Album Review

Your Brother's El Camino Runs Forever: Kacey Musgraves, Dawes, & the Nostalgic Revolution

Kacey Musgraves - Pageant Material

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.

I've been anticipating with a large dose of hope that Kacey's followup album would continue, and possibly go just a bit deeper, than her brilliant first album. No the lyrics are not deep, no deeper than Tom T. Hall's, say, "Harper Valley PTA," but refreshingly cleansing of the female and bro crap that pretends to be country. She's been my great female hope since I saw her encircled by neon cactuses wearing rhinestones on the CMA show (was it?), and I'll never forget the look on Taylor's face when Kacey took album of the year. I love this lady, and and thank you for the postive tone of your final paragraph.

I'm way into her too, more for her voice and instrumental tastes than for her songwriting, although she's no slouch there. Speaking of Taylor, there's a lyric in "Good Ol' Boys Club" where Kacey says she "don't wanna be part of a big machine." Coincidentally (or not?), that's Taylor's label.

Just interviewed Kacey for this piece that came out today in Houston Press, in case you're interested: http://www.houstonpress.com/music/kacey-musgraves-is-out-to-prove-shes-t...

Thanks. Glad you called out "This Town," perhaps the best cut on the album. Her love for Prine is obvious, just like the rest of us, but while many struggle to try to be Prine (you hear it all over), she manages to nimbly balance the quirky and profound, obviously not as good as the master. (Both Terry Roland and I posted the grainy video of Kacey and Prine talking, joking and singing "Illegal Smile," a must see.) To me she is more natural being a Loretta Lynn re-born. I would have used "This Town" as the single; and would probably have left "Biscuits," the single, off the album entirely, being too much "Follow Your Arrow" redux. I'm liking it but still hoping she continues to learn from those greats and that success does not wreck the songwriting thing. Don't think she'll ever get anywhere near a "Diamonds In the Rough" (no one ever will). but I do believe she is one.

Good stuff, Will. She was very defensive when I suggested that "Biscuits" is too close to "Follow Your Arrow," which'll be evident in an outtakes piece HouPress is publishing online tomorrow. As I hint at in this piece, while Pageant Material is a great album, her next one simply can't tread on the same trail if she's to evolve artistically.

Interesting you both noted that "Biscuits" is a little too reminiscent of "Follow"...and that the observation struck a nerve with the artist...likely that is some recognition that there's some truth in it...I suppose it is hard, as the record company no doubt has asked for another one just like "Follow"...

Looking forward to the outtakes piece...

Yep, the irony is record co. initially shit bricks over "Follow," and Kacey clearly proved them wrong.

Yes...record co. is "always the last to know" (thanks, Justin Currie)...they catch lightening in a bottle, and then hope it will strike several more times in the same place...really isn't in the best interest of long term success for either party, but that's what happens when you try to apply business principles to art...

 

Thanks Mike...I guess everybody likes Weezer..."Biscuits" is a lot like "Follow"...and if there are 700 songs on the radio just like it, a lot of them are pretty well disguised.  Good question about why she let Mirand Lambert have a song when she's a prominent singer in her own right at this point...she didn't really answer it though...

Like her...hope she goes onward and upward...

Might as well have sausage...gravy isn't good for you period, so make it count...

The "defensive" "striking a nerve" thing is a result of two things (I'm still learning in my old age): 1) she's still young, 2) she got bad advice and 3) she's still young. (Now watch it go platinum.) She's obviously smart, hopefully that will help her figure these things out because, with her trajectory, she doesn't have time to get old (anyone recognize the reference to my hero Ian Tyson's theme song back when "Long Long Time to Get Old"?). I met and spoke to Prine when he was her age, it was all there already, and I got the feeling he still thought he was a mailman! I'm rooting for her big time and love what she's doing, no mistake.

Ah, Ian Tyson...Great Speckled Bird, Ian and Sylvia...that is going back a ways, though he still tours and records (he's maybe 80?)...

I agree with you Will, I wasn't criticizing her, I'd have probably hung up on Mike when I was her age (I was also young once and it doesn't seem like it's taken me all that long to get older) if he'd dared suggest I was repeating myself, especially if I knew I was...she is young and smart, and very good...I'm rooting for her too...

As for Prine, part of his charm is that he is the mailman (or everyman)...he's gracious and humble...he just happens to be a songwriting genius too...

 

Ah, Ian Tyson...Great Speckled Bird, Ian and Sylvia...that is going back a ways, though he still tours and records (he's maybe 80?)...

I agree with you Will, I wasn't criticizing her, I'd have probably hung up on Mike when I was her age (I was also young once and it doesn't seem like it's taken me all that long to get older) if he'd dared suggest I was repeating myself, especially if I knew I was...she is young and smart, and very good...I'm rooting for her too...

As for Prine, part of his charm is that he is the mailman (or everyman)...he's gracious and humble...he just happens to be a songwriting genius too...

 

Well said Jim. But here in Buffalo, The Ian Tyson Show airwaves snuck over the border from Toronto. A huge part of my early education; I drove up and was in the audience for a taping (anyone remember Murray MacLaughlin, great songwriter, was on that night). The Great Speckled Bird album/band is in my top five in whatever genre we're talking about (going to start calling it that, WGWTA). Ian is in New York soon, can't afford; when he goes to Toronto (at age 81) he plays The Hugh's Room, coincidentally (no, not ironically) I have a phone meeting with their booker about a fourth Toronto GPI fest in... 23 minutes. Wish me luck!

I remember Murray McLaughlin too..."Down By the Henry Moore"...actually, I have a couple of recent things by him where he's playing in sort of a songwriter's collective called Lunch at Allan's...the other artists in that are Ian Thomas, Cindy Church, and one of my favorite songwriters/artists of all, Marc Jordan WGWTA (great acronym Will, I'll be using that one)...they play each other's songs, plus a couple of things they've written together...

Great Speckled Bird is a great record, though I didn't realize it when I first heard it...still had a bit of a bias against it...my dad played a lot of jazz, and he wasn't crazy about country, though he was very receptive to music I was into at the time...sort of inherited that, went in the backdoor to country with Gram, and artists like FBB and  Commander Cody that played hybrids of country, rock, western swing...and then got interested later in Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Jimmie Rodgers...my dad knew his music and was right about a lot of things, but he was wrong about counrty music as a whole...there's some that's bad, but there's some that's great...WGWTA.

You've had your meeting by now, so it's late for me to wish you luck, but I hope it went well...I remember Neil Young talking once about being in some little cafe in Winnipeg , and feeding money into the juke box to listen to Ian's "Four Strong Winds" over and over again for hours, that it was such a beautiful song and he couldn't get enough of it...and so it is...

I'm in Indiana Will, so we got Detroit and Cleveland on the radio, but not much from Canada...sounds like I missed out...

Hey getting Detroit and Cleveland in those days (Buffalo too!) wasn't bad, yeah unless you're looking for WGWTA (I guess Bufffalo ain't geared for me and Paul). I didn't grow up with much parental music in the house; dad played soundtracks from stage shows, so deep love of songwriting no doubt began there. But I was like a sponge when The Johnny Cash Show hit about the same time as Ian Tyson from up north. I'd already begun the journey with (all of the above in early WGWTA, loved the first Turtles album at about 13, then early Grass Roots/PF Sloan/Steve Barri, Hums of the Lovin' Spoonful, etc. --> Gram all phases and stages). I'm heading out to my place in northern Wisconsin tomorrow, and god willing staying near Massey and other places Neil mentions as playing early on (north shore Lake Huron). Love McLaughlin's very first album, esp Sixteen Lanes of Highway. Hope yall survived the weather last night in Indiana. 
 

Detriot and Cleveland was great actually, and so is all the seminal music that got you started on this musical journey...enjoy the trip to Wisconsin...

"And the house in which I grew, now affords a lonely view, 

It overlooks a 16 lane highway..."  

A similar sentiment to "they paved paradise and they put up a parking lot".  Murray's song is sadder, Mitchell's is more resigned...maybe that's not the right word...both great songs, sort of taking the same stance...

 

 

What we all went through back then when the fields turned in suburbia. The real tearjerker on that album, forget the name and don't have time to look, the one about the kid leaving home, talking to his parents. Killer.

 

Child's Song...Tom Rush did that one too, I saw him perform it once actually...Murray's version is better I think...that is a great song...I just listened to it for the first time in a long time...

Good piece Mike...thanks for the link.  

Musgraves says in a  press release. “The majority of Pageant Material was recorded live–which was a bit of a departure from Same Trailer–and gave it more of a concise, classic sound. All of the incredible musicians were in the same room playing on the entire record, and I think that spirit comes across. The last couple of years have done so much for me, and this project was really affected by that in the best way. There are certain moments lyrically that still hit me hard even after listening so many times. It’s a great glimpse into where my head is from Same Trailer to now.”
All song written by Kacey, with some great co-writers also.

 

And btw, Your Brother's El Camino May Run Forever, but it's still called an El Camino and always will be.

I have to say the comparison between Musgraves and Dawes seems a bit forced and maybe could have been two articles, but I'm glad it's in one place ;). I think what your piece does is show hope for two different and struggling genres: country and rock. Thanks for that.

Thanks for your compliments. I realize cramming Dawes and Kacey into same piece is weird, and it easily could have been two articles. But I can assure you it was anything but forced. Have been rotating both albums and got to thinking how they're both very different songwriters, but with equally relevant approaches, and endeavored to stack them up in the same piece, as I tend to find standalone CD reviews boring and rote. "May your brother's El Camino run forevet" is a line from the title track of Dawes' new album. Thought it fit given both artists' nostalgic bent.

Understood and well done.

Enjoyed the article Mike...well done...I was surprised when you suddenly brought Dawes into the picture, but I get the point you were making...and both are indeed excellent artists...the fact that she wrote "Follow" with Brandy Clark (my great hope for country music Will, though I'd say Kasey is definitely well positioned right now) and Shane MacAnnally is indeed an indication that time passes, and things change...slower than a glacier moves sometimes, but they can change, even in Nashville...

Here's to not compromizing, and scoring the Pee Wee Herman movie...