In a conversation with Morning Edition's Renee Montagne, Ann Powers talked about the country musicians who serve as Kacey Musgraves' artistic forbears. At the audio link on this page, you can hear the conversation; below, read more about how Musgraves' wit is a key element in establishing that lineage, and a playlist of some of the women who have employed comedy to great effect in country music.
Kacey Musgraves is a funny lady. The 26-year-old country star has become a crossover darling for her beautifully executed sound, grounded in the Western swing music of her youth, and an image that strikes people as simultaneously pure and pop. She takes risks in such a charming and self-confident way that they feel like privileges to which everyone should be entitled. She celebrated the release of her second album, Pageant Material, with a drag show at her favorite Nashville gay bar, Play; there, her openly gay writing partner Shane McAnally sat with her grandma, who wore a tiara just like the sequined queens lip-syncing lyrics like, "mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy." With Pageant Material, Musgraves continues to build the matter-of-fact, fluidly millennial persona she established so beautifully on her Grammy-winning 2013 debut Same Trailer, Different Park in songs that hit the palate with a perfect combination of sweetness and pungency, like the lavender lattes served during Pride month in East Nashville coffee shops.
It's humor that most easily unites the grandmas who listen to Musgraves with the gay folk who adore her style, the musical purists who fetishize her twang and even the mainstream country partiers who'll slip her onto a playlist next to Blake Shelton. Going for jokes may be Musgraves' savviest traditionalist move. A well-slung punchline has been the essence of countless country hits, from the first days of the Grand Ole Opry to Maddie and Tae's 2014 instant classic "Girl in a Country Song." What Musgraves specifically honors is the long line of women who've used jokes and playful jabs to tell their stories within a male-dominated environment; to speak of the contradictions particular to an era of changing gender roles, and to defy, with a smile, the conventions that would limit their movements and their speech. Here are a few of Kacey's foremamas, all of whom cultivated a particular stance that has helped their newest champion to define her own.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
On the same day last week the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, country star Kacey Musgraves came by NPR Music's Tiny Desk and gave us a live, off-the-cuff rendition of her breakthrough song.
KACEY MUSGRAVES: (Singing) So make lots of noise, kiss lots of boys, or kiss lots of girls if that's something you're into.
MONTAGNE: That song, "Follow Your Arrow," is from Musgraves's first album, "Same Trailer Different Park," and that accept-yourself attitude also runs throughout her second album, "Pageant Material," which was just released. Here to talk more about that is NPR Music Critic Ann Powers.
ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Joining you from Nashville, Renee. How're you doing today?
MONTAGNE: Great. Well-placed, Ann. Quite a moment for Kacey Musgraves - obviously, clearly unintentionally in a way - to have a song ready for this big historic moment.
POWERS: This is very characteristic of Kasey Musgraves. She is really grabbing a pivotal moment in both American culture and in country music.
MONTAGNE: What, though, are the specific elements that make her distinctive at this moment in time in country music?
POWERS: Well, Musgraves comes from Texas, and she comes out of a tradition that's always approached the center of country slightly from an angle. At the same time, she makes music that's beautifully crafted, lyrically just so witty, full of puns but also full of insights, very much indebted to songwriters like Willie Nelson, who's one of her idols, Loretta Lynn, who she resembles in many ways, and John Prine. Her music is also really fun. It makes people feel she's connected to country traditions even as she is this total 21st-century woman.
MONTAGNE: To illustrate that and to also show a little of her witty side, why don't we play the song, "Pageant Material?"
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAGEANT MATERIAL")
MUSGRAVES: (Singing) I ain't pageant material. I'm always higher than my hair, and it ain't that I don't care about world peace, but I don't see how I can fix it in a swimsuit on a stage.
POWERS: Kasey's talked about the crucial tradition of women in country, like Loretta Lynn, like Dolly Parton, who inhabited roles and used humor to just say no to the binding roles of femininity that have sometimes afflicted women in the South and everywhere in America. And in this song, "Good Old Boys Club," Kacey Musgraves fully joins that tradition of women talking back to country though country.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD OLD BOYS CLUB")
MUSGRAVES: (Singing) Don't want to be part of the good old boys club. Cigars and handshakes. Appreciate you, but no, thanks. Another gear in a big machine doesn't sound like fun to me.
MONTAGNE: So Ann, looking ahead, where do you see Kasey Musgraves? Are we talking mainstream country, crossover pop?
POWERS: Renee, I see no reason why she couldn't rule any corner she wants to move into. And no matter how much some critics are calling her, you know, a return to pure country - only if pure country means touring with Katy Perry, having neon cactuses on stage, Kasey Musgraves represents the belief that artists in the genre should be able to do what they want (laughter), and other people should just mind their own business, or, as she says, biscuits.
MONTAGNE: Which is a good song, "Biscuits," to end this conversation on. It's been a pleasure, as always. NPR Music Critic Ann Powers, glad to talk to you again.
POWERS: Always a pleasure, and I'll talk to you again from Nashville soon.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BISCUITS")
MUSGRAVES: (Singing) Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.