By James Barker, Staff Writer
When queer country icons are brought up in the media, Kacey Musgraves is often mentioned. This is not without controversy; journalists like Tanner Stechnij and Justin Hiltner (the queergrass trailblazer no less!) asserted that the extent to which Musgraves is highlighted as an LGBTQ+ icon may be problematic in that it could distract from shining the spotlight on queer country artists themselves.
This is not to say that allies are not important, particularly within the mainstream country music industry that lags behind other genres. (You can check out my thoughts on the role of allyship here!) This article is less about evaluating Musgraves’ allyship, as worthwhile as that is, and instead is about elevating some other LGBTQ+ voices in country and Americana: that of LGBTQ+ fans and audience, and how we actively engage with the music.
Of course, there are many kinds of LGBTQ+ listeners, and Musgraves will not appeal to all LGBTQ+ people or even to all LGBTQ+ country listeners. Focusing on the role of LGBTQ+ listeners can also work in conjunction with elevating LGBTQ+ artists.
Further, it is not a choice between platforming LGBTQ+ artists and showcasing allies, but artists such as Musgraves by expanding notions of what country music is and who country music is for, may expand the platform for LGBTQ+ artists.
Musgraves as the Entry Point?
In a couple of interviews I’ve done with LGBTQ+ country artists, both Tommy Atkins and Justin Hiltner described Musgraves as an entry point to the wider country genre. Especially at a time where “bro country” has dominated the mainstream industry, artists like Musgraves have been key to demonstrating that country music can be relatable for those who bro country’s shallow clichés do not appeal.
So why would Musgraves appeal to (some) LGBTQ+ audiences? One answer is her assertive allyship. Her explicit advocacy in “Follow Your Arrow”, her penned letter to the LGBTQ+ community in 2019 for Pride, and her direct calls to the country music industry to support a “gay country superstar”. This allyship is a factor in welcoming people into her music and knowing that they will be entering an inclusive space.
Another answer is Musgrave’s performances and engagement with camp. This can be observed increasingly with her image, her love of sequins and glitz; her lyrical wit and wordplay (can anything top ‘if you don’t save yourself, you’re a whore-rrible person’ in “Follow Your Arrow”); and her sharp defiance of gender stereotypes and expectations, all while playing with country tropes and images.
Like Dolly Parton decades before, Musgraves has crossed over from a neotraditional country artist to also resonating as a pop star more widely. Parton in the late 70s insisted that she was taking country with her, and her status as an LGBTQ+ icon in many ways tends to overemphasize the pop elements and downplay the country aspects. A similar narrative risks taking hold around Musgraves. Yet her music still channels country logics and aesthetics just like it did when she first came to prominence in the early 2010s.
Same Trailer Different Park
Perhaps the clearest example of this is on Same Trailer Different Park, where Musgraves’ image is decidedly less camp than it was to become, yet her defiant and witty lyricism was on full display. The album included “Follow Your Arrow”, which is to date her only explicit references to LGBTQ+ inclusion in her lyrics: “kiss lots of girls, if that’s what you’re into”.
The most interesting thing about this song is the way that Musgraves presents this advocacy within the setting of a small town. This is a small town community with its characteristic mixture of hypocrisy, compassion, and solidarity with others also struggling to fit into society’s often contradictory standards of acceptable behavior.
Scholars like Bill Malone who describes country music as having ‘no shortage of compassion’ and Nadine Hubbs who calls this representation of LGBTQ+ people living within (and not exceptional to) “an everyday sociability”, would suggest that Musgraves is not pitting LGBTQ+ people against the small town. In listening to this song, we don’t just get Kacey Musgraves, we’re welcomed into an extended country music community.
This kind of community is abundant throughout Same Trailer Different Park, and none more so than on the song “Merry Go ‘Round”. In part a blistering critique of “traditional” standards of acceptable family life, Musgraves defies the “tradition” saying “if you ain’t got two kids by 21, you’re probably gonna die alone”. Musgraves presents small town life as people going round in circles, following rules just because that’s what ‘you’re supposed to’ do.
There’s a note of sadness and pathos in the image of people “like dust, we settle in this town”. Musgraves may be critical of rigid normality, yet the song has compassion for the people living it. Often Pride anthems are about overcoming and living our best lives, but we also need a soundtrack to the less glamorous and mediocre aspects of our lives. For those of us who may still be on our own “broken Merry go-round” and may even be cynical of Pride’s politics of individualist exceptionalism, this sad country song may be just what we need.
On her second album, Musgraves upped the camp a little with the tiara on the album cover and in the title track she more assertively critiques the hyper gendered images of mainstream American culture such as the Pageant queen. Where Musgraves’ trademark wit shows just how she does not fit into the pageant girl stereotypes: “I ain’t exactly Ms. Congenial/ Sometimes I talk before I think/I try to fake it but I can’t”.
As well as being a statement of self-acceptance and not trying to please other people for the sake of fitting in, Musgraves makes this claim in the terms of country music authenticity of not being “fake”. Musgraves exposes the limitations of these images and stereotypes: “It ain’t that I don’t care about world peace/ But I don’t see how I can fix it in a swimsuit on a stage”.
Camp and drag pageantry have similarly critiqued these stereotypes, (scholar Leigh H. Edwards has made a similar argument about Parton) and Musgraves in “Pageant Material” is using signifiers from pop and country to make her statements.
This album is an interesting transitional point for Musgraves as she takes on additional pop elements and pop culture resonances. The tracks have a slightly glossier production, her image is an elevated form of camp, and songs such as “biscuits”: “Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy” and “Cup of Tea” are further entries in the self-acceptance and be-yourself philosophy of “Follow Your Arrow”.
Yet some of the layers of storytelling from Same Trailer, Different Park appear to be replaced by pithy, anthemic one-liners that seem geared towards branding Musgraves within pop culture. Musgraves’ songwriting chops are still on full display in Pageant Material, not least in the title track and in “Dime Store Cowgirl” which is the perfect song for where Musgraves was at the time.
“Cause I’m still the girl from Golden/ Had to get away so I could grow” shows Musgraves laying claim to her country roots, whilst also not wanting to be boxed in and completely defined by them. The album has songs that reflect both sides of this dynamic, from the self-acceptance anthems to the songs about community and solidarity:
“Family is family in church or in prison”. These tensions of finding home in different places becomes acute at this moment of crossover and is something that has resonated with her LGBTQ+ fanbase.
Pageant Material set the stage for what was to follow. If the previous album was a transitional album where Musgraves was working out where her sound and identity fit within the sonic, cultural and media worlds of pop and country, Golden Hour seemed to resolve a number of these questions. In 2018 Musgraves released a critically acclaimed progressive country album that used acoustic instruments in an electronic soundscape to produce an album that seemed both timeless, and futuristic.
From the opening riff of “Slow Burn” to the final poignant, yet uplifting note of “Rainbow”. Golden Hour wraps its listeners in its soothing atmosphere that seems to evoke both the countryside and outer space. No where is this clearer than on “Space Cowboy”, with its title out of context seeming to reflect Musgraves’ description of the album as “galactic country”. The lyrics of the song evoke American cowboy pastoral imagery, yet the lead instrumentation for the melody is piano, with the banjo adding texture.
Like many songs on the album, “Space Cowboy” uses its pop elements to displace and mitigate against the country images becoming too clichéd. The country elements that remain add a quality and depth to the songwriting and sound that prevents the pop elements from becoming too one-note. Golden Hour is about finding assurance and comfort in the world. Musgraves does this by cobbling together disparate elements, that may be assumed not to go together, but do beautifully (if this album is anything to go by!).
Golden Hour also marked a period of increased success for Musgraves, winning Album of the Year at the Grammys, and achieving international recognition. A lot of this came from beyond the country music establishment, and Musgraves’ allyship at this point, unlike with ‘Follow Your Arrow’ seemed at times to be uprooted from its country music context.
There is potential in carving a path outside of Nashville and the country music establishment. Yet there is a missed opportunity if Musgraves’ aesthetics are only read in terms of their pop significations. At a time when we are having long overdue discussions on how to make country music and Nashville a welcoming space for LGBTQ+ and BIPOC people, we can’t afford to vacate this space.