By Josh Ong
The U.K has always found itself in a difficult position when it comes to country music. It’s seemingly marmite relationship with the general population’s musical taste has never permitted the genre to fully integrate into the nation’s mainstream music scene. Granted, you’ve had the early works of Taylor Swift that managed to slip through the cracks but even then, they were almost wholly country-pop. It’s a rarity finding a large consolidated fanbase to the more traditional style within the genre over here. From this, I am thusly aware my undying and unironic love for country music lies as quite the abnormality for someone with zero traceable connection to the Bible Belt of the USA.
My introduction to country music came through what first seemed through textbook country musician; Kacey Musgraves, born deep in rural Texas to a traditional southern family, now living in Nashville, Tennessee. Many comparisons can certainly be drawn between the formative years of Musgraves’ life to the majority of similar, and previous, generations of country stars touring today. From this, it would be easy for those outside of the genre’s sphere of influence to toss aside her work as more of the same that drove them to disliking the traditional country music order in the first place. But maybe it’s time for our nation to stop looking down upon country as a whole. Musgraves has embodied the move away from the country music of old reliant upon the previously adhered holy trinity of God, Beer & Pickup-trucks (in that order, too).
Her first album, Same Trailer, Different Park, offered new frontiers of liberal thinking embracing yourself telling all to “love who you love”, all whilst compacted into an accessible format for her target audience. The unapologetically full-frontal messages sent out from this album were already enough to turn heads within the country music scene. It’s combination of inventive and intelligent lyrical quips all whilst tackling deeply relatable issues elevated itself above existing solely as a protest album performed in the country style of playing. Pageant Material, her second album, only further built upon this message whilst generally sticking to the same familiar style executed by the first. With both albums being critically acclaimed and landing her two Grammys and support slots among touring superstars, such as Katy Perry, it was difficult to predict the direction in which Musgraves might depart.
Then in March earlier this year, Musgraves released Golden Hour. The albums serves a key sonic parting from it’s two predecessors as it tries to find it’s own voice in the world, away from the rigid lines fellow artists follow in compliance. From first track to last, it succeeds in sparking an ethereal feeling of joy through sadness; a celebration of emotionality through beautiful songwriting. This genre-bending masterpiece goes on to continue the quest she started with her first work albeit in an entirely new approach. Whilst her previous albums were unmistakably country, the desire to challenge the traditional order’s very roots goes as far as to show how qualification for it now supersedes an occasional banjo twang or harmonious fiddle. Furthermore, the bold observationalist nature of her previous work made way for impactful introspection; a particular rarity across the genre. The album’s amalgamation of elements of R&B, Pop & 70s disco would certainly seen on paper as quite the sonic mismatch. Fortunately, it’s quite the opposite.The stylistic differences from track to track provide enough individualism between tracks to keep this album on repeat over and over again. Furthermore, these intra-album stylistic differences means there unequivocally lies at least one song that anyone can connect to. From it’s short time on this earth, it has quickly become one of my favourite albums of all time. Therefore, naturally, I went into the show at the Bristol Hippodrome with the highest of expectations. Equally, it’s worth mentioning there was a disco ball, arguably one of the most important and alluring factors at any show.
Firstly, the venue. I have never attended a musical gig in a traditional theatre before, so I was intrigued as to how it would compare to specifically designed music venues. I was at first hesitant to the idea of all fixed seating, but to my joy, the seating was tiered meaning if my normal luck had come about, having the world’s tallest man in front of me (which, for once, I fortunately didn’t), I still would have been able to see the stage. Equally, the internal decor of the whole building was a good fit with the show that Musgraves was to put on.
Anyways, what really mattered was the music. My aforementioned fear of the show falling short of expectation were quickly put to rest. The show was quick to begin in visually emulating the first song from Golden Hour, Slow Burn. Given the frequency of which I’ve replayed the album, naturally I have considered how it would be live. I think it’s fair to say Musgraves hit the nail dead centre. It’s hard to really pin down the best thing about the entire show; every single element from band performance through to Musgraves’ mellifluous vocals shone interminably throughout the evening. The irrevocably beautiful aura created by her band only helped Musgraves’ voice dig even deeper into the hearts of the listeners, something I thought to be impossible beforehand.
The setlist covered mostly new ground, with and old material being updated to keep in line with the sombre atmosphere the tour is wanting to create. After playing every single track from Golden Hour, it once again reaffirmed the strength of the album that there are no fillers; every song on the album is there for a reason and thus holds enough legs to be played live. Equally, with classics such as ‘Merry Go ‘Round’, and ‘Keep it to Yourself’ being paraded in their traditional fashion, it is clear Musgraves is still acknowledging her roots whilst simultaneously following in the new direction in which her arrow points. The setlist also brought some welcome surprises such as covers of *NSYNC and Brooks & Dunn, both performed as if they were taken straight from her latest album.
Nonetheless, I could write for hours upon end in praise of both Musgraves’ discography and the show’s ability to bring it to life, but I should probably wrap it up. Having been a fan of her work since her first album, my expectation leading up to the show was through the roof, but equally alongside that came the natural caution of being even ever so slightly underwhelmed. To be frank, even if my fears had come to fruition, it would have not taken away from the sheer distinction of Golden Hour. Musgraves will continue to remain one of my favourite artists of all time and whatever direction she takes next, I’ll be there for it.