Country music isn’t a monolith, even if those who’ve agitated against the Nashville establishment have long portrayed it that way. Since the seventies, thanks to the outlaws, there’ve been alternative paths to tread for those who want to find a way around Music Row. And yet, women always have to be a little more sweet in their subversion, in country music as elsewhere. But that never stopped generations of artists—from icons like Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, Reba McEntire, and Shania Twain, to hippie outlaws such as Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, to proudly defiant Texans like the Dixie Chicks and Miranda Lambert—from coloring outside of the lines.
Parton wrote songs like “Coat of Many Colors,” which proudly told people that she didn’t care what they thought of her. (That attitude may have helped her become the gay icon she is today.) Twain is the titular country crossover artist. Harris blended Nashville hitmakers like Merle Haggard and Tammy Wynette and the Beatles way back on her 1975 debut. The Dixie Chicks made no apologies for what they believed in, and Lambert topped the country charts with hard-edged songs about refusing to take shit from any man. And Wednesday night, taping her second appearance on Austin City Limits, East Texas native Kacey Musgraves affirmed that she’s heir apparent to the legacies of all of them.
Three albums (plus a Christmas record) into her career and still on the underside of 30, at least for a few more months, Musgraves is already on the verge of being a mononym. On her latest album, Golden Hour—which made up the bulk of her Austin City Limits performance—she sounds more relaxed and confident than ever, making music with the sort of dreamy, wide-open aesthetics of seventies West Coast country artists like Harris and Ronstadt. And she’s doing it all very much on her own terms. Which one of the sixteen songs in her set best exemplified why Musgraves is one of the most vital artists working today is largely a matter of taste: if you adore harmonies, it might have been in the way her voice and the voices of her six band members came together after the key change in “Happy and Sad”; if you’re the sort who likes to see tradition inverted, it might have been the country dance hall stomp of “Family Is Family” or “Follow Your Arrow,” during which Musgraves uses country music’s tropes to shout-out gay pride and condemn small-minded attitudes; if you prefer simple moments, it could be the muted elegance of the piano ballad “Rainbow,” which closed out both her set at ACL and Golden Hour.
For me, it was in the cover of the Brooks & Dunn classic “Neon Moon.” Musgraves took a song that exemplifies the Nashville sound that’s dominated country for the past few decades and made it her own, playing it the way she and her band execute songs on Golden Hour—with a prominent slide guitar, live percussion that sound like a drum machine, and synthesized, robotic backing vocals that create an emotional distance that she immediately closes with the resonance of her own voice. But pretty much everything Musgraves tried on the Austin City Limits stage worked last night—it’s just a matter of your perspective.
Perspective is a thing that Musgraves has always had in abundance. It’s what made her an interesting voice at the start of her career, when her songs were primarily concerned with catchy hooks and clever plays on words. With Golden Hour, of course, she’s an artist in transition. She’s married; yeah, she’s writing love songs now, and the album is weird in a way that country music is seldom weird. Live, that transition is even more apparent—as is the creative evolution that led to it. She can play a song like “Space Cowboy,” an emotionally devastating nod to the Steve Miller Band, of all things, after running through early hits like “High Time,” “Family Is Family,” and “Follow Your Arrow,” and demonstrate that her love of wordplay remains intact, even though she’s delivering it with an expansiveness that her earlier work never so much as hinted at. Hearing all of those songs in succession is a little jarring, like if Radiohead dropped “Creep” into a set between “Paranoid Android” and “Karma Police” twenty years ago—the early tracks may still have merit, but they sound more like historical artifacts than current statements. Musgraves isn’t reinventing her own older material right now, but she’ll nod to it by doing it to “Neon Moon,” instead, and by playing these challenging, progressive songs while wearing a metallic dress with bouffant hair. (Midway through the set, Musgraves had a hairdresser and a makeup artist come out to refresh her look while the band played the instrumental part of “Are You Sure?”, her duet with Willie Nelson.)
You could hear and see the ways in which Musgraves is going for big and iconic at Austin City Limits. The vintage styling recalled Dolly and Tammy, and when she sings “All I ever wanted was something classic” in the lush stomp of “Velvet Elvis,” you believe her, even if that’s not the song’s aesthetic. It wasn’t hard to picking up the ways that she channeled Harris or Ronstadt, either, singing songs that cry out to be heard from passing car windows on warm days near the ocean like “Love Is A Wild Thing” or “Golden Hour.” But despite the fact that the sound Musgraves found with Golden Hour doesn’t have much in common with what we tend to associate with Texas country—either the red dirt variety that she helped promote when working in the office of an Austin booking agent (“I used to call venues to book shows for Josh Abbott,” she recalled onstage) or the outlaw kind that’s being celebrated out in Nashville right now—the Texan-ness of her music nonetheless stands out.
Musgraves doesn’t live here anymore. Onstage, she teased the audience for cheering when she mentioned going to school in Mineola. Her songs have never been wistful about small-town life, and in between songs she talked about getting out of Golden, the hometown for which she named her latest album, and coming to Austin—then about how even Texas’s music capital wasn’t ultimately the right fit for her, and she ended up heading off to Nashville. But while “Texas country” as a genre might recall Pat Green and Cory Morrow, there’s a common thread that bonds so many country acts from here, whether they’re Pat and Cory, Willie and Waylon, or the Dixie Chicks: an attitude that says that they’re going to do things their own way. Kacey Musgraves may have gone to Nashville, but she doesn’t play music that sounds anything like Nashville country anymore. Instead, she’s creating something new, which takes elements of Nashville, Laurel Canyon, and Texas, finding the prettiest moment in every day—the “golden hour”—and referring it back to her hometown without easy sentimentality.
There was a yearning to the ten songs from Golden Hour that Musgraves played Wednesday night that stands in sharp contrast to the attitudes we get in the Texas country of artists like Pat Green or Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers—but that doesn’t make them any less Texas. These are songs that sound like they were written for people who spend their days in the summer heat dreaming of being somewhere with seasons, even if only so they could wish they were back here again. It’s like the way that Musgraves talks on stage ambivalently about her East Texas roots, even though she named the record after her hometown of Golden. Wanting to do it your own way, wanting to get out of Texas, wanting to come back, and not caring what anyone else thinks about any of that is as Texan as it comes, and it’s all part of what makes Kacey Musgraves one of the most vital artists working today—here or anywhere else.