songwriter, is one of these names.
Musgraves owns many a pair of bejewelled cowboy boots, plays the guitar and banjo with ease, and croons with a smooth Texas accent. It’s this disarming Southern charm that makes her music all the more a refreshing surprise. For instance, she’s one of the writers behind one of Miranda Lambert’s biggest hits – the explosive ‘Mama’s Broken Heart’. Musgraves brings this fiery, assertive streak to her own music, turning dated country tropes on their head behind a familiar veil.
At the 2014 Grammys, where she was nominated for four awards, including ‘Best New Artist’ and ‘Country Album’ for her debut, Same Trailer Different Park. The then relatively unknown Musgraves made waves when she beat formidable competitors Taylor Swift and Blake Shelton in the latter category, preparing the country music scene for her fresh, distinctive voice. ‘Merry Go Round’ (also ‘Best Country Song’) artfully lampoons the monotony of small-town life (“Mary Mary quite contrary/We get bored so we get married”) over a simple guitar and banjo arrangement – seemingly simple, yet so lyrically complex.
In what is probably her trademark song, she urges listeners to “follow your arrow, wherever it points” – to “kiss lots of boys/or kiss lots of girls/if that's something you're into”. Despite her steel guitar-tinged throwback country sound, Musgraves is certainly not stuck in the past, and fearlessly subverts country’s conservative, regressive image in a way that still feels authentic – ‘Follow Your Arrow’ being a fierce expression of her beliefs.
Her sophomore release, Pageant Material, is just as vocal while also taking a more personal turn. It’s easy to be fooled by the dazzling tiara and up-do she dons on the cover, or the vintage-sounding twangs of steel guitars, because behind her whimsical exterior is biting social commentary. While lampooning the exclusivity of the “Good Ol’ Boys Club”, and frivolity of beauty pageants on the title track, she also finds time to celebrate the quirks of her family, her humble “Dime Store Cowgirl” upbringing, and even pays homage to marijuana usage. Yet she isn’t afraid to leave that small-town familiarity to cheekily tell her listeners to “mind your own biscuits or life will be gravy” – a play on quintessentially Southern food.
It’s hard to pigeonhole Musgraves’ musical stylings, because her career has spanned so many styles and influences, but it’s clear that she’s fond of both the classic and new. She’s teamed up with loyal fan Katy Perry for an unexpectedly successful crossover in 2014, covered NSYNC and Sheryl Crow at concerts, collaborated with Miguel, and sung with Willie Nelson. Her Instagram antics include a meticulous and massive eBay spree for 90s and 00s toys, and she’s quite fond of a (sequined) jumpsuit or blazer – kitschy for sure, but in an endearing way.
After three years, Musgraves has finally released her third full-length album. Golden Hour is her at her most reflective and intimate, and turns away from social commentary to meditation on her 30th birthday and recent marriage to beau Ruston Kelly. It’s a celebration of life so intoxicating that it takes you right to that gold-drenched time of the day. She reflects on lonely weekends, sings candidly in a piano ballad about missing her mother, and marvels at the beauty of the natural world around her. There are smatterings of disco in ‘High Horse’ and a homage to the “jet-black sparkle” of her “Velvet Elvis”, but Golden Hour remains calm and self-assured throughout. In an industry where the voices and musical styling of female artists is growing more polished and assertive by the day, this introspective, mellow turn is testament to her confidence in her unique brand of music.
A few weeks ago, I settled in my seat at Wembley Arena for Musgraves’ biggest UK show yet, alongside fellow fans decked out in their own bejewelled boots and hats. She appeared on stage, sequined rainbow jumpsuit glistening against a stage awash with golden light, laid-back and in her element, yet steely and driven. We don’t know what surprises she’ll spring on us with her next album, but there’s no doubt that she’ll be following her arrow, wherever it points