Country music is cool again, y’hear?
Why country music’s getting a cool-girl makeover.
The weekend after Beyoncé hung up her denim shorts at Coachella, teeny sunglasses and pink-hued braids were quickly replaced by American flag bikinis and (genuine) cowboy hats, at the festival’s country music equivalent, Stagecoach. Headlined by the likes of Keith Urban and Garth Brooks, Coachella’s little sister – dedicated to country, bluegrass and roots – is gaining a following of its own, just with a decidedly less zealous approach to an Instagram content plan.
Back home, the Tamworth Country Music Festival rates as the largest music festival of any genre in the Southern Hemisphere, with approximately 700 acts drawing more than 50,000 visitors over 10 days (that’s almost double the tickets sold to last year’s Splendour In The Grass 2017).
On Spotify, the “Hot Country” playlist is the fifth most popular on the platform, with almost 4.8 million followers, and country favourite Tim Mcgraw has more subscribers than Kelly Rowland and Solange combined. Even bona fide pop queen Kylie Minogue went full country for her latest album, Golden. Next year, Netflix will premiere an eight-part series adapted from songs in Dolly Parton’s back catalogue, each episode based on a classic hit.
While we’re quivering in our glitter boots to see “Jolene” brought to life, it’s the genre’s new guard that’s worth paying attention to. With her Lgbtqi-friendly stance and a penchant for a joint,
29-year-old singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves is carving out a fresh and decidedly woke approach to being a country act in
2018 – and rocking an iridescent rainbow Rosie Assoulin dress on stage, no less.
Musgraves’ sound doesn’t just have a niche Deep South following: her 2013 debut album Same Trailer Different Park earned huge critical acclaim and won her two Grammys, and her second, Pageant Material, peaked at number
3 on the US Billboard 200 chart. Back in February, music website Stereogum – that usually sings the praises of SZA and Vince Staples – posited that her track“space Cowboy” “may be 2018’s best song so far”.
Born and bred in Texas, Musgraves grew up with artists like Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson on nearconstant rotation, “singing really traditional country and western; wearing all the prints and the cowboy hats”. It’s an aesthetic she acknowledges people haven’t always been proud to have. “Most modern country musicians try to be ‘not country’.” In her teen years, she says, “I felt like it was super lame. None of my friends understood it; I was embarrassed to sing it in front of them. It wasn’t until I started writing songs that I dipped into the country and western I used to be embarrassed by, and fell in love with the craft of writing and telling my story.”
While there’s still a firmly conservative contingent of country music fans, a lot has changed in the decade and a half since Dixie Chicks-gate – earlier this year former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (who is pro-nra, and once claimed same-sex marriage was akin to incest) stood down just a day after being appointed to the board of the Country Music Association Foundation, after many in the industry – including Musgraves’ manager Jason Owen – voiced their anger over the appointment.
“I love the country crowd, but I’m not scared of them,” says Musgraves. “I’m always gonna do what I feel is best for me, and whoever wants to come on board for that is appreciated. No-one’s always going to agree with everything I say – and likewise. But that’s OK.”
Of her most recent album, Golden Hour (recorded at Sheryl Crow’s Nashville studio-cumstables), Musgraves says: “I don’t need to just make a random pop album for no reason. It was important when making this record to not disguise or hide my character and my spirit – keeping that country sound I have, while playing with new, more futuristic ones, like synths.”
“You can put this record on at 2am and just let it flow by,” says Musgraves. “It doesn’t make you think too hard, but the lyrics mean a lot,” which – whether dressed in trusty plaid or rainbow Rosie Assoulin – is perhaps the purest joy of country music.
“MOST MODERN COUNTRY MUSICIANS TRY TO BE ‘NOT COUNTRY’”