She’s Just a Dime Store Cowgirl, but It’s Not All She’ll Ever Be

Kacey Musgraves has experienced a meteoric rise–not just in country music, but contemporary music as we know it. She’s toured with Willie Nelson and Allison Krauss; she’s been to a ton of festivals, exposing her music to new audiences across America; and on her current press tour for Pageant Material, her latest record that dropped last week, she’s hit up the likes of NPR and even Pitchfork has reviewed the singular album.

Before Pageant Material came out, I anticipated a great record–and it’s far better than “great”–but part of me wondered if Musgraves would have enough of her “signature” material to draw from to top Same Trailer Different Park, her beyond-outstanding album that earned her a few Grammys. If she’s been out on the road all this time, would she still have the ability to incisively critique small-town living in the South that made Same Trailer so incredible? The answer is a resounding yes.

The first two songs quell that anxiety. “High Time,” the opening track, sets the musical tone for the entire record: throw-back country sounds like pedal steel, whistling, strings, and even some hand-clapping. The artful lyrics reassure us that she’s back to who she is at the core:

Been missing my roots
I’m getting rid of the flash
Nobody needs a thousand-dollar suit just to take out the trash

“Dime Store Cowgirl,” a standout on the record, chronicles the emblems of success she’s achieved with her trademark wink-wink-nudge-nudge elocution (“I’ve had my picture made with Willie Nelson/Stayed in a hotel with a pool”). Yet the heart of the song reminds us that she’s grounded, despite her achievements, and the bridge punctuates this idea: “I’m happy with what I got, cause what I got is all I need/Just cause it don’t cost a lot, don’t cost a lot, don’t mean it’s cheap.”

Overall, the record is about the human condition–you could probably this say about a lot of music–but there’s something special about Musgraves’ perspective. She takes the platitudes we’ve all come to know (“You can take me out of the country/But you can’t take the country out of me”) and even shares with us some of her own (“Life ain’t always roses and pantyhose”). Some may call this approach simplistic, but I call it brilliant. Musgraves writes lyrics that roll off the tongue and lodge themselves in your brain because they’re made up of completely natural language. They’re rife with detail and imagery and convey big ideas. She’s probably one of the best lyricists out there today.

“Pageant Material” and “This Town” are two examples of Musgraves’ masterful writing and powerful commentary. From the first verse, you may think that “Pageant Material” is a self-deprecating tune about Musgraves’ inability to live up to Southern beauty standards (“I ain’t pageant material”), but it’s actually a critique of the ridiculousness of pageants:

God bless the girls who smile and hug
When they’re called out as a runner up on TV
I wish I could, but I just can’t
Wear a smile when a smile ain’t what I’m feelin’
And who’s to say I’m a 9.5
Or a 4.0 if you don’t even know me

She ends the song with a punch: “I’d rather lose for what I am than win for what I ain’t.” In a way, the title “Pageant Material” refers both to what Musgraves isn’t (the first-level meaning of the song) and the stuff that gave her inspiration to write her critique: literal material about pageants and what they represent to and perpetuate in Southern society.

At face value, “This Town” sounds like a paean to deep South small-town ways–and maybe that’s what it mostly is–but, on the flip side, it reveals Musgraves’ highly evolved point of view:

We finally got a flashing light, they put it in last year
And everybody got real happy when the grocery store got beer

I don’t know many country songwriters today who are able to simultaneously describe something in detail and stand back to critique it. My favorite lyric in the song does just that, as well: “What goes around comes back around by Friday’s football game.”

The thoughtful “Somebody to Love” could have gone by a different title because it isn’t a love song; it gets at that human condition theme that runs through the record. “Die Fun” lends insight into Musgraves’ “live in the moment” mantra. “Family Is Family” is a hilarious and very pointed tune that moves along at a clip (“Family is family, in church or in prison/You get what you get, and you don’t get to pick ’em”). And “Biscuits” feels like a “Follow Your Arrow”/”Trailer Song” redux.

The last song I’ll mention is “Good Ol’ Boys Club,” which some publications have suggested contains a dig at Taylor Swift. I’d like to correct and clear up this misperception. If you listen to any of the lyrics to this song, it’s abundantly clear that it’s about the Country Music Establishment, and even conservative life and politics at large:

I don’t need a membership to validate
The hard work I put in and the dues I paid
Never been to good at just goin’ along
I guess I’ve always kind of been for the underdog

Favors for friends will get you in and get you far
Shouldn’t be about who it is you know
But about how good you are

The irony of the song is its thorough country feel. A slight back beat of the drum, an acoustic guitar that strums along, and a pedal steel cutting up a line behind the vocals.

I think some of these idiot reviewers are latching onto the line “another gear in a big machine don’t sound like fun to me.” Big Machine is Taylor’s record company, but since when is Taylor part of the “good ol’ boys club”? “Big machine” more likely refers to the idea of living up to certain standards to become accepted–in country music and by Southern ideals. Anyway, don’t listen to the haters! Musgraves has admitted there’s a bit of dig embedded within this song, but surely it’s not toward Taylor Swift.

If you liked Same Trailer and Kacey Musgraves’ witty observations, you’ll enjoy Pageant Material. If you’ve never heard of her, you should definitely give this record a listen anyway.

Even better things are on the horizon for Kacey Musgraves. She may feel like she’s a dime store cowgirl, and I do believe she’ll always stick to her roots, but she’ll always be much more than that to me.

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Portland Food Tour 2015

I love Portland, Oregon. The people are nice; public transport is pretty good; and the scenery is gorgeous. Some call it Bridgetown–the Willamette River bisects the city–others say it’s the city of roses, referring to the International Rose Test Garden found in Washington Park. However you term Portland, one thing you need to know is that the food is outstanding.

Although Portland isn’t known for one type of cuisine (although locals may tell you it’s a sandwich city all the way), “fresh” and “local” are words that appear on many a menu in this town.

I’m going to take you through the food MDP and I sampled on our trip to Portland. You might want to get a snack before you dive in–this post is certain to make you hungry.

bunk bar water grilled cheese and tomato soup

grilled cheese and tomato soup

Bunk Bar Water ($, 5 stars)
While doing thorough research on which restaurants to try in Portland, I came across Bunk Bar Water. I thought this would be a good place to experience a Portland sandwich, and boy was I right. We went to the place straight from the airport, with our suitcases in tow, and the gentleman behind the bar promptly asked, “Did you get kicked out?” Given the number of vagrants milling about the city, this kind of question wasn’t all that strange. After I smiled and told him that we were visiting from out of town, he took our order and we picked a booth to sit in. A few minutes later, our grilled cheese and tomato soup and pulled pork sandwich arrived. The grilled cheese was made with locally sourced Tillamook cheddar that was melted between two of the best slices of bread I’ve ever had. They were flaky and buttery and extremely delicious. MDP’s pulled pork sandwich was topped with coleslaw and sat upon a light and airy poppyseed bun. I highly recommend!

hopwords urban brewery chicken club

chicken club

Hopworks Urban Brewery ($$, 4 stars)
Located in the middle of nowhere (unless you’re a bowler–in that case, it’s found right across the street from your favorite bowling alley), Hopworks Urban Brewery (HUB) held so much promise and partially lived up to it. In a land filled with breweries, HUB stood out as a true destination bar with ample beers and ciders to choose from, and a decent pub menu. When we walked in, everyone’s eyes–including the servers’–were glued to the big-screen TV dangling from the ceiling showing one of the final NBA games. We sat ourselves and pored over the drink and food menus. I selected a cider from the list, and MDP got one of their house beers (although I don’t remember which one). For dinner, I ordered the chicken club, a fresh-tasting chicken sandwich with delicious avocado, exceptional bacon, and perfect green leaf lettuce all squeezed between a soft pub bun. It was fantastic. MDP chose one of the salads and seemed pleased with it. The reason why HUB only gets four stars was simply because their carrot cake tasted terrible. A new addition to the menu, the carrot cake was topped with ginger-inflected frosting–the competing spice and ginger flavors were too much for me to handle. I also wasn’t crazy about the service there…

A word on service in Portland: It’s nothing like New York. Often, you seat yourself (which is fine!). The servers are generally very friendly and kind, but very slow and laid-back. Of course, not every restaurant is this way, but there seems to be a lack of urgency steeped deep in their culture that undoubtedly finds its way into their service.

screen door glazed breakfast hushpuppies

glazed breakfast hushpuppies

Screen Door ($$, 5 stars!)
As previously mentioned, Portland isn’t necessarily known for a particular cuisine, yet I had the opportunity to sample Southern cooking all around town. Screen Door was one of the best. And it seems the word has gotten out: the cozy place typically has a line snaking around the restaurant and down the road at 8 am on Saturdays (!). It’s that good. A lovely waitress came over to us with a water pitcher and a coffee urn, and poured us some drinks straight away. We started with the glazed breakfast hushpuppies, which were outstanding. Lightly fried, the corn balls had thick chunks of phenomenal bacon and smoked cheddar on the inside, with a side of creole cane syrup that was the perfect accompaniment to the hushpuppies. I ordered the biscuits and gravy with scrambled eggs as my breakfast entree, while MDP got the buttermilk biscuit sliders with cheddar grits on the side. Both dishes were amazing. The biscuits achieved the ideal: simultaneously light and dense, with a fine texture, like the surface of the moon. I enjoyed the gravy for its delicately spiced flavoring. It wasn’t heavy-handed, as many other white gravys can be. This place is a must, if you’re visiting the city.

la cocina vegetable nachos

vegetable nachos

La Cocina ($, 1 star)
You know I hate Yelp. This place perfectly illustrates why. On Yelp, it has 4.5 stars–that’s out of five, as I’ve rated restaurants here. La Cocina serves up some of the worst Mexican food I’ve ever had. Although the photo of nachos I’ve included here may look decent to you, they were just okay. I was optimistic after we finished these nachos, thinking that our entrees (fajitas and a burrito) would be better. Well, they weren’t. The steak fajitas were made with subpar meat, and, while they gave me many tortillas in a cute little tortilla holder, there wasn’t any sour cream, pico de gallo, or guacamole presented to me. The beans and rice are hardly worth noting, if only to caution you to never get them. MDP seemed to like his burrito, which was covered with a mole sauce, certainly to mask the flavor of the carnitas within. If you are accustomed to the nuanced flavors offered by Mexican restaurants such as De Mole in NYC, don’t even bother trying such cuisine in Portland. You’re certain to be disappointed.

rogue fruit salad cider

fruit salad cider

Rogue Distillery & Public House ($$, 5 stars)
Rogue Distillery & Public House, in the Pearl district, offers an array of draft beers and ciders exclusively crafted by Rogue, the brewing company. MDP got a Shan-Tea, which is like a shandy but made with iced tea, instead of lemonade, and Rogue’s very own Dead Guy Ale. I tried the fruit salad cider, which was a bit too fruit-forward for me, but I appreciated the effort. This location also serves food that is decent, so it’s well worth a stop.

tasty n alder burrata with watermelon radishes

burrata with watermelon radishes

Tasty n Alder ($$, 5 stars)
It’s hard for me to assess whether Tasty n Alder or Irving Street Kitchen (later in this post) has better food. They’re both outstanding restaurants. Tasty n Alder has a New York feel: it has the modern clean aesthetic and serves up small plates. We began our culinary journey with the chocolate potato doughnut with creme anglaise–very good. Next, they brought us the Korean fried chicken, which came with short-grain rice, kimchi, pickled cucumbers, a sunny-side up egg on top, and a boiled egg chopped up and sprinkled around the dish. This was fantastic–the chicken was drenched in a gochujang sauce to spice it up and I adored the pickled cucumbers (although MDP wasn’t crazy about the kimchi). Then, they brought us the fried egg and cheddar biscuit with house made bacon–fantastic!! I thought this was the best part of the meal. We also sampled the burrata with watermelon radishes, which was too pretty, too rare, and too delicious to not show you.

voodoo doughnuts

voodoo doughnuts

Voodoo Doughnut ($, 3 stars)
“Sure, you can go to Voodoo Doughnut if you want Fruit Loops on your doughnut,” commented one of our waitresses in Portland. We had mentioned that we were thinking about going to the much-heralded tourist trap of a bakery, and she wasn’t impressed. Now I understand why. We waited for about 30 minutes under the surprisingly hot sun. When we got to the front of the line, I quickly decided I’d get a french cruller with chocolate icing. MDP wanted the Arnold Palmer doughnut, and I thought we’d throw in the Portland Cream for good measure. They were all so incredibly sweet that I wanted to throw up for, like, five hours after I tried them. (No, I didn’t eat all of the doughnuts myself!) MDP seemed to enjoy them, and maybe you would, too, but I wouldn’t recommend this place: it’s not that cool and the doughnuts, old-style as they may be, are not the best I’ve ever had.

full sail brewing company session beers

session beers

Full Sail Brewing Company ($, 5 stars)
If you happen to travel east to the Columbia Gorge, keep going until you get to Hood River and then stop in at the Full Sail Brewing Company. Take a tour of their facility–which seems impressive!–or head straight to the pub for an appetizer or two and a couple of authentic Oregon brews. Their main offerings are Session beers, which I’ve had on the East Coast if you can believe it. I enjoyed the one I had, whose style escapes me, and MDP liked his. We also got the spinach and artichoke dip that actually came with more pita than we needed–a rare situation. And, if it’s a beautiful day, you’ll be able to watch the kite surfers do their thing on the expansive Columbia River. It’s well worth a visit!

contrary biscuits

biscuits

Contrary ($, 5 stars)
This small, family-owned coffee shop across the street from Portland State University serves Stumptown coffee, which is some of the best you can get. In addition to the outstandingly smooth latte I ordered, we got some biscuits for breakfast. They were crumbly and filled with delicious cheeses and vegetables (and bacon, in one instance). If you visit Portland, try to find a hotel that’s centrally located, such as in the downtown area where Contrary is found.

A note on Portland food trucks: Food trucks, or food stands really since they’re not on wheels, are very popular in the city. But, based on my experience, I wouldn’t “waste” a meal at one of them unless you’re desperate for food or you’ve run out of money. We went to a handful, including one of the supposed best, and I wasn’t impressed at all. The food trucks outside my work building in midtown are far better, in fact.

irving street kitchen marinated hanger steak

marinated hanger steak

Irving Street Kitchen ($$$, Five stars!)
Wow is this place outstanding. Maybe I liked it because it reminds me of New York. Or maybe it’s just because the food is so damn good. Either way, Irving Street Kitchen offers some of the best food I’ve ever had. We started the meal with local wines and a cheese plate. First of all, the cheeses–a blue cheese and a cheddar–were completely delicious. As if the cheeses themselves weren’t the best ever, the chef went a step further, putting house made crackers that boasted a nuanced flavor and delicately crafted jams on the side. Amazing! A server also brought over some of the best bread ever, from Ken’s Bakery in Portland. Wow! For entrees, MDP got the fried chicken while I ordered the marinated hanger steak. The chicken was good, but not as flavorful as others I’ve had. But the steak–it was so tender and juicy. The asparagus that lay underneath the meat was thin and crisp, and the few onion rings they provided were fantastic. We didn’t stop there. We also ordered the chocolate cherry tart with matcha ice cream (not my favorite) and chocolate cherry curd. The curd stole the show in this dish–so creamy and rich with flavor. You’ll have to go here if you ever visit Portland. But make a reservation, if you can. They only have a few tables set aside for walk-ins.

Portland has some of the best food I’ve ever had outside of New York. Much better than San Francisco, in fact! It’s a beautiful city with a lot to offer and I hope you visit some time.

Upland

I’m surprised I’ve never been to Upland before. For one, it’s the type of place I categorically love: clean, quasi-modern aesthetic with luxurious green leather booths and jars of fermenting lemons lining the walls. There’s something very charming about the interior, although the facade itself won’t tell you much about what’s inside. But, the other perplexing part of today being my first and only visit to Upland is simply that I worked down the street from it for three years.

Upland’s namesake comes from the California town that “laid the groundwork” for chef Justin Smillie’s love of cooking. Wherever Upland is, whatever it may have in store for discerning palates, I’m extremely pleased that chef Smillie brought his talents and affinity for California cooking to Flatiron, NYC. When I tell you this place is awesome, I surely hope you believe me.

Our smiling waitress brought over a complimentary bottle of sparkling water to us and handed us a few brunch menus. That Upland labels the menus with the current month speaks to its reliance on seasonal cooking–something I admire. Yet, chef Smillie doesn’t go overboard with his consultation of the seasons: there are dishes you’ll actually want to eat and seem “normal.”

upland pastry basket

pastry basket

We started with the pastry basket, which is chock full of sweet and savory treats. The lemon poppyseed muffin, grapefruit poundcake, baguette, and cheddar and bacon (!) scone were true standouts. It’s no error here that I’ve named the majority of what came in the pastry basket–everything was that good. MDP even commented that the grapefruit poundcake had just the right amount of lemon flair, unlike some confections we had recently sampled.

upland eggs in hell

eggs in hell

MDP opted for a dish called “eggs in hell” that tasted very fresh and enticing. The eggs were runny–not my cup of tea–but he was unfazed and gobbled them up. The sauce was rife with fresno chiles, oregano, and truly spectacular tomato. Grilled bread came on the side, the perfect accompaniment for sopping up the delicious tomato goodness.

upland cheeseburger

upland cheeseburger

I’ve been building up to the moment when I would tell you about this burger I had at Upland. Here’s the spoiler: it was one of the best I’ve ever had. New York magazine tipped me off to this gem, and boy am I glad they did. It’s like a Big Mac but oh so much better. Two cheese-topped patties sat upon a fantastic sesame roll whose crust was crisp and yet the body of the bun was soft. And true to California cooking, chef Smillie put delicately sliced avocado slivers on the burger. I didn’t even have to ask. I was in heaven. The combination of flavors–the unique peppers, the ideal bun, the perfect amount of grease, I could go on–made this a memorable dining experience. At $20, the burger costs a pretty penny but is well worth the fee, ounce for ounce. And the matchstick fries that come with the burger are plenty, offering enough bite to be satisfying.

Our lovely waitress asked if we’d like dessert at the end of the meal, but I was already so stuffed we had to decline. But, given my love for both the ambiance and food, I’m sure MDP and I will return to try dinner one night.

Now, be aware that the burger is only served for brunch and lunch. So plan accordingly.

Upland
345 Park Avenue South (at 26th Street)
Flatiron, New York
Take the 6 to 28th Street and walk south a few blocks.