When Kacey Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow” won Song of the Year at the CMAs last year, it was heralded as something of a miracle, with Musgraves herself arriving at the podium and exclaiming, “Do you guys realize what this means for country music?!” The song, which Musgraves penned with two gay co-writers, granted listeners permission to kiss members of their own gender and smoke pot. For any other genre, such themes are well within the realm of normalcy. But for mainstream country, “Follow Your Arrow” was like stuffing an M-80 in a mailbox.
The album which “Follow Your Arrow” was included on, Same Trailer, Different Park, revealed Musgraves as a songwriter unafraid to deal with the darker shades of small-town life and the bawdier elements of being a confident millennial female. If she showed up to a party in cutoffs and slugged whiskey, it wasn’t to impress the boys, it was to one-up them. Beautiful (but not blonde!), sharp, independent, and free-spirited, Musgraves became a revelation in Nashville simply by refusing to conform.
Her excellent new album, Pageant Material, comes out later this month, and doesn’t cover much new ground lyrically. Musgraves writes authoritative songs that let swaths of underdogs know it’s okay to be how they are, or who they really want to be. She doesn’t want to be part of the good ol’ boys club (track 11), will always call her hometown home (track 2), is always higher than her hair (track 4), wants somebody to love (track 7), thinks it’s high time to lay way back and slow her roll (track 1), tells people to mind their biscuits and life will be gravy (track 6), and wants to live fast, love hard, and die fun (track 9). There’s not a lot of mystery in what she’s trying to convey.
On the opposite end of the lyrical spectrum is Dawes, a wonderfully versatile Los Angeles quartet fronted by the Goldsmith brothers, Taylor and Griff. (In my opinion, they’re the best American rock band working today.) Their songs are stories, with plot turns and vivid scenery in every new verse. They’re deeply personal, nuanced and subject to interpretations that can contradict one another without being inaccurate. There’s plenty of mystery in what they’re trying to convey.
Does the complexity of Taylor Goldsmith’s tunes make him a superior songwriter to Musgraves? Not necessarily; Musgraves musings might be simple, but they’re far from dumb. She has an uncanny knack for clever turns of phrase, and is destined to reach a wide audience who’ll be stunned to realize that country music is about more than barefoot, blue-jean nights filed with bonfires, booty, and beer.
Dawes is a band that’s dabbled in Americana on past albums, one of which, Stories Don’t End, I rated as the finest of 2013 in the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop Critics Poll (I had Musgraves’ Same Trailer third). But their new record, All Your Favorite Bands, largely eschews the genre, despite being produced by one of its stalwarts, Dave Rawlings. Dawes has always been Jackson Browne acolytes, and there are a handful of tracks on the new record (the title track stands out) that are in that vein. But All Your Favorite Bands really shows the band’s range. There are lingering guitar solos, subtle synthesizers, harmonious rounds, fade-outs to ends songs, and the McCrary sisters singing old-school backing vocals (on “I Can’t Think About It Now”) that don’t seem gratuitous. It’s full of surprises; the most Jacksonian title of them all, “Now That It’s Too Late, Maria,” is a slow-burning, nine-and-a-half-minute track with guitar licks that are evocative of Jerry Garcia, with a more Knopfler-esque style permeating the rest of the record.
This is where Dawes and Musgraves find common ground: They’re nostalgists without coming off as derivative. Pageant Material has a cactus-brandy, lap-steel wooziness to it that’s miles from Nashville; Judd Apatow needn't look any further than the girl from Golden to score his new Pee-Wee Herman movie. Musgraves may have shared a stage with Katy Perry this past year, but, if anything, she’s strayed further from the sort of poppiness that might easily win her more crossover fans. If she’s to be a star of considerable magnitude—and there’s no reason to think she won’t be—she’ll do so without compromising, thank you very much.