ROUTES & BRANCHES
a home for the americana diaspora
July 11, 2015
Mainstream media types are touting Kacey Musgraves as a gutsy antidote to what passes for today's mainstream country. Bottom line as I see it: Musgraves' apple doesn't really fall too far from that mainstream tree. More about her new Pageant Material record below. For now, just know that the knowledge and awareness of those media types can be pretty limited. They need only cast their radar a bit wider to discover smart, articulate female country artists like Jamie Lin Wilson or the Honeycutters' Amanda Anne Platt who aren't on those Big Labels, but who are truly among the iconoclasts of their sort of music.
I first admired the work of Jamie Lin Wilson during her stint as the co-frontperson of the Sidehill Gougers, soon to be abbreviated to just the Gougers. She later earned a buzz with Kelley Mickwee and Savannah Welch as a Trisha. Holidays & Wedding Rings is the first full length to present Wilson as a solo artist, and the first that really shines a light on her as an deserving writer. Where mainstream country often cruises on clever turns of phrase and sly lyrical winks, Wilson's best songs take the long way 'round. Her duet with Wade Bowen, "Just Some Things" is as plain and as sturdy as a big red barn, nothing boastful or fancy but iconic in its eloquence. Her cowriters are champions of that same plainspoken lyricism, folks like Jon Dee Graham, Owen Temple and Adam Hood. Wilson's voice brings to mind singers who demonstrate an effortless soul such as Tift Merritt or even Linda Williams' homespun mastery (of Robin & Linda fame).
Writer Amanda Anne Platt plies her trade beneath the Honeycutters marquee. Songs from Me Oh My, that North Carolina outfit's third full length, are built around musical hooks that would make a more veteran artist jealous. The opening track, "Jukebox" allows Platt to showcase her versatile voice perfectly paired with Matt Smith's pedal steel. There's certainly more of a full band focus on Me Oh My, which compliments Platt's bolder delivery. The Honeycutters inject their country with flashes of 'grass and honky tonk, with tasteful touches of piano, mandolin or even trumpet. The proof lies in Platt's slower tunes like "Texas '81" or the sweet title cut. Without the support of a driving rhythm or bright instrumentation, she stands alone relying solely on her confidence and ability as a writer and singer.
And the good news is that there's nothing wrong at all with the one that's garnering all the attention. On her sophomore release, Kacey Musgraves is a masterful writer who knows exactly what musical buttons she's pushing. The quasi-rap moments, the litany of more-country-than-thou ingredients, those disarmingly clever turn of phrase that hold up entire songs. Musgraves even knows when to drop a sly reference to weed or tolerance of alternative lifestyles, the stuff that largely defines her as an edgy fringe dweller in the uber-conservative bubble that mainstream country has become. It's exactly this wily poking of the beloved mainstream box that identifies her as a really good writer. Beyond that, Pageant Material impresses with its overall ease of delivery. Where chart humping acts like Florida Georgia Line or Eric Church (who I do respect as a writer) rely on the flash and boom of over-the-top production and desperate performance, Kacey Musgraves comes across as supremely confident and even relaxed, never in a hurry to drop her chorus or push the needle beyond the red.
I'd hazard a guess that the genre's legends like Loretta, Tammy or Dolly would cast their votes with Wilson, Platt or even Musgraves as successors to their awesome lineage before acknowledging the work of country "crossover" successes like Taylor Swift or Miranda Lambert. As you might have recognized, I'm no purist. I appreciate irreverence as much as the next music snob, but acts like Sturgill Simpson or Chris Stapleton can challenge the country traditions without absolutely making a mockery of it. As a pretentious and opinionated blogger, I would challenge reviewers with 100 times my audience to do their job and extend their collective awareness to encompass truly deserving artists like Jamie Lin Wilson and Amanda Anne Platt. Let's not pretend that our best and brightest artists are the ones who rise to the lofty levels of popular awareness upon piles of promotional money and Big Label boostering.
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