Answer this question without thinking too much: Why does country music have a fascination with pick-up trucks and girls in cut-offs and summer nights when it really isn’t a problem if you’ve somehow misplaced both your shoes and your shirt, so long as you’ve got a cold one in your hand?
Because performing the authenticity of a certain lifestyle matters more to country music than it does even to hip hop, the genre that’s on the other side of Nashville’s current bromance. Like the folk songs it was born from, country is “the music of the people” — or so we’re to believe.
People don’t just toss around phrases like, “I listen to everything but country,” because they really do listen to everything but country. To eschew the genre is to reject the lifestyle it crudely glorifies, which is all too fun if you’re a classist city-dweller, and all too easy if it reminds you of some place you fled. But when people clarify that they enjoy “classic country” — from an earnest love of Johnny Cash and Gram Parsons to a kitschy fondness for Dolly Parton — what may be between the lines is skepticism about how hard today’s most populist country acts try to keep it real, in the most inauthentic of ways.
Enter Kacey Musgraves, Sturgill Simpson, Angaleena Presley, and (when he’s feeling feisty) Eric Church. These new-school favorites with reverence for country’s past range in sensibility and popularity, but what they share is integral to their individual successes: gen-u-ine alternatives to a country-pop Wild West that’s as manmade as Keith Urban’s highlights. With her new album out this week, Musgraves proves why she’s such an apt leader for this slightly-left-of-center country boom. Recorded live, Pageant Material‘s rich guitars actually sound like guitars, not the over-produced hair-metal riffs that are randomly thrown into country singles these days. And the effortless singer? She gets sad, mad, even ambivalent — like a real girl, not a cartoon hyperbole of herself.
Musgraves grew up in East Texas, which she’s quick to reference throughout Pageant Material, with small-town tropes that wouldn’t resonate in the hands of a less narrative songwriter. Atop an indelible slide guitar and flirty tambourine, Musgraves holds it down for humble beginnings on “Dime Store Cowgirl,” with lines that address the low-class perception of the South: “Just ’cause it don’t cost a lot don’t mean it’s cheap.” But more than a voice of the South, Musgraves is the closest thing country has to a young Willie Nelson, who guests on the album’s dreamy country-surf closer, “Are You Sure.” While Miranda Lambert’s greatest moments on record stem from her ability to play the diva who’s got her daddy’s baseball bat in the backseat if you have a problem with that, Musgraves is more of a “you can’t make everyone happy *shrug*” type whose self-love preaching would make her a solid therapist if this country thing doesn’t work out (see: “Cup of Tea”).
Call her a rebel ’cause she talks about getting “higher than her hair” (that seemed to be everyone’s favorite part of her 2012 masterpiece, Same Trailer Different Park), but she’s more of a hippie. Sometimes that translates into skepticism of the system that reads as shade, like on “Good Ol’ Boys Club,” where she tosses the country radio that has been reticent to embrace her under the bus for its sexism. She throws in an is-this-a-diss-or-not shot at the “Big Machine,” also the name of popular country label whose marquee star is Taylor Swift.
In another time, not so long ago, Kacey Musgraves likely would have been forced to choose between Music City’s major label divisions (like the one she’s signed to, Mercury Nashville) and an alt-country silo that would have nudged her more towards the folk and indie worlds, among artists such as Hurray for the Riff Raff. But, like they sing about in country ballads, all the missteps have brought her to a bliss greater than she could have imagined. Listening to Pageant Material — which you absolutely should — you get the sense she’d still be doing her thing (and rocking her take on a Nudie suit) either way. “I’d rather lose for what I am,” she declares on the title track, “than win for what I ain’t.”