Just days after the massive CMA Music Festival wrapped up in Nashville, country music’s Kacey Musgraves played to a packed house at Music City’s Bridgestone Arena. The crowd watching her skewed much younger than the audience who had just attended the four-day country-music orgy that takes place throughout the city’s downtown, however.
Musgraves was opening for Harry Styles, he of the obscenely popular boy band One Direction, who is now branching out into Eagles and David Bowie-inspired rock territory as a solo act. It might seem like an odd pairing on the surface, but when Styles took the stage, he was decked out in an electric-blue Western suit with rhinestone sparkle accents. Such a cowpunk look could have come straight from Musgraves’ own wardrobe archives, and the Seventies inspiration Styles is mining in his new music isn’t too far off from the mellow sounds and disco moments peppering Musgraves’ superb latest album Golden Hour.
During her 45-minute slot, Musgraves leaned heavily on that new project, with just one earlier single, “Follow Your Arrow,” and a chillwave cover of ‘N Sync’s “Tearing Up My Heart” fleshing out the 11-song set list. Though she went on promptly at 8:00 p.m., Musgraves had a full and attentive crowd before her, made up primarily of kids not yet old enough to drive and the parents who dutifully chauffeured them to the venue. As she ticked through album cuts, including the laid-back and trippy opening number “Slow Burn” and the decidedly disco show-closer “High Horse,” Musgraves drew increasingly enthusiastic applause.
But Musgraves didn’t hide her country roots. The heartbreaking twang of her single “Space Cowboy” was accented with Brett Resnick’s crying steel guitar prominent in the mix. A crystal-encrusted horse saddle acted as a country-western version of a disco ball during the number, with fans illuminating the stage with their cell phones to provide a triumphant pop-crowd moment for a song that got nowhere when it was released to country radio.
Nodding to June being Pride Month for the LGBTQ community – “Happy Pride Month!” Musgraves offered – she received her biggest response with “Follow Your Arrow.” While that song too failed to crack the Top 40 at country radio, it did win CMA Song of the Year in 2014, suggesting that the country music industry is ready to embrace the LGBTQ community even if the format’s fans are (wrongly) perceived to be a little more hesitant. Fans at Styles’ show – some in cowboy hats and waving rainbow flags – were clearly onboard, singing the final chorus in unison back to Musgraves as she held out her mic.
The takeaway from Musgraves’ performance – and the feat of Golden Hour debuting at Number One on Billboard‘s Country Albums chart – is that Musgraves is thriving as a bona fide country artist. And she’s doing it without the help of country radio, turning on a new generation of fans to the format via well-chosen tours, appearances like Saturday Night Live in May, and her embracing of streaming platforms, like the Spotify high tea she hosted for fans in London. To these new listeners who discover music outside of terrestrial radio, she very well may be the face of country music.