Above: Residents of Leakey, TX gather around a 93-year-old harmonica player, July, 1972. (U.S. National Archives/Marc St. Gil)
In the years that followed our breakup, my main country connection was Taylor Swift, her music doing enough for me in the genre that I didn’t care to look elsewhere. But as Swift’s sound became decreasingly countrified, I felt less comforted by it—comfort always being its main appeal—and I found myself more interested in the genre at large. Or rather, I was interested in the genre at its smallest, most walled-off and specific: country music made with old-timey instruments, written and sung by the same artist, talking plainly about home and heartbreak. Stuff made not to sell you something but to make you want to build it yourself. In late 2012, on an NPR end-of-year playlist, I happened upon Kacey Musgraves’ banjo-led feat of wordplay “Merry Go Round,” a traditional-sounding country song that, after its first three lines—If you ain’t got two kids by 21/ You’re probably gonna die alone/ Least that’s what tradition told you—had also already bucked tradition, and I began advocating on her behalf as my post-Taylor, real-country hope. A week ago, Musgraves beat Swift to win the Grammy for Best Country Album (Musgraves was nominated for Best New Artist, too, but lost to Macklemore). The singer I thought was outside the mainstream found herself in its dead center. Me, though, over the course of the past year I’d already given up on her. So why did I like her so much at first? And what next?
From the outset, Musgraves’ brand has been well-defined to stoke nostalgia, with one cowboy-booted foot in the old and one in the new. Her initial buzz on NPR and in the New York Times, hardly bastions of country’s conservative values, owed much to free-living lyrics that distinguished her from the genre’s red-state cliché, as she spouted lines like kiss lots of girls if that’s what you’re into and roll up a joint, or don’t. She’s country, but hip enough for city-folk, and maybe even subversive. Musgraves has the air of an insider, a Texas native believably recounting diner waitresses blowing smoke and living out of KOAs, which adds a sense of legitimacy to her songwriting. And she’s very much a songwriter: Musgraves co-wrote everything on her debut album, Same Trailer Different Park, plus has writing credits for country stateswomen Martina McBride, Miranda Lambert and Gretchen Wilson, such that her success has been in keeping with that old, uplifting narrative of a clever writer taking her turn in the sun.
There are plenty of reasons to root for Kacey Musgraves, but over time I started to get skeptical. Her wordplay, though seemingly clever on first listen, follows a simple formula—song after song relies on punchlines based on double-meanings—and her constant repurposing of platitudes feels a bit shallow (If you wanna find the honey/ You can’t be scared of the bees/ And if you wanna see the forest/ You’re gonna have to look past trees/ If you’re ever gonna find a silver lining/ It’s gotta be a cloudy day/ If you wanna fill your bottle up with lightning/ You’re gonna have to stand in the rain goes one now-unbearable stretch). And returning to politics, since Musgraves’ “do what you want” approach to drugs and sex is essentially her distinguishing feature: is it really radical, or is it just lip service to a broadly acceptable idea? Is she the Macklemore of the Mississippi, the Katy Perry of country? (In fact, Musgraves will open for Perry on tour this summer, and they’re said to be writing together.) If we’re handing out social responsibility accolades, lets honor and seek to understand artists with more refined consciences, who use their music to do things besides taking the safe position and simply shrugging to say, “Whatever’s cool with me.” With Musgraves, I think I was looking for something and latched onto the first thing I found.
I don’t think I was the only one. Musgraves excels at a traditional sound driven by acoustic guitar, lap steel, banjo, bass and strings, something I suspect a lot of people have longed for amid the genre’s commercial leanings of late. In the general sea change of popular music over the past two decades, with the demise of once-dominant alternative rock, country music has functionally become the place on the dial for new, mainstream, guitar-driven, singer/songwriter music. Inevitably, the rich among the genre have gotten richer, and many mainstream country artists have used that greater platform to expand their reach while only dumbing things down—people like the chart-topping pleasure-cruisers Florida Georgia Line and Blake Shelton, a man with a glad-handing demeanor like a U.S. president and a comfy chair on network TV. Today’s country music ecosystem is ripe for something like the outlaw movement of the ’60s and ’70s, a heyday for honest songwriting and raw-sounding country in opposition to the glitzy Nashville sound then dominating the charts. Enter Musgraves: with her acoustic, family-band sound and status as a songwriter, her rise can be read as a bespoke, back-to-the-basics corrective. A recent precedent to her might be Jamey Johnson, the long-haired and long-bearded presumed Harley rider who, in the years just before Musgraves, had become something of a token authentic artist on country radio. Perhaps Johnson suggests Musgraves is not novel; or perhaps her greater success—he’s been nominated for Grammys but never won—suggests she’s just what people had been looking for. Either way, if you’re interested in country but looking for an alternative to lowest-common-denominator schlock, Musgraves is a first step in the right direction. You just have to take the next step too.
In the past year or so of my earnest country kick, I’ve sought to find correctives to Musgraves’ own failings, and I’ve thankfully come across a dozen artists I like just as much or more. True do-it-yourselfers like Sturgill Simpson, whose standing outside the genre’s brightest lights gives them a certain je ne sais quoi, a justification to the unhappiness and failures on which their music so often focuses. Simpson’s hard-living, throwback-country debut album was self-released on Bandcamp. I bought a copy for my dad. The opening track’s title, “Life Ain’t Fair and the World Is Mean,” probably tells you all you need to know about his sound. But how he wields it is exciting: in the song’s opening stanza, he sings The label man said, ‘Son can you sing a little bit more clear?… Can you sing a little more about outlaws and the way things used to be?’ It’s a tricky maneuver: Simpson uses the same age-old sound that led me to Musgraves (and him) against itself. When he sings later, Well, the most outlaw thing that I’ve ever done was give a good woman a ring, it’s instantly more complex than when Musgraves, for example, dismisses marriage at the start “Merry Go Round.” Musgraves benefits from the aesthetic associations of traditional country music—an old-timey sound coming from a Southern singer-songwriter—then sets herself apart from some of that tradition with modern lyrics, but to me what Simpson does is more interesting: he uses those same aesthetic associations to examine not just modernity (e.g., what is the meaning of marriage today?), but what the very aesthetic means, and how it’s being deployed to foment nostalgia.
Nostalgia is a precarious force—the feeling can surely be productive for artists, but it’s so easily exploited among audiences, a cinch to sell its shallow version without offering real insight into the past or present. Nostalgia is exactly what Musgraves’ label, a subsidiary of Universal Music Group, the largest music company in the world, is not just banking but cashing in on. To avoid seeming superficial, and to be accepted solely on its own merits, for me music like Musgraves’ and Simpson’s must ultimately dismantle nostalgia: the artists must show that they’re not simply benefiting from a warm, fuzzy feeling of familiarity, but unpack why the feeling is appealing, and show what can be done with that symbol now. Using the past to be productive is exactly the difference between being conservative and radical, between sitting around and marching forward. Sturgill Simpson definitely seems in that latter group. Another new favorite, Robbie Fulks, is in the same camp, especially with his “That’s Where I’m From,” in which he acknowledges country’s legacy with lines like If you’ve ever heard Hank Williams sing/ Then brother, you know the whole blessed thing while also differentiating himself as wholly in the present, describing his where I’m from as someplace I can’t go home to. Brandy Clark is another good example. She co-wrote Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow,” but has a few solo tracks I like even more, like her fantastic “Pray to Jesus,” which grapples with old ways while accepting some things to be timeless when she sings, Thought we’d be different but we’re just like them/ We pray to Jesus and we play the lotto/ Cause there ain’t but two ways/ We can change tomorrow. This exciting crop of current country artists is taking that feeling of comfort I’d associated with Taylor Swift’s music, or Kacey Musgraves’, and putting a screwdriver to it. Feels like now we’re getting somewhere. Back to the future, or something. I love it.
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This essay is the first in a series of three exploring my interest in country music. I hardly ever write about the genre for FADER, but over the past year it’s become just about all I listen to off the clock. Something has made me curious, and there’s just so much to learn.