In my 2012 year-end essay, I imagined Taylor Swift's increasingly predictable pop career someday running out of steam, and her returning with newfound conviction to her country roots. In the meantime, I suggested: "Let’s see what Kacey Musgraves can cook up." Two years Swift's senior, the Texan singer/songwriter (she has writing credits for big country names like Martina McBride and Miranda Lambert, as well as songs on the TV show Nashville) has risen to quick prominence in 2013 following the release of her major label debut, Same Trailer, Different Park.
Sonically, Same Trailer is a country album through-and-through—acoustic guitar, banjo, harmonica, slide guitar and certainly no dubstep drops—but the lyrics are somewhat of an anomaly in the traditionally conservative genre. Musgraves' subversion is best exemplified by the chorus to "Follow Your Arrow": Make lots of noise/ Kiss lots of boys/ Or kiss lots of girls/ If that's something you're into/ When the straight and narrow/ Gets a little too straight/ Roll up a joint, or don't/ Just follow your arrow/ Wherever it points. For better or worse, the most talked-about country songs lately are the ones that challenge the genre's old ways—Swift's "I Knew You Were Trouble," Brad Paisley's presumably well-intentioned viral misstep "Accidental Racist," and Florida Georgia Line's song-of-the-summer, "Cruise," now complete with a Nelly remix—so it should be little surprise to see Musgraves' happy-go-lucky libertarian style finding traction. Musgraves is interesting, and popular, precisely because she uses the traditional forms of country music to undermine country's traditional values; to some degree, her project is re-imagining what country can be. And for that she is being rewarded: last week, she was nominated for six awards at this year's Country Music Awards, tied for the most—with Swift.
The show at Bowery Ballroom was the first stop in Musgraves' first national headlining tour, and her first New York City show since the release of her album (maybe ever). I had been looking forward to it for months—her album is easily one of my year's most played. After I wedged myself a few feet from the stage, the surrounding crowd made me feel like I was back home in Maryland, or in Tennessee, or wherever—camo hats and buck hunting T-shirts and goatees and much plaid. The audience was equally young and old, balanced by a number of well-dressed, middle-aged women and a few men over 60. The stage was strung up like a county fair with white light bulbs, including the outline of a large red "HEY YEAH" sign hung up in the back, to be illuminated for the chorus of "Blowin' Smoke"; an old-timey organ was adorned in pom poms and fanned out paper decorations.
Musgraves' band wears a lot of hats—not cowboy hats, but fur-and-wool, dress-up 1930s things in brown and olive—in some contrast to her look onstage, which I'd call night-at-the-bar casual: black jeans, black leather high-top sneaker/boot hybrids, a loose platinum tanktop that's low around the armpits to reveal some sort of nautical tattoo, big silver bracelets and a sparkling, multi-finger ring. The juxtaposition of leader and band emphasizes her modernness—and it's not an ostentatious modernism, but something very every day—within the country framework, even as she twangs through red state lyrics like, Girl, we ain't friends, we're just neighbors… Go back to your trailer. "Holy shit," she says after the first song. "Thanks for selling this out. This is the first night of the Same Trailer, Different Tour"—the name a reference to her previous stint this summer opening stadiums for Kenny Chesney, but maybe also to her music: it's the same house, but she's taking it somewhere a little different.
A series of countrified covers sprinkled throughout the night—Weezer's "Island in the Sun," The Cardigans' "Lovefool" and a Margaritaville reggae version of Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds"—stress the same point, to always be rocking in and out of country town, like an old-fashioned trader bringing back the spoils from some far-off outside. But they also evoke another interesting part of Musgraves' past, as a contestant on the USA Network's 2007 Nashville Star, in which she placed seventh. After Same Trailer topped Billboard's country charts and debuted at #2 among all genres, it seems a little odd that she was summarily booted from a cable singing competition. But the fact is, she's a gifted, witty songwriter who can sing only about as good as she can write—about as good. Watching Musgraves do covers, I was willing to forgive less of her performance, somehow simultaneously stiff and too laid back—nerves, maybe. You're not going to fall in love to Kacey Musgraves for singing over Weezer's barre chords, you're going to fall in love with her for thinking up, then belting: I've been too low, so I gotta let it go/ It's hiiiiiiiigh time, or, on her one-night stand lament, "It Is What It Is": Maybe I love you, maybe I'm just kind of bored/ It is what it is, till it ain't, anymore.
Anyway, the most important thing is that she has those fantastic songs, and judging by the few new ones she performed, she's going to keep on having them. In February, she'll return to New York, opening at Madison Square Garden for Lady Antebellum. In the last song before the inevitable encore for "Follow Your Arrow," in which she'd ultimately repeat the roll up a joint line three extra times and yell pass that shit!, Musgraves pulled the six-piece band in close, to center stage, the drummer bringing with him a single tom to whack and the bassist leaving his instrument for a maraca with a Día de Muertos-styled skull on it. Somewhere, a bubble machine turned on, filling the air not with typical concert fog but cheerful dots. The band huddled and, beaming and all together, sang Musgraves' ode to living out of an RV—I'll bring my house to you—for a crowd full of people you don't often see in the Bowery.