Kacey Musgraves is the best future country music has, if only the industry would pay attention. The perceived (and somewhat true) divide between pop country fans and fans of “real” country music—who reject people like Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan, whose version of the genre flirts with hip-hop and aims for the kind of universal appeal that makes many suspicious—has finally been crossed in a way that is authentic enough to satisfy the diehard fans and glossy enough to attract the fair weather ones.
Stagecoach—Goldenvoice’s hicked-up sister festival to Coachella—is now in its 11th year. Like Musgraves’ opening set for Keith Urban on Saturday night, the festival had a little something for everyone. On one side of the grounds was the Palomino stage, where folkier, less mainstream acts like Tanya Tucker, Tyler Childers, Brandy Clark and Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit played to the sweaty, I’m-just-here-for-the-music people in line for fair-style nachos and curly fries or waiting to take a test drive on a Harley Davidson and sip Budweiser. On the other side, fans attended the Mane Stage, lawn chairs ablaze in the desert sun, eating tacos and sipping Malibu Rum cocktails. The different moods curated for each stage were palpable enough during the day that it seemed one wrong look could get you into a fight, despite the near-universal excitement for closer Garth Brooks.
Goldenvoice’s organization of the grounds meant fans of soft, charismatic “let’s all love each other” Keith Urban could easily avoid the rowdy, “fuck you for thinking it’s a bad thing to be poor” Cody Jinks fans until the very end of the day when both parties have had enough to drink to be friendly to each other. This happy-go-drunky mix of people is who I found myself surrounded by while I made my way to as close as the front of the stage as possible for Musgraves’ show. The walkways were sectioned off by shoulder-high white fences, making those of us in the crowd feel like a herd of prized livestock waiting to be auctioned. When the wind picked up, I sat down and enjoyed selections from the catalogs of Daft Punk, MGMT, and the Arctic Monkeys playing over the speakers, which set the stage for the soft, neon, and psychedelic show about to start. The excitement of the crowd was palpable, but distracted.
Musgraves opened with “Slow Burn,” a song from her new album Golden Hour written about the simple pleasure of burning one down with John Prine. She stood on stage in a bedazzled black denim ensemble, looking ready to blow over in the 20 MPH gusts of wind while neon butterflies and flowers fluttered behind her over a black background. “Holy shit, it’s windy!” she cried before telling the crowd how excited she was to be back. The crowd cheered in response. Then her banjo player released a clap of thunder from his instrument and the band started into “Stupid,” a B-side from her debut album Same Trailer Different Park. Fans from both sides of the grounds cheered for the boot-stomping anthem.The wind kicked up dust as she launched into a calypso version of “Keep It To Yourself” that went seamlessly right into a cover of Brooks & Dunn’s “Neon Moon” while a blood red moon was projected onto the screen behind her.
Thoughout her hour long set, Musgraves played a mix of older and newer songs, including her version of "Mama's Broken Heart"—which she wrote for Miranda Lambert—and sported heels, a look that might have had the "Pageant Material" singer absolutely terrified just an album ago. She balanced quick reminders of her laurels with the “new Kacey,” in-love and feeling good about her place in the middle. Her set seemed to say, in case you forgot, she has been in this game for a good bit of time, and has a few ideas about what it is that country needs to hear and do if it wants to survive the modern pop-ification of its roots.
Her stage banter strayed from mentioning anything expressly political, instead asking the crowd to remember a coda that she’s preached throughout her career: “Love is always gonna be stronger than hate.” Fellow festival performers, on the other hand, couldn’t leave politics out of it. Aaron Watson, a Texas native and NRA Country artist, spent his set thanking the troops in between his songs. Chris Janson delivered a piano-ballad rendition of “Take a Drunk Girl Home” that, when sung to a crowd full of thousands of drunk girls, felt more patronizing than empowering.
Musgraves understands that as a woman in country music her songs and what she says are held to a higher standard than that of her male counterparts. When Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks critiqued President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, the American public responded with station boycotts, album burning parties, and death threats, which Maines then hinted at in 2007’s single “Not Ready to Make Nice.” Fifteen years later, not much has changed: women can still hardly get radio play on mainstream country stations—Kacey herself had only “modest support” for “Butterflies” and “Space Cowboy” on country radio, despite her album debuting at number one on the country charts. You get the sense that someone once said to her that she needs to keep politics out of music, only to have her respond by making songs about universal experiences so piercingly specific they end up being political by design. Looking at you, specifically, “Follow Your Arrow.”
By closing with “High Horse,” Musgraves demanded the factions of country to come together and dance it the hell out. The brilliance of Musgraves is how she doesn’t seem to really give a fuck, and that’s reflected in her music. She has planted herself right on top of the line between pop and country, between middle class and trailer trash, between the Palomino Stage and the Mane Stage, like a referee asking if y’all are fixin’ to get along or if you need to settle this with fists. This is the attitude she brought to Stagecoach, a place where a single genre of music is so conveniently compartmentalized that if you never want to risk an interaction with a pop country fan, you don’t have to.
Her ability to navigate that kind of tricky situation with confidence is what makes Kacey Musgraves the most important figure in country music today. She is approachable, but commanded the stage. Musgraves represents all the best parts of country music: she’s humble like Dolly Parton and a quietly powerful writer like John Prine, all while being outrageously herself like Elton John. If the genre of country music has any desire to dig itself out of the hole of conservative College Republicans and dive bar drinking Harley drivers, it’s going to take a lot more investment in artists like Kacey Musgraves to make that happen. Otherwise, the genre, in all its compartmentalized glory, may be nearly unrecognizable by the next decade.
Annalise Domenighini is on Twitter