Kacey Musgraves made an impressive declaration early on last night (Oct. 24) during the New York stop of her Rhinestone Revue tour. “Apparently I’m the only country act to headline the Apollo,” she noted. “Sold it out, too,” she added proudly. This sort of accomplishment is not out of character for Musgraves, who has managed to become one of country music’s most discussed artists even though she lacks a major hit.
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Attention came thick and fast when Musgraves’ Same Trailer, Different Park debuted in 2013. A pair of her songs embraced political positions not usually associated with country music, attracting praise from listeners who otherwise ignore the genre. To the extent that her lyrics were lefty-friendly, her aesthetic positions were conservative: Musgraves is loyal to the country sound of 50 years ago.
Her politics helped build buzz, but they were mostly a feint: what stayed constant between Same Trailer and Pageant Material, out this year, was her songwriting. Compact melodies are a Nashville hallmark — no city offers a better argument for the continued relevance of guitar-based music — and Musgraves imbues hers with a heavy dose of nostalgia, pulling from a southern past verging on myth (or caricature). At a time when country music is rapidly modernizing, she is an outlier.
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But her brand of rebellion comes sugar-coated: playing at the Apollo, Musgraves’ music was unfailingly pleasant and relentlessly innocuous. She likes golden bass, light percussion, pretty and undistorted guitars; jaunty whistles appeared in a few songs, along with joyous summer camp-appropriate interjections of “Hey!” Lyrically, her songs are piles of truisms and tautologies: “family is family,” “it is what it is,” “follow your arrow,” “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” “Mary had a little lamb,” “love hard, live fast.” These phrases — which often appear in stories about the singer’s love/hate relationship with small towns — give the Musgraves faithful something to latch onto. During her performance, every song incited karaoke, every silence was quickly filled with whoops and hollers.
In this sea of country lullabies, a few songs stood out. Musgraves played “Mama’s Broken Heart,” which she co-wrote for Miranda Lambert; this hit single has a sharp swing and a biting drive often absent on Musgraves’ own albums. “Late to the Party,” on the other hand, was transcendently sweet. The hook incorporates a thrilling jump up the scale like the one in Keith Urban’s “Standing Right In Front of You.” It’s effective and romantic; couples in the crowd responded by slow-dancing.
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Musgraves started dancing herself when she played “Blowing Smoke,” which remains one of her finest tracks: shouty, self-effacing and celebratory all at once. She broke out the moves again during a hard charging cover of Nancy Sinatra‘s “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” which sounded shockingly punky next to the rest of the set. The track originally appeared in 1966, which might be Musgraves’ ideal era. Even as she makes history, she pays homage to the past.