“Best album of the year!”
Kacey Musgraves’s Denver fans screamed that at the singer last week at the Paramount Theatre, in a concert that proved to be one long teaser for her June 2019 Red Rocks stand. The country-pop artist has been high on success (and perhaps a little weed, which she waxed about endlessly at her show here) from this year’s Grammy Awards. She won four, including Album of the Year for Golden Hour.
She joked with an audience member who wore a shirt with her image on it from the ceremony, right after she heard she won. In the picture, she had one eye partially open and another nearly shut. “I didn’t know you could be hit by so much excitement that one eye gets small,” she said, laughing.
“That shit was so wild,” she mused about her wins, truly humble. “Like, what the fuck?”
There were some great albums out last year that didn't get a nod from the Grammys. Janelle Monáe’s cerebral Afrofuturist pop record Dirty Computer — and her dazzling tour supporting it — never got the love it deserved. Meanwhile, Post Malone’s latest stinker, Beerbongs & Bentleys, shouldn't have been a contender but was.
None of that is to say that Musgraves’s album isn’t worthy. Even people who hate country admit to liking her music. Still, it’s more shoegaze than shoo-in.
So why is Musgraves rising? Perhaps because she’s managed to make big-tent country sutured with pop, disco and light rock — a sound that soothes and speaks to twenty-something liberals.
Her music borders on boring in its simplicity, and she’s one step shy of being a coffee-shop singer-songwriter. But she takes the best of all that earnest music – the emotionalism, the poetry and the quiet — and runs with it, making quality songs few people in her genre match. At her Denver stop, the singer's production design, showmanship and color-coordinated costuming between her and her matchy-matchy brown-suited stoner band, the Crispy Boys, were classic.
Her songs aren’t the boot-stompin’ EDM-charged bangers that have sullied Top 40 country radio stations, which already raises Musgraves’s work above the Nashville clones taking a dump on the heads of the greats (Willie, Bonnie, Waylon, Johnny and Dolly). But Musgraves is not going outlaw country or full-blown Emmylou Harris, either. And while she undergirds songs with pop sensibilities and structures, she avoids ham-fisted crescendos that strong-arm the audience into feeling something.
Musgraves's tunes leans on old-timey instrumentation: upright bass, cello, banjo and steel and acoustic guitars. It's all put to work in the service of pop sounds. When electric guitar solos take over, they offer more of the ambling stuff of Chet Atkins or early-’80s electro-pop than rude pentatonic theatrics, which is a relief. Even her synths sound distinguished.
Like most good country since Hank Williams walked this earth, her lyrics borrow hackneyed phrases and clichés but twist that language in unpredictable directions, finding clever ways to look at love, depression and surviving small-town life. And her Denver fans gobbled it up. They belted out every word with her — and, surprisingly, everybody sounded in tune, even when she let them go a cappella.
To her fans' delight, Musgraves has long been on a mission to disrupt small-town, narrow-minded attitudes. She did so back on her 2013 studio debut album, Same Trailer Different Park, in her LGBTQ-friendly song “Follow Your Arrow,” which is all about kissing whoever you want, despite the admonitions of finger-wagging prudes. The crowd particularly loved that number. She continued those themes, albeit more introspectively, on Golden Hour, a melancholy, mature collection of songs. She sang nearly every hit from that project, and the crowd knew each one.
She had me welling up during “Rainbow” as she sang about barely surviving depression, accompanied only by a piano. The song slathers on the metaphors about storms and rainbows and umbrellas. It’s worth a listen if you’re feeling down. She delivers hope in the way that only pop divas can.
There’s been an embarrassing trend in recent years where artists like Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift and even Katy Perry pause during their overblown concerts to show off their acoustic guitar skills. Crowds wallow in those brief moments of authenticity before returning to the electronic onslaught.
Musgraves, on the other hand, boasts that authenticity from the beginning of the show to the end. It’s no shtick. She’s a good guitarist, sometimes strumming, other times taking on solos. There’s no “Look at me, guys, I can play a real instrument, too” posturing. She does what she does well. That's it.
What’s uncanny about Musgraves is that she’s found a way to connect with people not by doing the same-new same-new like artists who have collapsed genres into an MSG-loaded casserole of Auto-Tune and electronic gadgetry. Instead, she crafts simple songs, good songs, ones that can rule a living room as easily as an auditorium.