Amazingly, mainstream country is still about ball-capped bros recycling hits from market-study bullet points, while Nashville's ambitious women remain the primary engine behind the greatest creative renaissance since Willie and Waylon fucked shit up in the 1970s. Kacey Musgraves ushered in the new era in 2013 with her live-and-let-live hit "Follow Your Arrow"; late last year, newbie Ashley McBryde showed it had legs with the hope-in-hard-times "A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega." Each woman has a new record that furthers said renaissance, following her own arrow.
The title track of McBryde's Girl Going Nowhere is a whispered anthem about crushing it in the face of doubters. Most triumphant artists would holler, gloat, swagger, flip the bird, but in this opener, McBryde barely raises her voice, which quivers potently over a muted snare, guitar notes flashing like phone screens in a dark arena. Then "Radioland" crashes in, a country rocker about old-time broadcast bliss, invoking John Cougar's "Jack and Diane" and McBryde's daddy, "a rock star riding on a tractor listening to Townes Van Zandt." (That songwriting giant Van Zandt got scant love from radio just makes the song's vision sweeter.) "Southern Babylon" evokes the smoky country soul of Memphis, where McBryde logged time in bar bands. "Andy (I Can't Live Without You)" depicts true love as a holy pathology; "Livin' Next to Leroy" is a Southern-rock conjuring of a drug buddy who ends up dead on his sofa. McBryde's got a big, vibrato-tinged alto, biker-chick style, and she wrote or co-wrote everything here, including "Dahlonega," with a sharp eye for piercing detail. She has a serious gift.
Ditto Musgraves, but you might not recognize the weed-loving cowgirl troublemaker of "Follow Your Arrow" on this moony set, a throwback to easy-listening pop that's only "country" by the loosest definition. Joined by a familiar dream team of Music City co-writers – Natalie Hemby, Hillary Lindsey, Luke Laird and Shane McAnally – plus new partners Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian, the newlywed Musgraves is uncharacteristically cooing love songs; see the swooning title track and "Butterflies." But she hasn't lost her wit: "Northern lights in our skies/Plants that grow and open your mind," she muses on "Oh, What a World," a vocoder intro shimmering in the distance amid plinking banjo. Who knew Americana and robot rock were a thing? Musgraves did, because like plenty of us, she digs both. Purists will sniff, of course. Though Golden Hour might take time to relax into, the set is a fine lava-lamp soundtrack, and if "country" suggests engaging American musical traditions with respect and pioneer spirit, then this album is as country as it comes.