Last weekend, troubadour Chris Stapleton was pandering to the crowd. “We should get some Colorado weed,” he said before the stage was blasted with green light and the band launched into “Might As Well Get Stoned.”
He didn't need to pander, considering that the new country heavyweight more than sold out two nights at the Fillmore. And, based on the grunts of the Stetsoned gentleman beside me, maybe he shouldn't have. Most of the audience did cheer the marijuana references in Stapleton's songs, but the rest seemed to expect something more "conservative" from the burly maestro.
Stapleton, a longtime Nashville songwriter and pen behind many pop-country hits for stars like Kenny Chesney, has stepped into the spotlight himself over the last year, collecting Grammys and CMA awards and bigger audiences. With his stripped-down classic songwriting, a rougher-hewn aesthetic and a dose of Southern soul, he's at the forefront of a perceived movement away from the “bro country” that's dominated the airwaves in recent memory. He may be the preeminent beard of today's “outlaw” country (sorry, Jamey Johnson and Sturgill Simpson), but he doesn't strike a radical figure on stage; if anything, his understated duetting with his wife, vocalist Morgane Hayes-Stapleton, is an old-school pose, and in 2016, his references to the herb are actually commonplace in mainstream country.
In short, he's no Kacey Musgraves.
Musgraves wants to play 4/20 in Denver every year, and she's been making a strong case for that crown. Last month at the Bluebird, the country star introduced the members of her ace band via a “talent portion” – a play on her album Pageant Material and the aesthetic of her current tour, Country & Western Rhinestone Revue. Bandmembers in light-up suit jackets took turns juggling, dancing and making balloon animals to the delight of the sold-out crowd. Finally, Musgraves introduced guitarist and bandleader (and her partner) Misa Arriaga, saying, “He does a lot of things well, but there's one thing in particular....” And Arriaga proceeded to roll a joint. He lit and passed it until someone side-stage motioned for them to stop. “I don't know the rules!” Musgraves said. “It's legal!”
Since releasing her 2012 debut single, the Grammy-winning “Merry Go 'Round,” the 27-year-old Musgraves has become known for expressing progressive values packaged in winning mainstream pop-country. She's smart yet catchy, soulful yet sleek, with an effortless voice that never breaks, and plenty of nods to more traditional country.
Plus, she loves the plant! Cases in point: Musgraves's merch table sells the band's special organic rolling papers, and she spent 4/20 touring the grow facility owned by her friends and future tour-mate Willie Nelson. It's her songs, however, that have truly endeared her to the pro-cannabis community. Sure, there are the songs called “High Time” and “Blowin' Smoke” and lyrics like I'm always higher than my hair/ and it ain't that I don't care about world peace – but it's her larger message of personal freedom and pushing against divisive social restrictions that's important here.
Before Musgraves's concert, on the afternoon of 4/20, I attended my first holiday gathering at Civic Center Park, and the word “freedom” got passed around a lot. Yet when activists tried to speak on the microphone about the continued criminalization of marijuana and other causes, they were shouted down by the crowd, who didn't seem to want to hear anything harsh. Lighting up was casual, seemingly divorced from larger political implications: It was about having a good time.
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Which is how marijuana use is treated in contemporary radio country, where references to having a toke behind the barn are now nearly as ubiquitous as the bottle of whiskey or cold light beer. While country music has long held a public relationship with weed, what in the '70s was an association with the “outlaw” country of Hank Williams Jr. or Waylon Jennings has been co-opted by the scrubbed-up stars who dominate the genre today. Mannequin cowboys on mechanical bulls and Jimmy Buffett wannabes pepper their anthems with mentions of smoking to party, relax or avoid day-to-day difficulties. While this may reflect the reality of the artists and their listeners, it rings hollow.
What separates Musgraves's playful shout-outs to pot is how they're woven into the seriousness of her material. (She's more Jason Isbell than Taylor Swift, despite age, gender and simple-syrup delivery.) Country music has long been centered on messages, banner-waving for a large swath of the population that feels overlooked. Unlike hip-hop or EDM, music genres where weed also features prominently, Musgraves's vision of freedom isn't based on escapist fantasy or outlandish wealth. Her characters and landscapes are rooted in what's left of an American middle class – Mama's hooked on Mary Kay / Brother's hooked on Mary Jane – but her songs are built around down-home platitudes turned on their plastic tiaras. Her country music isn't steeped in Bush-era divisive rhetoric of Toby Keith's Shock'n Y'all or the us-against-them counter-counterculture anthem “Okie From Muskogee”: We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee…We don't let our hair grow long and shaggy/Like the hippies out in San Francisco do.
Instead, Musgraves sings of an American existence that's based on communities that actually encourage individualism and inclusivity, rather than everybody walking the party line. And the choice to use marijuana – or not – is part of that vision. During a presidential campaign season imploding with extremism and empty vile rhetoric, it's Musgraves undermining the patriarchy in rhinestones and taffeta, singing about seemingly middle-of-the-road values – Smoke your own smoke and grow your own daisies/Mend your own fences and own your own crazy – that actually comes off as radical and truly representative.