What polar vortex? Country star's warm crossover tunes exude springtime
A polar vortex might have turned Columbus into a frozen hellscape overnight, but it could have passed for a spring day inside a sold-out Express Live on Tuesday, with Kacey Musgraves singing of fluttering butterflies, walks among wildflowers and blue oceans filled with neon-glowing creatures.
Presenting herself as an eternal optimist — “Sometimes it feels like humans are horrible, but I know we’re not,” she said remarking on the current political and social climate — Musgraves largely avoided any external chill, offering up patient, golden-hued songs shaped by small-town life and grown-up love.
With each successive record, including Golden Hour, from 2018, Musgraves has expanded upon her sonic palette, sharpened her songwriting and grown her audience, which took pleasure in belting out the words in those moments when the singer turned over her microphone, such as on “Merry Go ’Round.” Critics have responded, too, with Golden Hour landing near the top of numerous year-end polls, as well as earning four Grammy nods, including Album of the Year.
Backed by a six-piece band, Musgraves kicked things off with a tone-setting “Slow Burn,” on which she dropped lines about taking time to smell the flowers atop a musical backdrop that evoked a garden gradually awakening to the sun.
While some country stars make a giant splash in going pop, Musgraves managed to leave barely a ripple in making the conversion. On songs like “Butterflies,” she effortlessly melded country instrumentation with atmospheric electronics, the slight banjo rising in the chorus serving to remind of the singer's country roots. On “Happy & Sad,” electric drums walked hand-in-hand with pedal steel, the irrepressible thump of the former and melancholy sigh of the latter neatly mirroring the song’s title.
More impressively, a mid-set “acoustic” turn, on which the seven musicians huddled together as though around a campfire, blended rootsy heel-tappers like “Family Is Family” with more mystical recent turns like “Oh, What a World,” a widescreen wonder on record tapered down into a mossy field recording of plucky strings and wood shop percussion here.
Early in Musgraves’ writing career, she could occasionally lean too hard into hokey wordplay. (See: “Biscuits” and its central line, “Mind your biscuits and life will be gravy,” which reads like something one might find cross-stitched onto a pillow in their great aunt’s house.) On Golden Hour, though, Musgraves dials it back enough that these occasional grammatical Easter eggs connect. Such was the case on a stately “Space Cowboy,” where Musgraves offered a kiss-off to a Chevy-driving ex, singing, “You can have your space, cowboy,” which is also damn fine comma placement.
Of course, Musgraves maintained a bit of her cheekiness in following the song with a cover of Gloria Gaynor’s timeless disco anthem “I Will Survive,” which included the line, “And so now you’re back from outer space,” helping it play like a rejoinder to the space cowboy she’d kicked to the curb just one song earlier.
In introducing “Follow Your Arrow,” arguably her breakout song, Musgraves noted the country genre can sometimes struggle to cast a wider net. “I know country music isn’t always the most inclusive environment,” she said. But in gliding between small-town country send-ups and more velvety, shimmying pop diamonds, Musgraves has managed to grow at least her little corner of the world in subtle and, yes, wonderful ways.