My wife loves telling war stories about her worst job ever, waitressing at an East Portland dive we’ll call “Daisy’s.” Turns out, “Daisy’s” was home to Kacey Musgraves’ worst show ever, where she found herself breaking in a brand new band while fending off the notoriously ‘handsy’ customers. Driving away after the show, she was mocked by a nearby strip club sign: “Pitiful Princess.” As was my wife, Musgraves was determined to escape, and she did.
Along the way, she picked up a couple of Grammys, toured with Katy Perry and Willie Nelson, and had a song—Follow Your Arrow—slotted in at #39 of Rolling Stone’s 100 Best Country Songs of All Time. Now Musgraves picks her gigs, this year selling out the Crystal Ballroom with her Country & Western Rhinestone Revue, deep in the heart of Stumptown.
But even before she hit the stage, it was clear she hadn’t brought “big tour” attitude with her. The stage backdrop, familiar from her most recent CD cover, looked borrowed from a junior prom in suburban Lubbock. The band took the stage looking more after-Christmas-sale than handcrafted Tony Lama, and instead of dazzling us with their Nashville chops, they showed off questionable juggling skills to the tune of Deep in the Heart of Texas. In an early climax, they launched into a powerful version of Crazy. Not Patsy Cline’s, CeeLo’s. This ain’t your grandpappy’s country and western revue.
If you ever wondered how it would feel standing among the cacti during an A-bomb test, try standing up front as Kacey Musgraves takes the stage in her ice-skater’s dress and tights, rhinestones glittering reflective light across the crowd. Get smacked in the face by the shock wave emanating from her perfect everything. Whamo! That’s how the cacti felt.
The weird thing is how quickly you get used to it. She’s less nuclear explosion, more really-hot-day-at-the-beach. Soon enough, you feel as comfortable as you would watching TV on the sofa with your family. Typical divas use what they have to enthrall us, then put an icy palm on our chests and tell us: “Forget it, you’ll never get near this, never be this.” Musgraves has built her career on not being that girl. Her persona says, “Howdy, come on in. Sorry the place is a mess. Take a bong hit, and check out the new song I’m working on.” She’s pageant material all right, but she ditched the tiaras to smoke out with the band.
Her persona says “Hey, come on in. Sorry the place is a mess. Take a bong hit, and check out the new song I’m working on.”
In a world dominated by light beer and whiskey, Kacey’s love of the herb stands out. Even more than her idol Willie Nelson, Musgraves loves singing about weed. For her, it’s just one part of a nutritious breakfast for the soul. From the 39th best country song of all time:
“When the straight and narrow
Gets a little too straight
Roll up a joint, (or not)
And follow your arrow
Wherever it points.”
Count Musgraves among the generation of Southern musicians who’ve come to grips with the contradictions of their heritage; a heritage that sometimes threatens to drag society back to a place that’s best left abandoned. Confederate flags, conservative religion and small-town small-mindedness would be best left in the past. Musgraves isn’t questioning these things. She’s already done that. She’s here to report that the time has come to start thinking outside the park.
Just because your mom had you at 18 doesn’t mean you have to do the same. Just because people talk doesn’t mean you have to listen. It sometimes seems she’s singing just for the girls.
“Make lots of noise,
Kiss lots of boys,
Or kiss lots of girls,
If that’s something you’re into.”
But Musgraves rejects the idea of rebellion for its own sake. And while she laughs at Jurassic attitudes, she cherry picks the best small-town wisdom for our edification. Her best advice? Own your choices. Accept yourself for who you are, mistakes and all.
“Just hoe your own row and raise your own babies
Smoke your own smoke and grow your own daisies
Mend your own fences and own your own crazy
Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy.”
The contradictions never go away, but somewhere along the fine line between new and old is redemption. Redemption for small towns like Golden, Texas. And for little girls who broke their mama’s hearts when they refused to wear a swimsuit on stage.
Things change slowly, but Portland has redeemed itself, at least in Musgraves’ eyes. She was happy enough getting out of “Daisy’s.” Then she found out about the legal weed. That Friday before her show, she launched out from her hotel on an 8.5-mile walking tour of dispensaries in a pair of Nike slipper sandals. That sounds like Kacey Musgraves all right.
Also published on Medium.