It’s often hard to like country. In the pantheon of American music it’s right up there with metal in the most-likely-to-get-sneered-at category. Truthfully, it’s not hard to understand why. There is a lot of terrible country music. A large chunk of mainstream country music tends to be overly-sentimental, deliberately folksy and dull. Country and conservative politics also often seem irrevocably married. For listeners who may feel may not agree with sentiments like “we’ll put a boot up your ass/ that’s the American way,” this can be understandably off-putting.
When I was younger, I used to tell people that I liked every kind of music except country. Most of my experience to country was what I rarely watched on CMT, or the insipid pop-country that I would occasionally hear blaring over the grocery store speakers. Nevertheless, I was an avowed hater.
That all changed when I went to college. Though it sounds bizarre, the shift from rural Eastern Washington to relatively cosmopolitan Western Washington was actually kind of jarring. Suddenly songs about home, and farms and wide open spaces didn’t seem so distasteful. I listened to Johnny Cash, the Carter Family, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton in secret in my dorm. paranoid that someone would discover my shameful country habit. It was one of my darker secrets, and I planned on keeping it that way, until I heard Kacey Musgraves.
One of the most well-known and critically acclaimed young country music stars, Kacey Musgraves got her mainstream start as a contestant on the American Idol-derived television show Nashville Star. She initially gained success as a songwriter, but the release of her debut LP, Same Trailer Different Park, established her as a major player in contemporary country music. Her second release, Pageant Material, was also highly acclaimed and made its way onto several year-end best-of lists. If you don’t understand the significance of Spin ranking a country album above Bjork’s Vulnicura, Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell, and Sleater-Kinney’s No Cities to Love, let me simply say that it is a big deal people. Suddenly country didn’t seem like such a guilty pleasure. Suddenly it was kind of…cool.
There are a lot of things that make Musgraves so successful as a singer-songwriter. At a time when vocal tone seems to be relatively low on people’s list of priorities, Kacey Musgraves is a refreshing change of pace. Her voice is lovely, possessed of a supple lyricism but still capable of mustering enough force to deliver lines like “mend your own fences/ and own your own crazy” with a suitable amount of verve. She’s also lovely, charming, and loves weed. She seems like a lot of fun.
Beyond that though, Musgraves’ main appeal lies in her ability to package astute, thoughtful social critiques into impeccably crafted music. Her songs are plainspoken, characterized by the refined phrasing of the best Nashville songwriters and her own particular knack for dispensing wisdom in jocular turns of phrase. Their stoned, live-your-truth attitude also contrasts sharply with country’s reigning good ol’ boys club and often deeply held conservative values. It’s the sort of thing that stems from honest storytelling and self-awareness more than a deliberate political sensibility, but that doesn’t make it less impactful. I mean, who else in country music is writing lines like, “when the straight and narrow/ gets a little too straight/ roll up a joint, or don’t/ just follow your arrow?”
Though on the surface, Musgraves songs can tend towards folksy preciousness (*ahem* Cup of Tea) on a deeper level, much of her work focuses on the idea of contextualizing identity within the framework of home, family and the past. On This Town, Musgraves explores the intersecting joys and sorrows of growing up in a small town. “Down here we all look out for each other” she declares, but “as big as we’re getting, this town’s too small to be me.”
“There’s certain things you’re ‘sposed to know when you’re a girl who grows up in the south,” she opines on Pageant Material. On the surface, the song lightheartedly pokes fun at Musgraves’ lack of pageantry’s requisite poise and grace, but on a deeper level it is an astute critique of Southern femininity. The song is funny not only because Musgraves is bumbling and smokes too much weed, but because the kind of deeply rooted, distinctly Southern femininity that she describes is so obviously a performance. It’s a remarkably shrewd takedown hidden in a perfectly crafted pop-country track.
Perhaps Musgraves so completely changed my mind because many of her themes show up in my own life. After all, there’s certain things you’re ‘sposed to know when you’re a boy who grows up in Eastern Washington too. Unlike Seattle, Spokane and the rest of Eastern Washington and North Idaho, is distinctly rural. It’s a blue-collar town with a whole lot of aspirations. Despite being the second-largest city in Washington, Spokane’s populace tends to lack the urban sophistication and liberalism of Seattle. Growing up gay and weird isn’t easy anywhere, but there’s a particular kind of difficulty that comes with being a swishy ten-year-old in a town where adults don’t regularly punish their children for openly referring to other people as “faggot”.
Throughout my life, I’ve oscillated between repulsion at Spokane’s insular, largely conservative nature and a kind of contrarian pride in my unpretentious little hometown. I’m disappointed by the lack of ecological consciousness, the nonexistent public transit and its brand of close-mindedness that stems from comfortable, middle-class people who fear what they don’t really understand.
But I still daydream about the delightfully shitty concert venues and how big the sky is. And when I’m sad, I picture myself riding my bike up and down the hills around Lake Coeur D’Alene, and I feel better. For all its shortcomings, it’s home.
My experience isn’t unique. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we all orient ourselves in relation to our backgrounds. Pierre Bourdieu, a French social scientist and author of A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, identified this phenomenon as our habitus. In Bourdieu’s framework, your habitus is not only the geographical and class segment you’re born into, but the attitudes, identities, affiliations and expectations you’ve been brought up with. He argues that habitus does not dictate who you are our what you like, but it acts as a kind of filter through which you perceive the world and react accordingly. You cannot escape your habitus, no matter how much you’d like to. On Dime Store Cowgirl, Musgraves asserts the same thing in the vernacular: “I’m just a dime store cowgirl/ That’s all I’m ever gonna be/ You can take me out of the country/ But you can’t take the country out of me.”
I have a hunch that’s what draws me to Musgraves‘ music so much. In her plainspoken, immaculately crafted songs she confronts the implications of her own past, and questions what that means for her future. We all go through this kind of hometown reckoning at one time or another. Nobody’s home and family are perfect, and their imperfections often shape the contours of our lives, for better or worse. Eventually we all must take stock of where we’ve come from, and decided what that means about where we’re going.
It’s still sometimes hard to admit that I like country music, but Kacey Musgraves makes it a whole hell of a lot easier.