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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Fearless Platinum Edition: Audio

Why Fearless Again? Why Not.

You probably pre-ordered your copy of Fearless Platinum Edition from Amazon.com like I did.

Amazon probably e-mailed you a coupon for this album because the industrious goods-search-engine instinctively knows how much you love Taylor Swift.

So, when you received the new Fearless album with six previously unreleased recordings at work last week, you probably threw up your hands and yelled Hallelujah at a volume for your entire office suite to hear. Alarmed by your exclamation, they asked, “What’s the good news? Are you getting married or are you pregnant or did you get a new job or all of the above?” You waved the silver, black, and blonde CD in their direction and slowly retreated to the corner of your cubicle, your headphones tangled in white knots.

Am I right?

… It doesn’t matter if I’m right. Keep reading.

Fearless Platinum features five new tracks and one re-vision of an original Fearless song, “Forever and Always.” This is a big deal. Can you think of any artist who’s so graciously re-packaged his/her/their album with new music only one year after the original release? And a DVD with all kinds of visual goodies on it? I can’t.

On the inside cover of the CD booklet, there’s a handwritten note from Taylor. It begins:

First and foremost, thank you for buying the Fearless Platinum Edition. When I put out Fearless, I had high hopes and no expectations. A short time later, I sit here, trying to think of words that might fully express to you how thankful I am.

Is she nuts? Fearless is one of the best albums I’ve ever heard in my life. Believe it or not – other people agree with me. The note continues to describe the songs she’s included in the platinum edition, but I’ll tell you about that.

The Quintessential Taylor Swift

Two songs strike me as through-and-through Taylor Swift-ies: “Jump Then Fall” and “The Other Side of the Door.”

The album opens with “Jump Then Fall,” solely written by Taylor, (which, were I to re-organize this album, would not come first). It has the positive energy that seeps through jaunty guitar playing and Taylor’s pretty voice singing

I like the way you sound in the morning

We’re on the phone and without a warning

I realize your laugh is the best sound I have ever heard

Love it. Live it. This is Taylor Swift. Don’t mistake her gushing as some romantic teenager’s vision of love. She sees what’s beautiful in the world and infuses her music with her view.

I might argue that “The Other Side of the Door,” the other totally-Taylor (and totally written by her) newbie to Fearless, is actually the best song on the CD. It reminds me of everything that’s great about Taylor’s music: a laidback banjo-beat, earnest delivery of lyrics, brazenly honest self-portrait as someone who’s difficult in love:

I said leave, but all I really want is you

To stand outside my window throwing pebbles

Screaming I’m in love with you

What do I love best about this song? It has so much Taylor imagery: “throwing pebbles” (from “Love Story”), “that little black dress” (from “Tim McGraw), ” slamming door” (from “Our Song”), “pouring rain” and even “faded picture of a beautiful night” (from “Fearless”), “beautiful eyes” (from “Teardrops on My Guitar”) and possibly more.

Tried a Little Tenderness

At the center of her additions to Fearless is a mass of tenderness so stark your heart all but melts as you listen to her sweet voice move across bars supported by banjo and guitar strumming.

Take “Forever and Always,” for instance. A song that once felt angst-driven is now stripped down to delicate vocals and piano, with harmonizing voices weaving through the chorus.

It isn’t a song about a girl on the brink of revenge. It’s raw, in the midst of heartbreak and betrayal. We’re with her at the center of an emotional mess much deeper than the quicker, louder parent version of the song might betray.

Second on the CD, the less memorable “Untouchable,” co-written with a handful of others, similarly penetrates this mushy tender place behind the strong exterior often associated with Taylor’s persona. Slower and accented with steel guitar shimmers, this song lacks the tightly wound narrative and line-by-line perfection characteristic of the bulk of Fearless. Yet there’s a lulling, dream-like quality to it that has definitely made the wait between tracks one and three manageable.

A Lot More Country (Than I Expected)

Although her roots are in Nashville’s scene, Taylor is perceived as not-quite-country by many.

She doesn’t write songs about NASCAR. Give her a break.

“Come in With the Rain” and “Superstar” have distinctively country vibes. Steel guitar, strings, banjo, and the staccato rhythms of the verses followed by a long sway of choruses create the right kind of tension to at least give the impression she isn’t the pop star US Weekly wants her to be.

In “Come in With the Rain,” co-written by Liz Rose of “White Horse” fame, she sings:

Talk to the wind, talk to the sky

Talk to the man with the reasons why

And let me know what you find

Read these lines in your head or aloud. Take in their simple poetry that reminds you of so many “real” country songs you’ve heard.

“Superstar,” which is also co-written by Liz Rose, totally blows my mind. It’s a beautiful song, yes, but the lyrics truly define what sets Taylor Swift apart from her contemporaries. She’s singing about a superstar–not herself:

So dim that spotlight, tell me things like I can’t take my eyes off of you

I’m no one special, just another wide eyed girl who’s desperately in love with you

Give me a photograph to hang on my wall

Superstar

Who does this? Taylor Swift is the definition of Superstar, yet she’s willing to show us that she’s like us–I mean, like me–the unflappable fan who can only admire the larger-than-life performer from afar; the person who sees herself as so much smaller and as “no one special” in comparison to the singer on stage.

On every album, in every song, Taylor Swift is showing her listener that she’s the same as anyone at the other end of the headphones. She’d never see it any differently.

If you haven’t used your Amazon coupon to buy Fearless Platinum, I suggest you use it today, at this very moment.

Greater Adoration

TAYLOR COUNTDOWN: 2 DAYS

Contrary to your belief, there are people out there who adore Taylor Swift more than I do.

And they’re talented musicians.

Take this one–Mary–singing “You Belong With Me”

My favorite part of Mary’s performance–filled with props that Taylor, no doubt, appropriates in her real life–happens around the 35 second mark.

During the lyrics “She’ll never know your story like I do,” Mary pulls out a Bible, bearing some kind of label (is it from the library?), and holds it in front of her distressed face. Maybe if she selected Swann’s Way, I’d understand the meaningfulness of her literary selection … and facial expression.

But Mary knows the Bible. The cheerleader “she” in the song, who wears short skirts and high heels, clearly does not. Mary sings “You Belong With Me” at Sunday church services, exalting at the alter.

Good for Mary–and Jesus, her subject.

And then there’s BatRomeo, who took it upon himself to rewrite “Love Story” from Romeo’s perspective.

Clad in a vintage Batman T-shirt with 99cent store RayBans, BatRomeo wants to tell his Love Story on his own terms.

You’ll be the princess. I’ll be the prince.
Oh. It’s a love story just say yes.

BatRomeo’s voice is sweet, though. I’ll give him that.

Who knows? BatRomeo could be Taylor’s next muse. He’s almost 1/100th as attractive as Taylor Lautner.

These two, Mary Kate and Ashley, definitely adore Taylor more than I do, and win the covers competition on Taylor’s Ham.

Singing “Our Song,” Mary Kate and Ashley in similarly tweeny outfits (purple and pink, of course) manage to pull off a pretty good harmony. Mary Kate strums the guitar while Ashley keeps the rhythm with her bouncing dance moves.

They are the next Taylor Swifts.

FYI: If I’m ever on YouTube singing a Taylor Swift song, you know you won’t find it here.

Taylor’s “Fearless” Ukulele

TAYLOR COUNTDOWN: 5 Days

Fine. Go ahead. Joke about how this 25 year-old “adult” adores a tweeny country-pop singer. Ha ha.

Sure, like I said, I was a foot taller than all the other Taylor Swift fans in West Virginia. I’m hoping the demographic is slightly more vertically developed this time around. But even if they’re troll-sized again, I’ll stand proud among them. Taylor Swift’s talent has captured my heart.

This week, I’ll write about Taylor as songwriter and consider her/her work in relation to her contemporary peers and our old time faves, like Loretta Lynn.

Today, Taylor’s talented because she plays the ukulele. (And because she’s sweet.)

Check out title track “Fearless” on ukulele below.

Don’t you love her little accent? Her storytelling? Her ability to circumvent legal contracts by playing a uke instead of a guitar*?

Me too. Bring on the trolls.

*Aren’t the other folks up there playing guitar? On the same song? Wily one, that Taylor Swift.

Turn yr radio on, the program is a’startin’

ALEX BATTLES &THE WHISKY REBELLION

Any band that sings a song called “Jesus Wore Flip Flops” is my kind of band.

abwrbyrsb3

Alex Battles & the Whisky Rebellion, photo from whisky rebellion website

So when I first experienced Alex Battles and the Whisky Rebellion on July 4 at the Brooklyn Museum, I knew it was love at first listen.

Self-described as “roof-shaking joyful hodgepodge of honky-tonk, jump blues, and rocknroll,” the Whisky Rebellion plays bittersweet ballads punctuated by irreverence and a familiar old-fashioned feeling that keeps your toes tapping and head nodding.  Their band consists of six mainstay members, but every now and then, other players show up or drop out–depends on what night you see ’em. Lots of guitar, a drum, bass, washboard, fiddle, banjo, harmonica, jug, and even a prosletyzer if you’re lucky. I haven’t seen resident prosletyzer, Shafer Hall, nor do I know what views he wishes to share, but I’m intrigued and eager to listen.

On August 15, Furry and I had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Battles with parts of his band at Hank’s Saloon in Brooklyn (Alex Battles has a song about this place). The fiddler wasn’t there, but the music was definitely on.

It’s a Love Story

A band you won’t want to miss live. Upbeat songs such as “It’s Raining in Brooklyn” and “Pennsylvania,” crowd-pleasers at both venues, showcase the harmonica player’s prowess. Shaky Dave is the finest harmonica player … in the five boroughs. (Honestly? I don’t have much to compare to. OK, I can probably speak for NJ.) It’s Shaky Dave’s incredible range and his fun bridge solos that set the tone of each song.

Alex Battles, from his website

Alex Battles, from his website

Alex Battles, guitarist and lead vocalist, delivers lyrics with a deep, charming voice that sounds like smiling. There’s something playful about him: he’s having a good time, so you will too. The man loves the stage almost as much as he loves himself (from the look of his website). With his shit kickers and ten gallon hat, Alex Battles is definitely bringing country back to Brooklyn.

The wiry lead guitarist owns the songs. He’s the one to watch when you see them live. He slinks back and forth in his small area onstage as he dominates the complicated guitar lines. He also plays the washboard and skillfully switches between guitar and washboard (which has to be slung over his head) in seconds.

Another Record to Burn

The only problem I had with the second ABWR performance was the harmonica player. I know, didn’t I just say he was amazing and probably the shining star of the band? He is, but it was too much for me. Before ABWR took stage, another band invited Shaky Dave up to play. By the time he got around to accompanying ABWR, I felt I had heard all his tricks rendering his efforts indistinguishable song to song.

Tied Together With (or Without) a Smile

Totes smiles. Amazing live act and their studio albums are iPod-playlist worthy.

I can’t wait to see ABWR at the three-day Brooklyn Country Music Festival! They’re headlining September 19’s “Giant Saturday” filled with other awesome acts such as the Lonesome Prairie Dogs.

You know you look just like a friend of mine
He’s always drinking two dollar wine
Because he can’t afford the moonshine
Two dollar wine suits him just fine

If you feel you can relate to the above lyrics (you know you can, two buck chuck drinkers), download their albums for free here!

Countdown to Taylor at Penn State

TAYLOR COUNTDOWN: 9 Days*

On August 29, Small Hands and I are going to see Taylor Swift at the Bryce Johnson Theater at Penn State University.

“Isn’t that far from New York, Nicole?” you might ask. “Why not see her locally?”

If you knew anything at all, you’d realize that her Madison Square Garden Show sold out in one minute. Plus, I like states that aren’t New York or New Jersey.

Last month, Small Hands and I saw Taylor at the Civic Center at Charleston, West Virginia. And the show was the best I’ve ever seen.

It’s a Love StoryIMG00173

First of all, the opening acts–Gloriana (a bestseller on iTunes somehow) and Kellie Pickler (of … Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader fame)–exceeded my wildest imaginations. Gloriana’s harmonic styles reminded me of Fleetwood Mac’s flawless tightness. Kellie Pickler, who played for about 40 minutes–man, she has one hell of a voice. If you ever get the chance to see her live, do. If she can’t add or read a map, she can definitely sing.

(Kellie and Taylor are BFFs. In the linked video above, Kellie sings “Best Days of Your Life,” a song Taylor co-wrote with Kellie. Taylor’s in the video, too. Also, Kellie is totes adorable. Watch it!)

Now for Taylor.IMG00181 Two hour set. Everything off Fearless, her latest album, except for “The Best Day,” a song dedicated to her mom. She played the favorites from her debut self-titled smash hit album and saved “Should’ve Said No” for last–an extended performance ending with a rainstorm on stage, leaving Taylor’s long, blond, wavy hair matted to her narrow frame.

I couldn’t count all the costume changes.

Because Small Hands is so generous and wonderful, she bought us tickets on the floor of the venue, granting us easy access to Taylor as she played several songs, “Fifteen” among them, from a rotating elevated platform at the rear of the floor seating area. (Linked video features Miley Cyrus.)  She came down into the audience and hugged the twitching, tweeting (I’m sure) tweens who gathered in the aisle as she made her rounds. I even touched her hair. An electrifying moment.IMG00187

She totally bashed Joe Jonas without saying his name. We knew she meant to say, “He’s incredibly fug and I’m totally not.” She didn’t have to. We were all on the same page.

I can’t tell you what the best part of the show was because every moment was incredible. On second thought, it may have been that blinding glisten from her sparkling guitar.

Another Overpriced Tour T-Shirt to Burn

With Taylor, there were no problems. Only the fans. And it mostly had to do with my inferiority complex about standing at least one foot taller than 90% of the audience (including Small Hands; sorry, dear).

Tied Together With (or Without) a Smile

Way, way smile.

Can’t wait to share with you the next show.

*Note: I don’t really know how to “count” days for countdowns. Does the day of the event count as 0 or 1? Neither seems completely logical to me. I need an informative Mary Roach footnote–or subject matter–instead of my rambling lack of counting accountability.