Kacey Musgraves brought her County & Western Rhinestone Revue to the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, New Jersey this past weekend. The name of this tour is perfectly fitting for the traveling spectacle that Musgraves has built—she presented us with a vintage set, a classic country sound, and small town themes, all expressed through catchy, one-line, tongue-in-cheek metaphors. Musgraves managed to poke fun at her roots by depicting them honestly and without hesitation. She does not glamorize her upbringing; instead, she takes the position of an insider revealing her own town’s dirty secrets to the rest of the world. Her blatant nod to vintage country and western music is satirical, and works to bring more attention to her contemporary lyrics. This contrast between her sound and her writing demands attention from a new audience like a neon arrow pointing right to her—that is, a neon arrow brighter than the jewels on her costume, the lights on her musicians’ bubblegum pink suits, and the shimmery red tinsel of the stage’s backdrop.
With an extremely traditional sound but extremely untraditional lyrics, Musgraves’ music inevitably creates a magnetic pull that facilitates a diverse audience of classic country loyalists and liberal Millenials. A highlight of the set list was the folksy “Family Is Family,” a simple but striking song that received one of the biggest receptions of the night. In it, Musgraves sighs, “Family is family in church or in prison / you get what you get and you don’t get to pick ‘em / they might smoke like chimneys but give you their kidneys,” and the crowd sang along in solidarity. While Musgraves is a natural songwriter and musician, she isn’t a natural performer; she doesn’t appear to be particularly comfortable on stage, further proving that she truly “ain’t pageant material,” making her public and artistic persona all the more genuine—even her greatest weakness became her greatest strength.
When she played her debut single “Merry Go ‘Round,” which in 2013 was her first of many public displays of her routine, small-town, southern culture, she did a solo acoustic performance that reminded everyone in the crowd why they bought a ticket to the tour in the first place. In that same moment, Musgraves proved why she is so important in country music. She informed the audience that her music doesn’t get nearly as much airplay on country radio as singles with more conservative ideologies. “Kiss lots of girls if that’s what you’re into,” and “I’m always higher than my hair,” are among the lines that have prevented universal radio success. She acknowledged us sincerely for selling out the show despite the boundary, saying, “Props to you because that is bigger than any format. So thank you.”
The crowd was full of people who discovered in Musgraves’ albums—(Same Trailer Different Park and Pageant Material)—a sect of country music where they see their lives accurately represented by one of their own. And isn't that what music, particularly country music, is designed to do? To make listeners feel understood and to share their stories better than they could on their own? Saturday’s sold out show was proof that Musgraves has done just that. Musgraves has displayed her confident (“I’d rather lose for what I am than win for what I ain’t”), humble (“It don’t matter where I’m going, I’ll still call my hometown home”), and sometimes reckless (“Leave it to me to be holding the matches when the fire trucks show up and there’s nobody else to blame”) personality without revision. And her personality, however notorious some consider it, is being accepted with open arms by fans across the world in the same way that she is accepting all of them. She should be proud.