The Problem With “Country for People Who Don’t Like Country”

Kacey Musgraves’ new album and America’s ongoing struggle to come to terms with Southern white, working-class identity.

Musician Kacey Musgraves
Kacey Musgraves performs during California’s Country Music Festival at the Empire Polo Club on April 24, 2015 in Indio, California.

Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Stagecoach

The arrival this week of Kacey Musgraves’ second album, Pageant Material, as well as my disappointment with it, has me casting fondly back to Sept. 21, 2012, when a friend’s email tipped me off to Musgraves’s then-brand-new first single “Merry Go ’Round.” I quickly wrote back a message along the lines of Holy shit, who is she? The record blew my ears off with its triple-layered wordplay and its incisored, insider’s view of small-town life-cycle letdowns—all delivered like a mercy killing by a singer who’d just turned 24. It’s still one of the songs I’ve loved most in the last five years.

It would go on to win Musgraves and her co-writers Best Country Song at the 2014 Grammy Awards. But it was another track from her subsequent (also Grammy-winning) album, Same Trailer, Different Park, that became the real hit and the bigger story—“Follow Your Arrow,” a you-do-you anthem that cheerfully toasts to promiscuity, smoking pot, and same-sex trysts, “if that’s something you’re into.”

The media went wide-eyed, the way it does whenever it glimpses diversity in the supposedly wall-to-wall redneck genre of country music. Musgraves became a public-radio profile star, a new-frontier conqueror for liberalism and tolerance. Her trailer was hitched to a Prius and hauled away from the park. She had become the latest queen of Country for People Who Don’t Like Country.

On the cover of the June/July issue of Fader, she’s still lifted up on that throne, appearing behind the headline “Kacey Musgraves Is Making Country Good Again.” Inside, a publication that normally covers rap, rock, and electronic music declares that “country music has gone astray” and that Musgraves is offering “a back-to-basics corrective” to “sloshy party anthems and synth tracks.” (Amusing, given that Fader is basically the official journal of party anthems and synth tracks.) Rolling Stone praises her as an alternative to “slick production and trend-hopping songs.” Even the subtler Steven Hyden of Grantland proposes that “in the upside-down world of country music in 2015, writing thoughtful three-minute songs and recording them with tasteful musicianship makes you an outlaw.”

These Manichean scenarios of brave mavericks redeeming Nashville’s corrupted soul are obligatory for covering Country for People Who Don’t Like Country. They always spur a strong suspicion that the writers’ knowledge of recent Nashville country is restricted to a couple of songs they heard at the mall or on the car radio and could not turn off fast enough before returning to their regular playlists. Today there is Kacey Musgraves and last year’s king of the counter-genre, Sturgill Simpson; not long ago there were Gillian Welch and Ryan Adams (along with, in their more “alt-country” days, bands like Wilco and Son Volt); before them, Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle; and, way before them, Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons. Naturally, fans of all these artists would object that they do like country. They just like “real country” like Johnny Cash, not the “watered-down, commercial country you hear on the radio today.”

Never mind that the self-appointed purity police have said the same thing each time the prevailing style of country music has shifted over the past seven decades, from string-band country to honky-tonk to rockabilly to 1960s countrypolitan to 1970s outlaw country to urban cowboy to neo-trad to 1990s New Country line-dancers to Dixie Chicks to Taylor Swift to “bro country” today. This time, surely, country really is dead.

Most genres have their own equivalent camps. There are those who won’t listen to new soul and R&B unless it’s by retro artists such as Sharon Jones or Lee Fields. There are “pop” fans to whom that term strictly means ’60s-style power pop, who cannot fathom why Big Star, Jellyfish, or Fountains of Wayne were not the biggest bands ever. There are those who ingest all their heaviness from “hipster metal” groups like Deafheaven, Sunn O))), or Mastodon, whose guitarist Brent Hinds recently outed himself as not even liking metal. There have been the partisans of “alternative” or “backpack” rap, which declares itself at once more progressive and more old-school than the mainstream hip-hop whose flaws tend to be its lyrical obsession. (I think that one’s mostly over now.) And let’s not even talk about jazz’s warring groupuscules.

I will freely admit that, at one point or another, I have been almost all of these people. And I am not criticizing “Americana,” the default umbrella that has been created for folk, bluegrass, country-rock, blues hybrids, and other roots styles that stand apart from the demands of contemporary country radio. That’s all fine. I’m not hung up on your authenticity, unless you are hung up on other people’s. But in country that obsession is especially pervasive.

There are always social overtones when outsiders start claiming to know the “truth” of a genre better than its main fanbase does—implying that the fans don’t know what’s really good for them, whether it’s because they’re too uneducated, too poor, too female, too young, or too old. But those overtones are seldom as stark and persistent as they are in country. As University of Michigan scholar Nadine Hubbs writes in her 2014 book Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music, at stake in debates about “realness” in country is whether the working-class Southern and Midwestern whites who are its core demographic (though of course not its only listeners) are themselves authentic, whole human subjects, or just cultural zombies and dupes of the powers that be.

Even more pernicious assumptions constantly afflict the reception of black American music, of course. But in critical discussion, at least that issue is widely recognized. When it comes to regionally scorned music for so-called trashy people, critics feel much more free to throw invective around. In fact, when hip taste in country doesn’t confine itself to old-timey ballads, it often inclines toward a hillbilly grotesque, to scenarios of incest and murder as more genuine representations of what we fantasize goes on in Southern rural zones. (We’ve read our Faulkner, seen our Deliverance.)

Liking only the “right” (i.e., left) kind of country music (or, even more commonly, “every kind of music but country”) is a cultural expression of the estrangement that manifests itself in red and blue states on the political map, and in the way vast groupings of Americans talk past one another from within their bubbles. This is part of why it took the horror of last week’s racist South Carolina church shootings for the state to finally consider mothballing the Confederate flag: Faced with the righteous condescension of coastal elites, a lot of white Southerners have a tendency to dig in.

As Columbia University ethnomusicologist Aaron A. Fox has written, if mainstream country comes across as “bad” music—gauche, sexist, ethnocentric, formulaic, “sloshy”—that’s not a coincidence: Outsiders disliking it endears it all the more to its fans, who figure those outsiders probably don’t like them much either. This is what Fox calls country’s “abject sublime,” the kind of affirmation through self-deprecation you can hear, for example, in Lee Brice’s 2014 hit country single “Drinking Class”—scan through the YouTube comments on that video and you’ll find some impassioned talk about “blue-collar” class values that is rare in any kind of American public discourse these days.

Country also comes pre-indicted as the soundtrack to the “toggle switch between ‘bland nothingness’ and ‘racist hatred’ ” that is whiteness, as Nell Irvin Painter argued last weekend in the New York Times. It’s a catch-22 that a lot of white Americans long to wriggle out of, whether through grave historical penance or blithe wishful thinking—and many of them consider it no help that those other white people insist on continuing to listen to that awful country music.

No wonder then that when a figure like Kacey Musgraves comes along, singing gay-positive, narrowness-negative country songs (let alone a figure like the promising young country singer Mickey Guyton, who is an even rarer sighting as a black woman), an unsustainable burden falls upon their shoulders.

Musgraves’ return is being filtered particularly through the conversation that’s been going on lately about gender in country, which reached a boiling point last month when prominent radio consultant Keith Hill openly stated that any country station that wants to be successful should play fewer “females.” With truly stunning tone-deafness, he added that women should be viewed as merely the “tomatoes” in the format’s “salad.” Within country, this is a vital and overdue debate, and women like Miranda Lambert and Martina McBride are having a grand time slicing and dicing that “tomatoes” remark. Outside country, however, it’s a highly convenient one—in this age of eclecticism it’s not that cool to be dismissive of any genre, but if said genre (as Vice’s music section Noisey puts it) “has become synonymous” with sexism, well, fire away.

Admittedly I have more than once joined the protesters against the chart dictatorship of what my colleague Jody Rosen in 2013 dubbed bro country (the stickiest feat of pop-critical coinage since manic pixie dream girl)—but none of us intended it to serve as an excuse to claim that all country songs are exactly the same. In fact the timing of the “tomato” imbroglio is a bit ironic, as the current Billboard Hot Country chart is more diverse than it has been in years.

At No. 1 for the eighth week running is Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush,” a song sung by group member Karen Fairchild that teasingly explores the homoerotic subtext of heterosexual jealousy, and seems ultimately to have been only boosted by an initial conservative backlash. It’s followed at No. 2 by “Take Your Time” by Sam Hunt, who’s infused some contemporary R&B moves à la Usher into his songs of seduction—he’s the subject of a New Yorker piece this week by Kelefa Sanneh, though of course the magazine felt compelled to interject in its headline, “But is it country?

At No. 5 is “Love Me Like You Mean It,” by Kelsea Ballerini, a 21-year-old who might become the first to successfully fill Taylor Swift’s vacated place in the country spectrum. And at No. 12 and rising is Thomas Rhett with “Crash and Burn,” an irresistible boogie that’s one of many recent country numbers to bring some “Uptown Funk” to the down-home barn dance. (As Billboard noted in a feature a few weeks ago, country and black Southern music have never been as far apart as chart segregation and other factors have made them appear.)

While the rest of the chart is still packed with the usual “bro” suspects, their songs are hardly uniform. There’s ample sonic space between the Bon Jovi-ish arena country of Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean, the hip-hop-loving tailgater boys of Florida Georgia Line, and the lone-wolf persona of Eric Church, whose current top-10 hit “Like a Wrecking Ball” (not to be confused with the Miley Cyrus smash) gets its erotic steam from a slow-sizzling gospel organ.

While the near shutout of women on the country charts the past several years has been maddening, especially with attitudes like Keith Hill’s, it came after a decade in which Swift, McBride, Lambert, and the Dixie Chicks before them were the defining country acts, and it was inevitable that the pendulum (or the wrecking ball) would swing back eventually.

The sociologist Richard Peterson, in his classic 1997 study Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity, described a dialectic in country history between “hard core” country—rawer-sounding, more bar-and-party-oriented, and usually male-dominated—and the “soft core” version, with more pop influences, more “domestic” subject matter, and more women. The cycle keeps repeating, each time leaving country altered from what it was before, but just as real, and as fake, as it ever was.

Yet what’s curious about the most recent iteration is that it’s been a bit jumbled, perhaps due to realigning millennial attitudes about musical genre mixing on one hand and race, gender, and sexuality on the other. While “bro country” answers to many of the “hard core” descriptors, it’s full of borrowings from other pop forms, from similarly hard-partying hip-hop, from Southern rock, and most recently from soul and R&B. Meanwhile the more staunch traditionalists, the defenders of country’s stylistic history, have been women—particularly a clique of collaborating performers and songwriters around Miranda Lambert, including Musgraves (who co-wrote Lambert’s hit “Mama’s Broken Heart”), Brandy Clark, and Ashley Monroe, as well as male (but gay) songwriter Shane McAnally.

Relative to what once might have been called the “countrypolitan” aspects of bro country, Lambert and Monroe and Angaleena Presley’s boldly twangy side project the Pistol Annies reads practically like a new outlaw movement—the Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson of 2015.*

In fact, Nelson is first name-checked and later makes a surprise cameo appearance on Musgraves’ new Pageant Material. But what’s disappointing about the album—contrary to the way the Fader, for example, covered it—is that mostly it makes no intervention in country’s current dynamics at all. It simply sounds like an extra disc added to her first album, with for the most part less varied and slightly less convincing songs.

There is nothing as cutting as “Merry Go ’Round” here, and in fact with “Dimestore Cowgirl” the singer from tiny Golden, Texas, seems to be slipping a subtle mea culpa to anyone who thought she had been too harsh on small-town life, offering her own version of a timeworn, near-mandatory genre mantra with the line “you can take me out of the country but you can’t take the country out of me.” This makes sense, given that she never asked to be made a symbol of everything that’s wrong with country music today.

Yet she also plays it both ways, adding her own slam against bro country with “The Good Ol’ Boys Club” (as well as her take on suffocating gender expectations on the much-superior title track), and servicing the Don’t Like Country crowd by revisiting the yay-for-tolerance template of “Follow Your Arrow,” in mostly folksier variations, in the wearyingly similar “Biscuits,” “Somebody to Love,” “Die Fun,” “Family is Family,” and “Cup of Tea.” Yes, in what she jokingly calls her “advice songs,” Musgraves has a knack for reeling out collections of inventive rhyming aphorisms. But even live-and-let-live messages become finger wagging if they’re repeated enough. And they’re thinly stitched samplers compared to the closely observed, telling detail she’s capable of bringing to songs like the first album’s “Blowin’ Smoke” or “It Is What It Is.” She comes close in places here (notably with the musical Google Map of Golden that is “This Town” and the love song “Late to the Party”) but never as memorably.

The album is a classic sophomore slump—busy with the distractions of newfound semi-celebrity, Musgraves wasn’t able to build up a store of top-notch material equal to her last, and it probably didn’t help that she was saddled with navigating her sudden flashpoint position in the genre, too. Based on this album I certainly wouldn’t wish country to remake itself in her image, but rather that both the genre’s and Musgraves’ own current growing pains lead to them meeting up in some other fresh unmown field. (Hopefully that will not be, as Mugraves mused to Rolling Stone, with a future “reggae record,” which would almost definitely be reggae for people who don’t like reggae.)

Meanwhile, the Don’t Like Country ranks can find themselves another figurehead, or even devote some sincere time to discovering the berries that lie among those scary redneck brambles. (Perhaps ease in with Chris Stapleton’s deeply soulful new album, Traveller.) What those who look down their noses at Nashville share with the most reactionary members of the country audience (who are out there too, of course) is that they each often seem like they don’t like the country, the actually existing nation that Americans have to live in and cope with. With economic inequality surging on unchecked, it’s an especially critical moment for the middle and working classes, of any color, to find common cause. At its best, American music has been the ground where such disparate parts can meet, compare notes (literally), and hear each other’s pulse. As I first heard Musgraves sing on that September day three years back, “Same hurt in every heart/ Same trailer, different park.”

Correction, June 30, 2015: This article originally misidentified the third member of the music trio Pistol Annies as Brandy Clark. The third member is Angaleena Presley. (Return.)