Taylor Swift’s early career blew like a twister through country music, leaving practically no chart or sales records untouched. Yet after Swift fully decamped to pop music in 2014 with her album 1989, the edifices of the Nashville, Tennessee, Music Row seemed to smack right back down intact, almost as if Swift had never happened.
Unlike when Hurricane Shania Twain hit Nashville in the mid-1990s, there seemed to be no tail wind behind Swift sweeping in more woman-centric and crossover-minded country. Quite the opposite: The “bro country” wave that dominated country charts for most of this decade seemed nearly like a calculated effort to put Swift-style girl power in its place, i.e., looking pretty with its bare feet up on the dashboard of some dude’s pickup. There was a growing cohort of forceful gender- and class-conscious female singer-songwriters—names such as Brandy Clark, Angaleena Presley, Cam, Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Margo Price, and Kacey Musgraves—but they mostly stood outside the mainstream, combining up-to-the-moment social observations with a twangy traditionalist sound.
The past two years, though, have brought changes that could be read in part as a delayed Swift effect. Hits by guys such as Sam Hunt and Thomas Rhett were softening the machismo and picking up post-Drake beats from the heights of the pop charts. Kelsea Ballerini, Swift’s most obvious Nashville heir, achieved her fourth Country Airplay No. 1 single this winter with “Legends.” The backlash appeared to be ebbing. (Hopeful darkest-before-dawn forecasts about Donald Trump’s fortunes waning along with the post-Obama backlash would be an analogy too far, but run with it if it makes you happy.)
Still, until now, no one in Nashville managed to follow up Swift’s past skill at appealing to the country and pop worlds simultaneously—to offer the “red” and “blue” Americas some common musical ground. “The Middle,” Maren Morris’ single with EDM producer Zedd and the duo Grey, is in the pop top 10 and could go to No. 1. But musically, Morris seems like a hired hand there, lending her vocal muscle but not much of her punchy Southern style. Conversely, “Meant to Be,” pop vocalist Bebe Rexha’s single with Florida Georgia Line, has broken Swift’s own record for a woman-led song’s longevity atop the country chart—but with a squarely bro-style song in which the male vocalist takes the first verse.
All of which makes Kacey Musgraves’ new, third album Golden Hour an unexpected milestone. Ever since the then–24-year-old Texan’s debut single “Merry Go ’Round” surprised observers by entering the Country Airplay top 10 in 2013, her role as a potential country modernizer has been under constant debate. She’s won Grammys and country awards, but her cleverly tart Willie Nelson– and John Prine–influenced songs about hypocrisy and tolerance (notably the casually queer-friendly “Follow Your Arrow”) made country programmers skittish as much for their overly rootsy sounds as for their liberal sentiments—although the tendency for outsiders to use Musgraves to score anti-Nashville points couldn’t have helped.
After 2015’s Pageant Material, a hurried second album that seemed stuck in a holding pattern, Golden Hour sees Musgraves blissfully releasing herself from the how-country-is-it trap. Instead, she’s gone for a radiant pop makeover. But not in Swift’s competitively triumphal mode. Instead, the record summons up the 1970s soft-rock and disco crossovers of Dolly Parton, Olivia Newton-John, and Anne Murray, not to mention ’90s Shania and Sheryl Crow. (The album was actually recorded in Crow’s home studio, upstairs from her horse stable.) There’s also a wink in the more contemporary directions of Daft Punk and Imogen Heap, with the disco of “High Horse” and the vocoder effects of “Oh, What a World.”
Musgraves has referred to it as “galactic country,” a term that recalls hippie-country pioneer Gram Parsons’ invocations of “Cosmic American Music.” The brightness of ’60s pop is here too, not to mention some light psychedelia, fittingly enough—Musgraves acknowledges the influence of some very millennial LSD microdosing on songs such as “Mother,” on which she weeps empathetic tears made out of notes and colors. But her main drug of choice on Golden Hour is love.
Musgraves got married in October to fellow country songwriter Ruston Kelly, and along with the contact high with that newlywed glow the album’s pop sheen provides, the experience seems to have realigned the 29-year-old’s whole perspective. The barbed critical wordplay of her first two albums has given way to a more generously spacious embrace of the world as a panoply of possibility. She’s still forthright and philosophical. But her worries are more about being “the kinda person who starts getting kinda nervous/ when I’m having the time of my life” (on “Happy & Sad”) than about her old feuds with moralistic busybodies. Even the couple of diss tracks here, “Space Cowboy” and “High Horse,” find their wry jabs channeled through funky grooves (one woozy, the other lighting up the neon-flashing dance floor) that turn the antagonism harmlessly antic. When Musgraves calls a guy a “Velvet Elvis” on Golden Hour, she’s not mocking him as ersatz and chintzy but teasingly praising him as crushable, soft, and sparkly, a delight to have around the house.
To make that shift, Musgraves has moved previous key co-writers such as Shane McAnally and Luke Laird, among other whip-smart Music Row word-slingers, to the back benches. Her main collaborators here are the multi-instrumentalist producers Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian—listen to Tashian’s own locally beloved dream-pop band, the Silver Seas, for some precedents to Golden Hour’s sound. But their contributions are secondary to the way Musgraves has lowered her own defenses, willing to risk a little cheesiness (and a couple of these songs do have a whiff of Velveeta) if it lets her explore and share a fuller emotional spectrum. Where she used to preach against snobs, now she’s let go of her own variety of snobbery. And her voice seems to have opened up along with her heart, becoming richer and stronger than ever. Now the question is how broad a listenership, inside and outside of country, might follow.
Meanwhile, for more irredeemably hard-bitten listeners who miss Musgraves’ old piss and vinegar (and I do at least a bit), there’s an exciting Nashville newcomer to fill that space. The twist is that Ashley McBryde is no kid. The Arkansas-raised singer is in her mid-30s and has spent years hacking out a musical living in—as the title track of her new album, Girl Going Nowhere, puts it—“a whole lot of basement dives and county fairs.” But it’s only fairly recently that she caught a break.
First, in 2017, country star Eric Church declared himself a fan and brought the diminutive, sleeve-tattooed, “whiskey-drinkin’ badass” onstage to duet with him on her tear-jerking tribute to her preacher-rancher dad, “Bible and a .44.” She scored a record deal (after a couple of independent releases) and later that year released her single “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega,” which earned a heap of year-end attention from critics, including me, for its crackling invocation of a “makin’-the-best-of-a-worst-day kinda night.” Recently, it cracked the country top 40.
McBryde’s backed by her band Deadhorse (as in “beating a”), which has the riffs and crunch to win over the biker-bar crowds they’ve often played to. And her pipes are salt-crusted but loaded with steam, evocative by turns of Bonnie Raitt, Lucinda Williams, and Reba McEntire. To hear her roar about craving a love affair with the passion of “Kennedy and Mon-roooooooooe” on the album’s advance single “American Scandal” is to feel like you’re being hollered out of your recliner to a muddy-booted stomp in a rainstorm. Endearingly funny and no-fucks-given indomitable, McBryde’s rise provides a rejoinder to country’s recent fetish for the gruff chug of Chris Stapleton (another longtime local Nashville hero who finally got a spotlight of his own), that authenticity is not about testosterone.
The other constant pleasure for me of Girl Going Nowhere also comes out of McBryde’s veteran performing history: its view of the world as made out of music. What matters about the “breakdown wrong turn that takes ya” to the Dahlonega dive bar (in Georgia, by the way) is that it’s where you’ll “hear a song from a band that saves ya.” The tender but fierce opening title track is a little bit of payback to the small-minded folks back home who predicted she’d “crash and burn.” (It was written for the night she made her Grand Ole Opry debut.) Then comes “Radioland,” a kind of Tom Petty/Springsteen-esque anthem about growing up somewhere remote enough that its access to the world was mostly through the radio dial, which offered everything from ballgames and sermons to “Johnny and June” and “Jack & Diane.”
The slinky “Southern Babylon” finds her in an afterlife where she’s condemned to sing hellish Top 40 covers forever in an infernal nightclub—“Got a band up there been dyin’ to play a little ‘Devil Went Down to Georgia’ ” and later, “a little ‘Hotel California.’ ” When she sings about the opioid addict next door, or maybe on your own living-room couch (“stealing cable”), in “Livin’ Next to Leroy,” she does it to a chord pattern that smacks of “Sweet Home Alabama.” More than any other song I know on that subject, she manages to make it intimate, lighthearted and nonjudgmental, while still getting across the tragedy as Leroy steals the neighbor’s bike, hocks his old class ring, and one day just doesn’t wake up any more. And the album closes with an ode to another kind of addiction, “Home Sweet Highway”—because when McBryde finds herself staying home too long, she gets “homesick” for the tour bus.
Even a tune that sounds like the album’s most straightforward love song, the battle-of-the-sexes truce ballad “Andy (I Can’t Live Without You),” turns out instead to be about McBryde’s friendship with her band’s guitarist, Andrew Sovine, who’s also her roommate. As she says in one clip in her promotional web series (also called “Home Sweet Highway”), “Music has never bitched at me when I don’t make enough money. Music has never slept with my best friend. It’s kind of a perfect marriage.”
While McBryde and Musgraves are holding down two ends of the line for women-driven country in 2018, of course they’re far from the whole tale. This week also sees the release of a finely wrought spaghetti Western–influenced album from Latina Canadian import Lindi Ortega, and this spring is anticipating Wouldn’t It Be Great, the 41st (!) studio album from the grandmammy of outspoken country female songwriters, the great Loretta Lynn, at nearly 86. In a year when the entertainment business has been declaring “Time’s Up” for the second-class treatment of female artists and behind-the-scenes workers, time is well past due for all the pent-up power of Nashville women to overcome hidebound expectations … again.