Thursday, May 2, 2013

Kacey Musgraves

Searching for a new female country star among the kids

Kacey Musgraves
     Kacey Musgraves is making a big stir in country music and mainstream culture right now by being well reviewed in Entertainment Weekly and profiled on CBS Sunday Morning, the arbiter of middle-class, middlebrow taste (and I mean that as a compliment).  She’s twenty-four, but has been releasing albums for a decade and, in the grand tradition of young
singer-songwriters – especially those in the country genre – has written songs since she first learned her ABCs.

     Same Trailer, Different Park is a very well-written set of songs, especially “Merry Go ‘Round,” “Blowin’ Smoke,” “Step Off,” and “Stupid.”   Her point of view is that of a young woman who realizes how small-town gossip and judgment can keep an individual female from realizing her potential, and also how internalized fears can destroy self-esteem.  She manages this through using various symbols of an Americana that has populated C & W (remember when it was Country & Western music?  If you do, you’re over fifty) such as trailer parks, dead end jobs, and cheating spouses (in this case, parents).  

     She projects a sensitive, authentic – and, by that, I mean that the listener believes she is from a similar background herself – image as a writer, but her cover picture shows her wearing a black short sleeve shirt with a prim, kindergarten teacher’s collar, very short nylon-looking shorts that might be underwear, and the requisite cowboy boots.  (Male country singers, except for Keith Urban and, years ago, Hal Ketchum, wear cowboy hats as armor signifying their ‘authenticity’ even if they’ve never set foot in a cow paddy on a ranch or hoed a field.  Those that have done those things usually wear baseball caps).  It’s a peculiar image because she doesn’t play sexy in her songs.  Rather, they’re about attempts, some unsuccessful, to overcome the defeatism surrounding her.

What Image Is She Projecting?
     In the CBS interview, her family members were supportive, articulate and, from what I could make out, middle-class.  This undercuts the woebegone attitude of someone who laments that country radio wasn’t playing her type of song and the inference by the reporter that it never had.  Country radio and, more largely, country music are in a quandary because their identity is no longer grounded in a rural tradition and cannot be considered a cultural underdog because it is the mainstream.  

Taylor Swift with Meredith, Her Cat
     The last big female country star to emerge was Taylor Swift, but she’s really a pop songwriter with a weak voice – I’m not sure she has any breath support or diaphragm control.  In the early 1960s, she would have recorded demos, while writing hit songs for girl singers and girl groups in the Brill Building and no one would have given her background – Southern and upper-middle class – a second thought.  I enjoyed her Fearless, but when watching her on the Grammys a few years ago, Neil and I wondered how much stronger her songs would sound if Katy Perry sang them.  Swift’s major problem is that she’s getting older, but she’s not growing up.  It just seems weird that she’s in her twenties (currently 23), but sings in the role of a sixteen-year old cheerleader/bookworm still mooning over the JV quarterback and ticked at her exes.

     Musgraves’ singing voice is also small, which places it in the original sense of what country music was about – ordinary, rural white people singing with heartbreak and sometimes humor about the troubles in their lives.  When ordinary black people did it, they called it the blues.

However, the most recent female country stars (outside of Swift and going back twenty years), such as Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood, Gretchen Wilson (what happened to her?  She was big in country and the mainstream charts for a couple of years and her tough, party girl persona was so refreshing in the midst of the made over wallflowers and sensitive prom queens, but then she dropped off the radar), Natalie Maines, Lee Ann Womack, LeAnn Rimes, Shania Twain, and Faith Hill have big voices and in Lambert’s and Wilson’s cases, extremely distinctive ones.  You might not like all of these performers, but you have to admit that they can technically sing.  

     It’s way too early to know if Musgraves will have a big or lengthy career.  I still think the jury’s out on Swift if she doesn’t find something else to sing about.  Commercial country music – much of which sounds like pop-rock from the 1980s except for the instrumentation – is male centric.  However, Musgraves’ songs are being played and her album is selling.  Actually, Country and Rap/Hip-hop are the new pop and have been so for the past decade because they market the primarily male artists as roots ‘real’ or with street ‘cred,’ respectively. That’s part of the reason that top 40 radio is Rap/Hip-hop or Country-lite.  The rock, indie, neo-folk, roots rock, and roots country artists are on adult contemporary or adult album alternative stations instead.  Thank goodness for WNKU for playing most every genre and especially giving time to artists that may be on top 40 three to five years from now as they have in the past to Death Cab for Cutie, The Killers, Mumford and Sons, and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals.

Kacey in a Same Trailer, Different Park Scene
     Musgraves’ stated predicament reminds me of another earlier young singer who became an icon, except that her image and her art were nurtured by a biography of authenticity:  Loretta Lynn.  She came from a dirt-poor background, married early, had many kids and started writing songs that both captured and moved forward the zeitgeist.  Whereas Musgraves is sort of sweet, sort of sexy, and trying to keep her head up, Lynn was impassioned, determined, and willing to fight and sacrifice for herself and for and against her man.  She also had a supple, warm, and strong voice when she needed it.  She didn’t have to show off her pipes, unlike the later generation mentioned above, but she could cut loose when a song called for it.  

     I hope that Musgraves is allowed the time and space to develop who she is as a person and artist.  I don’t mean that in the way of American Idol judges, who really want to know ‘how can we sell you?’  She needs to have the chance to write for other artists as well and, here’s the kicker, she needs to consider a vocal coach to help her in strengthening her instrument if she plans to record and, especially, tour for the long haul.

Meredith sure is a pretty kitty!

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