By Salvatore DiGioia
Kacey Musgraves is a country star, sure, but the set she delivered on Thurs., Jan. 17th at Port Chester’s Capitol Theater was more of an arena-worthy pop spectacle than something one would expect to see at a honky tonk. Casual fans collided with crop-topped cowboys and tearful teenagers as the latest crossover darling frolicked across stage donning six-inch heels and a glitter-accented jumpsuit. Though it’s relatively rare for the Capitol — a suburban rock palace that’s routinely booked by jam bands and nostalgia tours — to lure youthful, metropolitan fans away from Manhattan venues, Musgraves struck a perfect multi-generational chord and turned the historic theater into her hippie playground.
Kacey Musgraves is a country star, sure, but her latest LP, Golden Hour, channels elements of rock, funk and disco as it expands beyond the trailer park in search of stylistic freedom. The album topped dozens of publications’ year-end lists in 2018 and is nominated for four GRAMMY awards, including album of the year. Naturally, Musgraves made time in her set for each of its thirteen tracks, opening with an ambient introductory rendition of “Oh, What A World” before diving into “Slow Burn,” then “Wonder Woman,” “Butterflies” and more. Just ahead of the latter, she greeted the crowd with a proudly queer, “Yaas queen!” and celebrated the room’s diversity by affirming, “We all belong here.” Such behavior may be atypical in country music, but it’s standard for Musgraves.
Kacey Musgraves is a country star, sure, but she has a reputation of rallying for LGBTQ acceptance within the often anti-progressive realm of roots music. This attitude manifested itself not only in her monologues, but also in the performance of older songs such as “Merry Go ‘Round,” which earned a chuckle from the crowd with its tongue-in-cheek warnings to obey rituals (“It don’t matter if you don’t believe / Come Sunday morning you best be there”). Musgraves excels at the ironic intersection of tradition and liberalism, seeming just innocent enough to engage a conservative while simultaneously planting seeds for the revolution. Her breakout hit, “Follow Your Arrow,” which released in 2013, is an anthem of self-acceptance that encourages listeners to follow their hearts even in the face of backlash. Before singing it, she acknowledged that “country music isn’t always the most inclusive,” then confidently countered with, “I think that’s bullshit.”
Kacey Musgraves is a country star, sure, but she hushed a fan for reacting emphatically to her mentioning Texas and made more references throughout the night to marijuana than to dirt roads. Of course, many of her songs feature steel string guitar and banjo strums, but they’re still minimalist enough to push the band into the background, as if wholly aware of her individual star power. During mellow ballads “Mother” and “Rainbow," Musgraves appeared solo. Only when she summoned the band centerstage as an orchestra setup were fans reminded of its vitality. After performing ensemble renditions of “Oh, What A World” and “Family Is Family,” it was back to business as usual.
Kacey Musgraves is a country star, sure, but Natalie Prass, the opening act on her Oh, What A World Tour, describes herself as “so not country.” Across eight songs, Prass balanced jazzy breakdowns with alternative grooves, sometimes singing in an indie whisper and others soulfully scatting in a manner more reminiscent of Erykah Badu than Dolly Parton. Both Prass and Musgraves played with all male bands, a surprising trait to an otherwise female-dominated evening, but Prass’ smooth empowerment jam, “Sisters,” as well as the pair’s union on stage for a cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” offered strong reminders of who was running the show.
Kacey Musgraves is a country star, yes, which is why she led the crowd in a collective “yee haw!” before diving into “Velvet Elvis,” a song on which she longs for a “Graceland kind of man.” It’s why she was chosen to translate Johnny Cash’s spoken poem “To June This Morning” into song aside fellow country singer Ruston Kelly, to whom she’s married, and why she brought Kelly on stage to perform it. It’s why her covering Brooks & Dunn’s “Neon Moon” is less of a surprise than her indulging in Aretha’s discography. It’s how she made it from Austin, TX to Nashville, TN and beyond. Kacey Musgraves is a country star, yes.
Yet much like modern rappers and rock bands (think Juice WRLD and Imagine Dragons), Musgraves dares listeners to reconsider the metrics by which they classify artists and albums. Obviously, her work resonates with an audience that extends well beyond tractor territory, but at the same time, she remains fully committed to the genre that untangled her wings. In this vein, hit single “High Horse” is fully capable of turning a barnyard into a nightclub and her performance of “Love Is A Wild Thing” came with a precursor about love trumping hate. She is not a crossover act in the meager mold of Taylor Swift, who recruited A-list pop producers into her studio and never looked back. Instead, Musgraves is insistent on breathing fresh air into country, even if she must do so almost single-handedly.
Kacey Musgraves is a country star, sure, but she’s changing what that classification means.