Kacey Musgraves has never made a secret of the fact that the jumbo neon cacti in her stage setup and the over-the-top, kitschy, western glam of her wardrobe, to one degree or another, echo the winking, theatrical excesses of drag show camp. Monday night she put her record release party where her mouth is, celebrating her second Mercury Nashville album, Pageant Material, with a combination drag show and listening party at Play, a popular gay dance club in downtown Nashville.
On the way in, industry types getting their names checked off the guest list were immediately crowned with silvery, plastic tiaras. Before reaching the bar, they encountered giant portraits of the album cover (a side profile of the singer, crowned and sporting a bouffant, in front of a retro, pink tinsel curtain) and of Musgraves acting out a teary-eyed pageant victory, clutching a bouquet of roses to her side and wearing a beauty queen sash bearing the album title. Then the party attenders were handed sashes of their own. Most, including Musgraves’ label head Mike Dungan, her co-writer and co-producer Shane McAnally and her artist peers, like Cam, played along in the spirit of cheeky pageantry.
Serving as emcee for the evening, Musgraves stepped out on the catwalk and told the packed room, “You guys all look badass in your crowns, by the way.” As for the evening’s featured performers, she said, “The girls are backstage getting tucked and taped.”
Musgraves set up each track with a bit of background: how happy she was to have the budget for a string section; how she’d gotten her grandmother to tell horror stories about working as a small-town nurse, surreptitiously captured the vignettes on her phone and using one as the intro for “This Town”; how, following a hearty breakfast in the studio, drummer Fred Eltringham made an instrument out of a biscuit pan; how “Cup of Tea” takes up one of her favorite themes, “the whole ‘be yourself’ thing.”
Some of the album tracks were simply played over the club P.A., but the crowd paid the most rapt attention each time a drag queen emerged from the wings, lip syncing one of Musgraves’ songs. One wore a vampy, pink cowgirl dress, complete with gun holsters, in honor of Pageant Material‘s “Dime Store Cowgirl.” Another reinterpreted the cut-offs and “Biscuits” T-shirt that Musgraves wore in a publicity photo for debut single “Biscuits” (which the singer remarked had been pulled from radio while onstage at Bonnaroo this weekend). Still other performers donned fabulous, sequined, floor-length gowns.
Musgraves isn’t the first to throw a shindig for a new country release at a gay bar. Wynonna Judd and Laura Bell Bundy, among others, did it years ago. But leave it to Musgraves — the twenty-something who’s coolly and cleverly articulating the diversity-embracing social sensibilities of many in her generation — to take the party into the mainstream media. She’s sly like that.