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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I Just Found Kacey Musgraves and I Love Her

“Woke up on the wrong side of rock bottom/ you’re all outta pennies and the well it done run dry” begins Kacey Musgraves’ album Same Trailer Different Park, in the song “Silver Lining.” With this cute aphorism, she had me hooked. Same Trailer is an engaging country album, replete with songs that serve as a corrective of Southern culture.

Musgraves has written or co-written all of the songs on the record, and her lyrics are strongest (and most incisive) when they’re critiquing the way things are. “If you ain’t got two kids by 21/ you’re probably gonna die alone/ least that’s what tradition told you,” she sings on the dark and inspired “Merry Go ‘Round.” In this number, Musgraves uses a play on “merry,” “marry” and “Mary” with known phrases (“Jack and Jill went up a hill” and “Mary, mary, quite contrary”) to convey the silly, yet all too familiar conventions of the South. By tapping into our collective unconscious with the delicate banjo strums and the rhythm and rhymes of the song, Musgraves skillfully uncovers the assumptions and prejudices of the behaviors she sings about.

Though her voice isn’t quite as strong as singers such as Miranda Lambert (whose voice is often compared to Musgraves’), she works it to its utmost potential, using background vocalists to enhance and texturize her lyrics. In this fan’s (and liberal scene’s) favorite “Follow Your Arrow,” a male background singer accompanies Musgraves on the chorus, singing

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

(She had the nerve to sing this song at the Country Music Awards, surely to a wholly negative reception.) According to Wikipedia, “Follow Your Arrow” only hit the mid-twenties on the Billboard “hot country songs” chart and the upper-forties on the Billboard “country airplay” chart. Yet it peaked at number four on the Billboard “bubbling under hot singles” chart. Country radio is a funny thing. When singers lament not having a gun or nurse a broken heart over chords, it’s all the rage. But when a young woman sings about girls kissing girls and uses a pedal steel to slide between verses, it simply won’t achieve Shelton status.

Everything comes together seamlessly on “Stupid,” in which the slithering of fingers on the guitar and banjo presents a jaunty undercurrent to the brace-yourself-for-this song. A minor-inflected first verse is followed by the blaring chorus: “Stupid love is stupid/ don’t know why we always do it/ finally find it just to lose it/ always find us looking stupid/ stupid.” The plucking of the banjo takes center stage after the bridge, and then she launches back into the densely packed chorus.

The only two songs I find myself skipping are “Dandelion” and “Back on the Map,” but this doesn’t take away from the merit and strength of the album for me. There are a handful of Taylor Swift songs I don’t care for, after all.

I, for one, am a fan of Kacey Musgraves, and believe she’s brilliant. I’d love to see her live, but I think she already toured the New York area. Young, smart, hip, savvy – oh, and she whistles darn good, too. Kacey Musgrave is the complete package and I can’t wait to see what’s next for the young country sure-to-be superstar.

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.

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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!