Like porcelain, Kacey Musgraves’s voice seems both sturdy and delicate at the same time. She can bowl you over belting out big notes, but she’s every bit as commanding at a whisper. Listening to her best songs — “Follow Your Arrow,” “Merry Go ’Round,” “Miserable” — feels like eavesdropping on a group of talented friends in a porch-front jam. Musgraves and her band make quiet, pretty country music, the kind that critics like to call “breezy,” because songs rely as much on the band’s beautiful notes as the open spaces between them. The loudest moment in Musgraves’s performance of the new song “Slow Burn” last night on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert arrived when the pianist plucked out a string of sparse notes over the second verse. By the time the drummer showed up, there were seven people playing onstage, but the mix was still so gossamer that a cough from the audience could’ve broken it up.
Somehow this tiny, impactful singer registers as something of a weirdo around the Nashville mainstream-country scene. It’s a demure and conservative community, the kind that gasps at a low-cut neckline on an award-show red carpet and rattles sabers all night when Beyoncé and the Dixie Chicks sing a song together on national television. Musgraves is an outlier because her politics are open, loving, and free. She lives for pot and neon and Nudie suits, and she took a big risk by making a big deal about LGBTQ rights on 2013’s “Follow Your Arrow.” (Nashville is so straight-presenting that Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush,” a song about a woman so jealous of a guy’s girlfriend she maybe wants to live inside her body, could be celebrated as a groundbreaking queer anthem. Kacey, the lesbian singer-songwriter Brandy Clark, and the gay hit-maker Shane McAnally’s lyric about kissing girls and boys blew more than a few hats back.)
That means her singles don’t do well on country radio, the kind of place where women’s contributions are referred to by radio consultants as “tomatoes in a salad” where the men are lettuce. Pair country radio’s reticence to even play songs by women — an honest heresy when you think about guys in any other genre daring to declare the same — with its secret sexual-harassment problem, and the hell these singers catch from genre purists for angling for shine from collaborations outside Music Row (while men like Sam Hunt and Florida Georgia Line rack up country airplay No. 1’s for playing the Travis Tritt right above the Tupac), and you get an impasse. Nashville wants its women to stay loyal but refuses to pay it forward.