Rising up at a time when mainstream country radio sadly overemphasized uninspiring bro-country, Kacey Musgraves blew in like a breath of fresh air with her 2013 breakthrough single “Follow Your Arrow.” Gifted with an angelic soprano voice and willing to write lyrics that challenged preconceptions of country audiences, Musgraves was a star right out of the gate.
On this year’s “Golden Hour,” her third album, Musgraves continues to push the boundaries of country, to the point where she might actually best be considered a pop artist. Dipping into dance grooves at times and consistently stressing a strong melody over any obligatory twang, she seems more akin to singer-songwriters such as Brandi Carlile or Shawn Colvin at this point. And that’s very much to her credit.
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Ultimately, of course, it doesn’t really matter what you call it. The fans who packed out her second “Austin City Limits” taping at ACL Live on Wednesday night simply know that they like it. Focusing on material from “Golden Hour” — 10 of the show’s 16 songs came from the new album, including the first six she played — Musgraves charmed the crowd with her radiant singing and an easygoing personality.
That personality is how she still connects most directly with country audiences. Musgraves talked about growing up in small-town East Texas, growing more animated when she spoke of living in Austin for a short time a decade ago before moving to Nashville. She talked about living on the north side near MoPac and 183, paying her dues working for a local booking agency: “I had to do the whole back end of the thing, and now I’m on the other side of the curtain.”
It’s pretty clear Musgraves loves this side of the curtain, given how she plays up her image as a performer. A silver-sequin saddle gleamed and twirled slowly high above the stage, and she joked about the way she’d prepared herself for the cameras: “I don’t know if you noticed, but I put my hair up extra high for y’all.” Mid-set, as her band played a brief instrumental prelude to “High Time” (from 2015’s “Pageant Material”), she even had a couple of handlers come out and give her a makeup and hairspray touch-up.
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None of that would work without the music, though, and Musgraves consistently delivers. Backed by six excellent musicians who fleshed out guitar-bass-drums basics with banjo, pedal steel, cello and keyboards, she made new songs such as “Slow Burn,” “Lonely Weekend” and “Golden Hour” sparkle and shine. Reaching back to her first album, she let the crowd sing the final verse of “Follow Your Arrow,” and opened her encore with a moving solo rendition of “Merry Go Round.” A cover of Brooks & Dunn’s “Neon Moon” followed and didn’t quite hit the mark, but she closed strong with “High Horse,” the most upbeat number on the new album and one that gave her a chance to break out some sweet dance moves at the end.
This is TV, and artists who tape “Austin City Limits” always have the option of redoing songs they weren’t quite sure about the first time around, though it doesn’t happen very often. (I’d say about 15 percent of the time, judging from events I’ve attended.) Musgraves felt a need to revisit three numbers, which may pay off on the broadcast when it airs, but it felt somewhat anticlimactic in-person, partly because “High Horse” had been such a great closing moment. Some folks left after that, and probably just as well; retakes of “Love Is a Wild Thing,” “Family Is Family” and “High Horse” didn’t sound noticeably better the second time around, from my vantage point.
1. Slow Burn
3. Love Is a Wild Thing
4. Velvet Elvis
5. Golden Hour
6. Happy and Sad
7. Keep It to Yourself
8. Lonely Weekend
9. High Time
10. Family Is Family
11. Follow Your Arrow
12. Space Cowboy
14. Merry Go Round
15. Neon Moon
16. High Horse
Love Is a Wild Thing
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