All over America, they have these “open mic” nights where aspiring artists come along to perform and hope someone important is listening in the crowd. There is a venue in Nashville dedicated to this format, called The Listening Room. On the night I was there, a few years back, a succession of statuesque southern belles (and one from New York), were strumming acoustic guitars, achingly putting their songs across with a look on their faces that say one thing: “I want to be Taylor Swift!”
Kacey Musgraves, it felt to me, must have been one of those wannabees at some time, whether at home in Texas or in the organ grind which is Music Ville Nashville, home of the Country Music machine. In fact, she met her husband, Ruston Kelly, at another Nashville iconic venue, the understated, (and underwhelming as a venue) Bluebird Café, which also regularly hosts “open mic” nights. He was singing, she was there, alone, watching, and it was love at almost, if not actual, first sight. The next time she met him, she came out with one of the most novel female pick-up lines: “I want to write with you”. The ensuing romance inspired an outpouring of songs which resulted in her third studio album Golden Hour, which won her a Grammy earlier this year!
This girl is hot property, a feisty country singer whose lyrics are modern and controversial to conservative bible belt country music fans. But crossover material for the LGBT community, traditionally feeling off the country music bus, no seats on that bus for us... now there are seats. Nashville is also the home of Americana, the country music alternative genre which embraces all the diverse elements which make up the American roots portfolio. An eclectic mix of blues, rock, rockabilly, folk, bluegrass, soul, jazz and yes, country (but with an acoustic guitar).
So I come to a Kacey Musgraves concert with the big question: Is she country, pop, or Americana?
I must say I am predisposed, because John Prine chose her as one of his collaborators on his 2016 duets album, For Better, Or Worse, singing the Buck Owens song, Mental Cruelty. Prine, of course, is today’s godfather of Americana, and one of Kacey’s greatest inspirations, along with another AmericanaFest queen, Lee Ann Womack.
“If I could sing it like Lee Ann (Womack) and say it like John (Prine) would, then I feel like I’ve gotten somewhere” ( Kacey quote from Wikipedia)
My daughter, Nicole (10) who accompanied me to the show at the Auckland Town Hall is not so predisposed. Unimpressed by Kacey’s equivalence to Taylor Swift in the Grammy votes. So let’s wait and see...
One definition of Americana goes “you have to taste the dirt” ... as in soil, not scandal! So I’m looking for soil.
But beforehand, we are entertained by the Bahamas, a three-piece band from Canada, which is the project of Afie Jurvanen (folks are from Finland). Afie was once in Feist’s band, before going solo 10 years or so ago. Picked up by Jack Johnson’s label, therein lies the clue to my most immediate reference when the band starts up: It’s Jack Johnson! Surf soaked guitar. Feels like the Bahamas!
Turns out Bahamas has been here three times before, and each time all he wants to do is... go to Piha beach, climb Lion Rock, swim a little. He took Kacey and her band out there yesterday. But it’s more than Jack Johnson as he leads his little band through a short, punchy nine-song set. He’s actually a bloody good guitarist, a little bit Chet Atkins, a little bit John Mayer, a little bit Robert Cray as he picks and plucks and chords his way through songs with falsetto vocals, high harmonies, reminiscent of Prince. Soulful, funky, belying his official description as a folk artist.
Very, very good. Nice surprise. Could be a headliner at the Tuning Fork in Auckland. I didn’t get the setlist, but most of the songs are from his latest album, Earthtones. I bought it, can’t wait for the listen. Nicole not impressed...
The Auckland Town Hall is sold out and the anticipation is palpable. All ages, but I would guess most are in the 30-40 age bracket. Just as I thought, if you average Nicole’s and my age, we meet the demographic!
At 9.20pm, a fashionable ten minutes late, on come the band in a blaze of spotlights, and suddenly there she is, majestic, tall, graceful. The young Nashville Queen.
Accompanied by a six-piece band, playing all sorts of string and keyboard instruments (but no horns, thankfully). The band is called The Crispy Boys, and comprise Smokin’ Brett Resnick on pedal steel, Scott Quintana on drums, bass player Adam Keefer, Nathaniel Smith on keyboards and occasional cello, Kai Welch on guitar and keyboards and finally Kyle Ryan on guitar and banjo. Great band.
I am immediately struck by the familiarity of the tunes. I have to confess I did a little spotify-ing (yuk) as preparation, but not much, so these tunes are catchy. That’s the first thing.
And poppy. But not overwhelmingly big country at all. A little electronica, a little psychedelic, a step forward for country into mainstream pop and rock (but don’t tell the folks back home…). That’s the second thing.
The first five tracks are from the 2019 Grammy Award-winning Golden Hour (Album of the Year). The crowd knows them all and sing from the get-go, especially Butterflies, a song about her feelings of falling in love. Merry Go Round is another well recognised song, about her hometown and upbringing in Texas, with “Merry” becoming “Mary”, as in quite contrary and also mary-jane. Here is the rebel songstress from a couple of years ago, and another Grammy award just for the song.
High Time evokes the wild wild west, cowboy country and the band sound like they are about to cut loose from the perfectly structured and concise backing so far, but just manage to hold back as Kacey returns from a quick off-stage break. And out comes a little flamenco...
Golden Hour follows, the title track from the album, and then Die Fun, which to my ear is the weakest song from the evening. But never mind, Mother sees the band retreat from the back podium, only to emerge at the front, where they set up campfire style and all acoustic. It’s Americana for sure, and I’m digging in the dirt. So is she, with a resigned acceptance that Family is Family (a touch of Dolly Parton in here). And then back comes the band, cutting loose, starting to rock as they launch into Love is a Wild Thing.
After Velvet Elvis, something strange and completely unnecessary happens. She launches into Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive. The crowd love it, but I don’t. It’s like John Prine being wakened up in his hotel when the alarm radio goes off and he’s thinking: “what the heck is that song doin’ in here?”. Of course, you are going to survive, Kacey, just don’t sing about it...
We get to another Grammy Award-winning song, Follow Your Arrow, which features the most exuberant crowd singing that I have ever heard from an Auckland crowd. No need for a stage singer for this song. Well done Auckland, City of Music! It’s nice to give back to the star. And that’s the third thing. Auckland is onto it. My opinion clearly doesn’t matter…
We are into encores, and Nicole needs to sleep, so we quietly slip out. She remains unimpressed, but I think the lady standing behind us is right when she says that one day soon, she will be so happy that she has seen Kacey Musgrave perform.
I certainly am. I’m converted. And it’s just been announced that the Americana Music Association, of which I am a member, has nominated Kacey Musgraves for Artist of the Year. (Along with Mavis Staples, Rhiannon Giddens, and Brandi Carlisle). What took you so long, AmericanaFest?
As for Kacey Musgraves, she could so easily go big pop and chase the Taylor Swift rainbow. She clearly can.
But please don’t. You are family. Americana family. Don’t leave us...
Kacey Musgraves' setlist:
- Slow Burn
- Wonder Woman
- Lonely Weekend
- Happy & Sad
- Merry Go Round
- High Time
- Golden Hour
- Die Fun
- Oh, What a World
- Family is Family
- Love is a Wild Thing
- Velvet Elvis
- I Will Survive
- Space Cowboy
- Follow Your Arrow
- High Horse