In a development as unfortunate as it is unsurprising, Kacey Musgraves is the only female artist up for Album of the Year at the 52nd annual CMA Awards, which announced its nominees on Tuesday. Musgraves — whose acclaimed third full-length Golden Hour is in the running with releases from Chris Stapleton, Keith Urban, Thomas Rhett and Dierks Bentley — is also, by little coincidence, the only artist in that group that fans can still catch in the intimacy of a 686-capacity theater in Northern Alabama.
That was the case Saturday night at the Shoals Community Theater in Muscle Shoals-neighboring Florence, Alabama, where the Texas-bred country-pop trailblazer and her Lone Star State-sunset-conjuring backing band headlined Alabama-based fashion designer Billy Reid’s 10th annual Shindig in the Shoals. Over the course of a 75-minute set that touched on everything from the mellow beats of “Happy & Sad” to the infectious disco of “High Horse,” Musgraves and co. not only reinforced why Golden Hour is CMA-nomination worthy, but made the case for why it should win too.
With the crowd still buzzing from a barn-burning opening set from country crooner Joshua Hedley, Musgraves took the darkened stage and summoned an astral mood singing “Slow Burn.” The Golden Hour opener was the first of the set’s many “galactic country” numbers from an album that has hooks fit for a Katy Perry record, if Katy Perry records had banjos and lyrics about real life.
Musgraves, nodding at her own musical DNA, at one point noted there are two different kinds of people in the world — Brooks & Dunn people and ‘N Sync people — before polling the crowd to see which side of that divide they fell on. ‘N Sync won out, and so followed a fun albeit relentlessly un-ironic cover of “Tearin’ Up My Heart” that showed Florida Georgia Line don’t have the market cornered on Nineties boy-band nostalgia. Her interpretation also proved she’s got the voice — a conversational raspy twang whose understated quality quashes pop music’s tendency toward melodramatic melisma — and the crowd-swallowing star power that can elevate even a mediocre pop song into a moment of greatness.
But, like Brooks & Dunn’s “Neon Moon,” which later made a vocoder-laced showing in the encore, Musgraves’ songs are anything but mediocre. “Family Is Family,” “Butterflies” and Space Cowboy,” one of this generation’s most stirring kiss-off songs, can Aaron Burr the shit out of just about any song currently in rotation on country radio.
Musgraves also polled the crowd to see how many in attendance grew up in a small town, like she did in East Texas, before introducing her 2013 snapshot of that existence, “Merry Go ‘Round,” with an anecdote of how co-writer Shane McAnally’s mother inspired the song’s clutch couplet about “mamas hooked on Mary Kay” and “brothers hooked on Mary Jane,” to knowing applause from the many empathetic Alabamans on hand.
“Thanks so much for coming out [and] getting me off my couch. I’ve had the last three weeks off and I’ve been a lazy piece of shit,” Musgraves, who recently wrapped a months-long stint of back-to-back arena tours supporting Little Big Town and then Harry Styles, bantered early on. “I love this little place, it’s so cute. Just hang, do what you do, get a little bit weird.”
That just-be-yourself sentiment of empowerment is a recurring theme throughout Musgraves’ canon of hits and fan favorites like “Follow Your Arrow” and “Biscuits.” And arty weirdness the Southern way is kind of what Reid’s Shindig is all about.
Now in its 10th year, the casual, weekend-long event is a celebration of fashion, art, and musical and culinary cultural touchstones, new and old, from Muscle Shoals — the region whose Muscle Shoals Sound and FAME studios gave the world the South’s greasiest R&B from names like Wilson Pickett and Percy Sledge, in addition to catalog cornerstone albums from Aretha Franklin, the Allman Brothers Band, the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon and the Black Keys.
Other Shindig highlights included a reliably great (near) homecoming rave-up revue from Birmingham’s St. Paul and the Broken Bones; Dan Auerbach sitting in with his new blues hero and recent collaborator Robert Finley; a Sunday hangover brunch boasting performances from the Watson Twins and Delta blues royalty Cedric Burnside; and a swanky lakeside party DJed by Cocaine & Rhinestones podcast host Tyler Mahan Coe. Country-funk party band par excellence the Texas Gentlemen also turned in four sweaty sets over two days.
But the biggest revelation of the weekend came courtesy of Atlanta garage-rock quartet Mattiel, who deafened revelers and left every ounce of raw power on the stage at an official after-party at the venue 116 E Mobile. The songs had hooks for days, the band’s savage assault was tighter than a newspaper budget, and in singer Mattiel Brown there was a rock star ready for her close-up. It’s no wonder the likes of Jack White, who recently took the band on tour, or Burger Records, which released the group’s debut LP last year, have already taken notice.