“I don’t know how the hell that happened, but thanks for three CMA nominations!” Kacey Musgraves told a sold-out house at Los Angeles’ Wiltern Theatre Friday night, cheerfully disregarding the minuscule number of voting CMA members on the west coast. Despite her perceived outsider status, Musgraves certainly stands a decent chance in the album of the year category, having won a trophy for best song last year and new artist the year before. So even though she repeatedly claimed in the show’s opening number that she “ain’t pageant material,” maybe she is, after all?
You can read a lot into the title track of Pageant Material, her terrific sophomore album. It’s practically written in code, the way the light-hearted tune uses Musgraves’ supposed ill-suitedness for beauty pageants as a transparent metaphor for her inability to quite fit in in mainstream country. “I ain’t exactly Miss Congenial … I wish I could, but I just can’t / Wear a smile when a smile ain’t what I’m feelin’,” she sings, addressing the whispered complaints from some radio programmers that she isn’t warm or demonstrative enough (or, worse, has Resting Bitchface, which she made light of in a hilarious Buzzfeed photo gallery). Two albums in, it remains to be seen exactly where she’ll finish in the mainstream country music pageant, with radio play lagging behind TV, critical, awards and sales support. But in the contest to see who can be the most singular and important voice of a country generation, she’s already Miss America.
She’s low-key, as heroines go… which is maybe the only way for a young performer to truly stand out when everyone else in the genre is trying to out-emote Garth Brooks. If you were a betting person, you might have wagered, after the success of Musgraves’ debut, Same Trailer, Different Park, that she would have ratcheted up the rock quotient a little and tried to compete with her supposed mentor, Miranda Lambert, on that fiery turf. Instead, this year’s Pageant Material was an even quieter and more acoustic affair. That meant her five-piece band was rarely cooking on full broil at the Wiltern, And when they got to the two rowdiest tracks from the debut, “Blowin’ Smoke” and “Stupid,” Musgraves and her combo introduced new arrangements that made these songs lighter and bluesier. There’s something wonderfully rebellious about just how subdued most of Musgraves’ material is, on record and in concert. Ironically, she may have the most rock ‘n’ roll attitude of anyone in mainstream country right now, while sounding the least like a rock star.
If you want to boil down exactly what that attitude is, it’s a combination of barbed and sweet, with good-naturedness edging out feistiness in the end. Most of Musgraves’ most famous tracks so far are “message” songs, a la “Follow Your Arrow,” which find clever ways of preaching tolerance and self-esteem without becoming cloying. The closest thing to anger in Musgraves’ performance Friday was in a mid-song digression during “Dime Store Cowgirl,” when she reminisced about being a pre-teen preparing to go on stage and sing a song, only to be told by the mother of a fellow young performer that the way she wore her cowboy hat made her look like, yes, a dime store cowgirl. Her reaction, as she recalled it: “I’m 12. What the f— does that mean?” Maybe it has something to do with the weed that comes up in songs like “Arrow” and “High Tide,” but Musgraves seems too well-adjusted to really stress out over the judgmental types who recur in her songs and why they gotta be so mean.
If roughly half of her songs tend toward socially conscious sing-alongs, the other half — the arguably even better half — are the kind of quiet, often ambiguous love songs that are never likely to be released as singles. In the past, as Musgraves has focused on being an opening act and festival performer, this subtler side of her songwriting has gotten short shrift. But happily, now that she’s touring as a headliner for the first time, she’s pulling out all the quiet stops in a 100-minute set that generously extends to 22 songs, encompassing most of both her records, along with a few well-chosen covers. The album-enders “It Is What It Is” and “Fine” are examples of how it’s possible to write a vivid song about how your life doesn’t feel very vivid — or not having any idea where your arrow might land — and these underdog tunes were every bit as much a highlights as an obvious crowd-pleaser like “Biscuits.”
So now that we’ve established that Musgraves has developed the writing chops of heroes like John Prine, it also bears mentioning that, unlike some of those antecedents, she probably could win a swimsuit competition. She’s not afraid of being a leggy glamour-puss, or indulging in an old-school costume change, even as her dress-up tendencies fall into statement-making, too. Her initial miniskirt-and-bodice look, followed later in the show by a sheer gown over a bodysuit, came off as quirkily sexy and deeply retro, helping cement Musgraves as The Girl Who Couldn’t Be Nailed Down in Time. The set’s climax had her aping Nancy Sinatra’s original choreography for the video of “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” albeit with light-up boots that battery technology didn’t allow for in Sinatra’s day. Did this and her Loretta/Lynn Anderson hair count as overtly throwback stuff? Sure. Something every 20-year-old woman in the audience wished she could pull off, too? Of course.
“I don’t even have to tell you this, but you guys know you were the originators of following your arrow,” Kacey Musgraves told the crowd, seizing on a kinship with California that, on the surface of things, would have to do with the golden state being an early adopter when it comes to rolling up joints and girls kissing girls. But you could also see the California influence in other ways, with her rhinestones and the band’s suits harking back to the days when Gram Parsons put on a Nudies suit, showing that old-fashioned and progressive instincts could be natural partners. As much as Musgraves used songs like “This Town” Friday to declare that she’d always be a small-town girl, jealous Texans might want to look out to make sure California doesn’t make the true claim on her spiritual citizenship.
“Mama’s Broken Heart”
“Late to the Party”
“Dime Store Cowgirl”
“Family Is Family”
“It Is What It Is”
“Somebody to Love”
“Merry Go ‘Round”
“Good Ol’ Boys Club”
“The Trailer Song”
“Follow Your Arrow”
“These Boots Are Made for Walkin’”