With her records pretty much the antithesis of shiny modern country, it makes sense that Kacey Musgraves has notions as to what constitutes a great live-music venue. If a room doesn’t have a history, the Nashville-based renegade would rather find one that does.
“I’ve made it a point on this tour to kind of book ourselves in places that have a story to tell and a vibe that’s all their own,” the Texas-raised Musgraves says, speaking on her cellphone from Music City. “It’s a lot more fun for me to play in a place that has a soul and that seems to be about the music. I don’t like playing places that are brand-new out of the box—that’s not fun for anybody. I love old theatres, so I think the Vogue is going to be great.”
Built in 1941 and standing as one of the few remaining examples of great art-deco architecture in Vancouver, the Vogue is a natural fit for the show the 27-year-old is bringing to town. As one might deduce from its title—the Kacey Musgraves Country & Western Rhinestone Revue—the road show is rooted in a folksier past, when country and western wasn’t run by the radio-obsessed suits in Nashville. Musgraves’s retro slant when playing live should surprise no one. After all, her two major-label albums—Same Trailer Different Park and Pageant Material—found her making it clear that the only rules she’s going to play by are her own.
“The Rhinestone Revue is songs from both records, with some really fun covers thrown in,” she says. “It’s really giving a nod to an old-school form of entertainment. I looked up the definition, and a revue is all about satirical songs about society and life. And funny bits—showcasing talents and little skits. So I just thought, ‘We could do that. My songs are already about life and poking fun at various things, and we all have weird little talents.’
“We’re kind of out to make it all about entertainment, you know?” Musgraves continues. “The shows almost have an old school-play kind of vibe, and because of that I wanted something classic-sounding for the name. I didn’t want to just call the tour the Pageant Material tour. It’s the Kacey Musgraves Country & Western Rhinestone Revue because that sums things up perfectly.”
Summing up Kacey Musgraves isn’t as easy. Every story written on her inevitably zeroes in on her maverick streak: a New York Times profile was headlined “Kacey Musgraves’s Rebel Twang”; Rolling Stone ran a piece titled “Unbreakable Kacey Musgraves: Nashville’s Sharpest Rebel Walks the Line”; and Noisey trumpeted “Kacey Musgraves Is Straight Up Real Shit.”
All this makes Musgraves sound like she sits around a Tennessee trailer park snorting whisky, smoking dope, and cooking bathroom-sink meth with Hank Williams III. The reality is that she’s figured out that a little subversiveness goes a long way when you’re working in pop music’s most conservative genre.
Both Same Trailer Different Park and Pageant Material take aim at deserving targets, from TMZ.com–brand muckraking (“This Town”) to the Nashville country establishment (“Good Ol’ Boys Club”). Musgraves comes out on the right side of the LGBT movement with “Follow Your Arrow” (“Kiss lots of boys/Or kiss lots of girls/If that’s what you’re into”), and takes down America’s obsession with superficial beauty on “Pageant Material” (“Who’s to say that I’m a 9.5 or a 4.0”).
Musically, Musgraves has not only studied the masters from country’s golden age, but proved eager to pay homage to them. Pageant Material’s “Biscuits” is powered by old-school Flatt & Scruggs banjo, while Marty Robbins would approve of the gunfighter-ballad guitar on “High Time”.
After getting her start performing in country talent shows as a kid, Musgraves eventually became more enamoured with emo giants like Dashboard Confessional. Eventually, though, she came back to her roots.
“When I started going to shows and stuff, it was the mid ’90s,” she says with a laugh. “But I did grow up singing traditional western swing and country music, so I gained an appreciation for it and a knowledge of what was going on in that era. I kind of moved away from it when I figured that I loved writing songs and realized I had my own shit to write about. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come back to my appreciation for that old western swing that I used to think was so dorky when I was 12. I’m really proud that I’m one of the only people in country music bringing that style back with my clothes and aesthetically with my sound—having the pedal steel all over everything.”
Purists will argue that Musgraves’s idea of what constitutes a traditionalist is a little different from the founding fathers of country. If old YouTube clips and vintage photos are any indication, Bob Wills and Hank Williams didn’t take to stages festooned with glowing neon cactuses, and they didn’t pitch signed pink flamingos into the audience to show their appreciation for full houses. But if Musgraves has learned anything during her time in the business, it’s that the greats—from Wills and Williams to Willie Nelson and Loretta Lynn—became legends by drawing up their own playbooks. And things don’t get more old-school than that.
“I’m a big fan of John Prine and Roger Miller—they taught me that songs can pack a punch,” she says. “You can have a depressing song, but if you can take a sarcastic approach it kind of lightens the load a little bit. I’ve never intended to be a lobbyist on any side, but I am proud of bringing people to country music who might never have listened to it and never thought they liked it. Country music has always been a genre about real life and real things: people losing their jobs, getting divorced, and cheating—all that crazy shit that happens in everyday life. That’s what I respect about country music, and that’s what I’m trying to keep alive.”
Kacey Musgraves plays the Vogue Theatre on Tuesday (August 2).