Kacey Musgraves

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Much-decorated, uniquely incisive, and all but universally celebrated, here as abroad, Texas’ Kacey Musgraves paid her first visit to Australian shores to appear at CMC Rocks QLD in March. For Sydney fans, the singer’s Australian sojourn culminated in an intimate show at Sydney’s Oxford Art Factory with support from local country-roots lynchpin Shane Nicholson. 

Musgraves’ performance followed a format the singer and her regular band have honed elsewhere, for different crowds in different cities, but few who saw her perform in Sydney (the basement-level venue was filled near to capacity, with familiar industry faces spread liberally among the assembly) could have resisted being swept up in the Old Nashville glamour of the occasion. Showing off a gaudily rhinestone-studded red satin mini-dress and prize-fighter’s belt, Musgraves shone at the centre of a tight and patently close-knit band, the players fitted-out in hats, string ties, and embroidered gabardine rodeo suits embedded about the shoulders, lapels and sleeves with twinkling, white-gold LEDs. Behind them, a backdrop painted to resemble a tangerine Monument Valley sunset, while livid, neon saguaro cacti cast a subtle greenish glow about the stage.

Whether natural or studied, Musgraves’ presence is all ease. The set-list drew heavily, of course, on material lifted from Musgraves’ Grammy-winning 2013 major label debut Same Trailer Different Park, along with new songs taken from forthcoming sophomore Mercury release Pageant Material – including ‘Cup of Tea’, and an acoustic rendering of lead single ‘Biscuits’. Also clearly chosen to impress were several well-polished covers including Weezer’s ‘Island in the Sun’, Miranda Lambert’s ‘Mama’s Broken Heart’ (which Musgraves co-wrote), and TLC’s ‘No Scrubs’. The set was capped off perfectly with an a capella version of Roy Rogers’ ‘Happy Trails’, which saw Musgraves and band huddled, centre-stage, around a single microphone – a striking image that might well have been lifted from a classic Hatch Show Print playbill. Musgraves’ live show undeniably bears out those qualities that propelled her celebrated breakout barely two years ago, and earned her two Grammys, an ACM, and dual CMAs.

Key to Kacey Musgraves’ unique charm is the fact that the singer never feels the need to reach in the way so many artists do – whether for sentiment, for specious insights into the lives of others, or for echoes of patriotic fervour or moral acquiescence in the listener. Same Trailer became the breakout, runaway smash it did because it had all the qualities of a sugarcoated almond: a surface level sweetness beneath which lay some of life’s more elemental textures and flavours: a measure of coarseness, traces of bitterness, and so much savoury richness. It wasn’t a celebration of small-town life – Musgraves’ preferred creative locus – but a celebration of life’s small joys and pleasures, and a serene recognition of the very human failings, troubles, and woes we all experience as we beetle away beneath one assumed veneer or another.

Musgraves’ message with Pageant Material, as with Same Trailer, is one of empathy, tolerance. Several of Nashville’s most sought-after composers assisted Musgraves in the writing of the new album’s thirteen tracks. There’s Luke Laird (Nikki Lane, Eric Church) and Shane McAnally (Randy Travis) – both of whom co-produced the record with Musgraves – along with Brandy Clark (Reba McEntire, Miranda Lambert), Same Trailer Different Park alumnus Josh Osborne (Sara Evans), Natalie Hemby (Blake Shelton), and Ashley Arrison (Kelly Clarkson).

While Pageant Material doesn’t break any new ground thematically, it is rooted in the same endlessly fertile field of inspiration that defined Same Trailer. ‘Cup of Tea’ is this year’s ‘Follow Your Arrow’ (Musgraves’ breakout smash hit) – a manifesto of self-acceptance and contentment – while ‘Biscuits’ is an obverse anthem of sorts, its message so simple it seems striking that it should need to be repeated.

Takin’ down your neighbour won’t take you any higher,’ Musgraves sings. I burnt my own damn finger pokin’ someone else’s fire. I’ve never gotten taller makin someone else feel small … Just hoe your own row and raise your own babies. Smoke your own smoke and raise your own daisies. Mend your own fences and own your own crazy, mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy.’ 

…continued in Country Update Issue 77 – out now.