If there's but one certainty at this point in the 2013 musical calendar, it's that Kacey Musgraves' Same Trailer, Different Park will end up on more year-end best album lists than just about any other artist, irrespective of genre. Which raises an interesting question: To what genre does Musgraves belong?
It's not a trivial query, for the relationship between Americana music and mainstream Nashville fare is a contentious one, and few artists are able to credibly straddle the fault line. Seeing Musgraves seated next to Taylor Swift during the June 5 CMT Awards undoubtedly made purists cringe, while those with a stake in her commercial viability rejoiced. And Musgraves' current presence as a supporting act for and duet partner ("Come Over") of Kenny Chesney, owner of perhaps the biggest asshole fan base in all of country music, certainly won't curry any favor with the traditionalist set. Then there's the fact that she was once a contestant on Nashville Star, hardly emblematic of an organic road to stardom.
But forget about all that, and listen to her latest album. It's fantastic, ranking up there with Jason Isbell's Southeastern as among the best down-home releases of the year. Absent the sort of production theatrics you'll find on the records of her tartier female contemporaries, it bespeaks an artist who puts her music--and only her music--out front. And, cute as Musgraves is, she hardly has to hide behind it.
Musgraves and a pair of writing partners (including Brandy Clark) penned a mega-hit this year for Miranda Lambert entitled "Mama's Broken Heart." Musgraves and Lambert grew up together in rural Texas, and the latter admits to begging the former for permission to cut the tune (Musgraves sings backup on it). When mainstream Nashville is asked to hold up evidence of the fact that it's capable of churning out successful-yet-grounded music, Lambert's typically Exhibit A, brandishing her traditional credibility with her Pistol Annies side venture.
Yet, talented as she is, there's something naggingly packaged about Lambert, also a former Nashville Star contestant. She works the "crazy" schtick a little too hard for it to be much more than a self-aware branding ploy; her marriage to Blake Shelton is tabloid fodder; she enlists the likes of Danica Patrick for her videos; and anyone who's ever listened to Tres Chicas must realize that the Annies owe them more than a small debt of gratitude. While Musgraves is an example of that rare artist who can leapfrog from Nashville to Austin and back again, Lambert's failure to find her footing on such elusive turf proves how difficult it is to have your ribs and smoke them too in the fickle roots-music realm.