Move over Ms. Swift… while Taylor spends her days exploring new real estate ventures and divulging her personal life through song and print, the country ingénue throne does not sit idle. Like a George Martin novel, reigns. even in the realm of “pop” are not something to be guarded flippantly and always subject to conquest by a rotating carousel of aspirants, though some present clear and present danger. All medieval allusions aside, two phenomenally talented singers and songwriters have caught my ears with their earnest and dulcimer tones over the past two months. Although I think Ms. Swift’s pop-stardom is unlikely to be stripped away easily, these two young Country chanteuses definitely have the panache and charm to rival and exceed, at least, on the artistic front. One will almost certainly be a household name, even for the non-Country music fans, by year’s end, Kacey Musgraves, and the other most definitely should be.
One story at time…
On why Ms. Musgraves is destined for stardom . . .
Before discussing her music, let’s start with some data points. First, Kacey’s lead single “Merry Go Round” was featured and spotlighted on NPR’s All Songs Considered and from what I’ve heard via friends and family, there was also a little public radio spot on her. As a country music singer, getting the “public radio” listening crowd into the fold is, from a marketing perspective, quite genius. You are getting impressive cross-over appeal by reaching into a demographic that I would venture to say isn’t generally “in to country” (in the same way many folks aren’t “in to Jazz”, but I’ve gone off on that subject before . . .). Second, doing a complete 360, Musgraves is also opening for Kenny Chesney on a rather extensive large-venue tour, displaying her talents for traditional Country fans. All of this leads me to believe you will all be humming her music soon enough. And, this is where the music enters the picture.
Although many music aficionados (or music geeks, nerds, or snobs) tend to glance askance at the mention of all things country, there is a whole lot to love about a good country song. Between their raw and bitter honesty and candid observations on the inexplicable tragi-comedy of daily life, a good country song tends to anchor itself in our thirst for the unadorned reality of our experiences. In the US, it also builds on our love of storytelling in the first person singular (e.g. history with lower case “H”). Country, in my estimation, has always been a unique American take on Folk music. Where Folk tells the story of the collective (the “we”), Country is always about the “I”*.
Kacey Musgraves’ Same Trailer Different Park is a perfect anthology of lives scattered across the country, struggling to get by, get ahead, get away, and get “it” (being life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness or all of the above). But, aren’t we all in some way? Aside from the lead single “Merry Go Round”, perhaps the most compelling track on this record is Musgrave’s anthem of self-actualization: “Follow Your Arrow”. Detailing a laundry list of labels imposed on women by the world at large, whether the subject is physical appearance or lifestyle choices, Musgraves acknowledges that judgment is unavoidable no matter what one chooses: “If you save yourself from marriage you’re a bore, you don’t save yourself for marriage you’re a horr-ible person“. (The clever word play isn’t as evident in print as it is in intonation.) Echoing a theme that runs throughout the record, Kacey implores her listener (and likely herself) to follow one’s internal compass regardless of other’s views, even embracing choices that don’t subscribe to traditional cultural norms of Country music (e.g., offering no judgment and encouraging her female audience “to kiss lots of girls if that’s what you are into” (it’s no “Same Love” but in a genre dominated by hetero-normative standards, it’s a good step)). But Musgraves isn’t just telling tales of young, pie-eyed dreamers, there is the Sisyphus-like desire of “Merry Go Round”, recounting the seeming dead-end of small town America, or the darker, nihilistic longing of “Blown’ Smoke”, the tale of cocktail waitresses always trying to hitch the next ride of town, yet never actually taking off on their breaks. Finally, there are the inevitable love songs or love-lorn songs, but with a pleasant twist. Instead of the frail, discarded lover, “Keep It To Yourself” is a reflection on how to cut off the past and avoid the pratfalls of “falling back in”. Yet, the music is filled with remorseful tones, illustrating the emotional tumult of creating distance despite the desire against.
If I haven’t persuaded you to listen to Kacey’s record, well, that’s okay. I bet you’ll be humming one of these tunes before year’s end.
For the rest: Listen to Kacey Musgraves’ Same Trailer Different Park
Not a back up act by any means . . .
On the cover of Caitlin Rose‘s The Stand-In, the Nashville singer glances over her shoulder, a look that is once beguilingly inviting and assertively guarded, all while evoking a 50s era charm and aesthetic (for the Mad Men fans). Although this doesn’t tell the entire story, it helps frame Rose’s songs: floating between joy inducing escapism and torch-song epiphanies. Where Kacey’s music veers more towards the pop-Country sensibility, Rose’s music veers towards Americana and Alt-Country. In fact, the album’s lead single “Only A Clown” is a collaboration with the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris, and definitely evokes the feel of Save It For A Rainy Day. However, to me she recalls another beloved and sweet singing Caitlin (e.g. Caitlin Cary of Whiskeytown and a solo songwriter in her own right) and the gorgeous voices and songwriting of Kelly Hogan, Neko Case, and Nora O’Connor (all of whom are coincidentally friends and work together). What Rose shares with all these ladies is not only a phenomenal ability to serenade you into submission but songwriting that dips into 50s and 60 pop music and country, doing it with little frills or modulation: it is a voice filled with stories that demand your attention. These are the songs you’d hear in the dark-light nightclubs or dive bars in hidden recesses of your town, where the regulars have stories wedged in the wrinkle and worn edges of their faces, revelations about the pitfalls or aspirations we all share.
For those who are adventure seekers, wanderers, and dreamers, listen to Caitlin Rose’s The Stand-In
. . . you’ll feel like you found a lost AM radio station or stumbled through a mix from your parent’s record collection.
Although you can listen to the whole record above, here is a teaser for the curious
Enjoy the weekend.
notes from above:
*Americans tend, based on our individualist extolling history, towards narratives about the “I”. Although ostensibly self-centered, “I” storytelling actually builds community and connection with others. In other words, we embrace our uniqueness and join it with others, we don’t subject ourselves to faceless group identification, if anything this is one of those lasting impressions of what I think it means to be “an American”.