It’s a sad but established fact that country music – at least modern country music – is an industry that is as prolific and efficient at turning out product as any automobile assembly line or steel mill that America was built on. And that makes sense. Country music is, after all, the music of the people and has for the most part, played aggressively to its base. Twang pop for the common man with songs about beer, trucks, dogs, cheatin’ hearts, and more beer – this is the experience that in general is sold and consumed on a massive scale, by the majority of the music loving masses.
Every so often though there’s a shift in the wind and we see a glut of artists who transcend the confines of their chosen art and shine a light on its true potential, breaking new ground while still honoring the medium that got them there. Last year that was the narrative for artists like Nikki Lane and Sturgill Simpson; saving country music from itself by producing records that had less to do with bro-power and red solo cups than it did with taking an honest look at the self and the world around them.
That shift in large part started though back in 2013, and Kacey Musgraves, a young songwriter who had already written hits for Miranda Lambert (“Mama’s Broken Heart”), Martina McBride, and more, released Same Trailer, Different Park and its first single “Merry Go Round.” A forward thinking album that tackled common-man and progressive issues alike, it was a bright spot in an otherwise blighted landscape. Which is why it was so jarring and a little bit disappointing to see Musgraves’ by-the-numbers Nashville performance at her tour stop at the 9:30 Club last week.
Bright neon cacti littered a faux-western landscape behind Musgraves and her band, all dressed in matching light-up suits, as they ran through an expertly rehearsed setlist that was custom built to satisfy super-fans and casual concert goers alike. But that begs the question - why? “Merry Go Round” is one of the most honest, hard hitting, and downright mean takes on life in a small town to hit the airwaves in the past few decades. And “Follow Your Arrow”, a song that Rolling Stone placed in their 100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time, has become an anthem for freedom of expression for everything from drug use to sexuality.
To be clear, Musgraves puts on a hell of a show. Songs like “Silver Lining”, “Back On The Map” and “It Is What It Is” lose none of their power or sweetness filtered through the lens of the Grand Ol Opry of years gone by, but the juxtaposition of the overall sophistication of Musgrave’s songwriting with Vegas chintz and Rhinestone Cowboy pageantry for the most part never completely jibed. Throw in a handful of borderline pandering moments (“great to be back in [insert city here] banterfying) and less than inspired covers (TLC’s “No Scrubs,” Bob Marley’s “3 Little Birds,” and a one-two punch of “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” and “Happy Trails” in the encore) and what you end up with is a set that’s less about trusting your audience and more about giving your demographic what someone in a dark office on Music Row is saying they “want.”
Which is fine if all you want from your music is a good time. It can’t be easy to honor a genre while at the same time trying to break down the old walls that hold up the building. And at the end of the day this interpretation of her show last Thursday comes from someone who clearly is NOT her main demographic given that this is “the show.” After all, people danced, sang, hooted and hollered like they were lost at some dusty honky-tonk off in the Hill Country of Texas. If this is where Musgraves is following her arrow then let it fly where it may. It’s pop. It’s entertainment. It’s essential. But it may be a sign that her upcoming album could be more Same Trailer, Same Park, than many of her fans might have hoped.