A decade after she had to convince her label that her choice of a first single wasn’t far too depressing and slow — and despite a baffling, ongoing lack of support from radio (country or otherwise) since — Kacey Musgraves has become a superstar capable of selling out arenas by simply being her sweet, weird and quirky self.
The 33-year-old singer/songwriter’s open-hearted invitation to always “follow your arrow” helped her draw a remarkably diverse crowd on Feb. 5 to New York’s Madison Square Garden: groups of 30-something women in pink cowboy hats and winter-defying club attire, gay couples holding hands and singing along with every word and regular middle-aged folks who connect deeply with Musgraves’ soul-baring chronicles of love and relationships. The audience received special light-up bracelets that changed colors from song to song, adding a further element of “we’re all in this together” camaraderie to the 90-minute set.
Musgraves’ fourth and latest album, “Star-Crossed,” is a musical journey through her marriage to and eventual divorce from fellow musician Ruston Kelly. On record, this triptych is artfully rendered and articulated, but should probably come with a warning label for those with wounded hearts. Luckily, any reservations about how the material would translate in an arena setting were quickly dashed on “Good Wife” and “Cherry Blossom,” with Musgraves’ undeniable pop hooks soothing the conundrums of incompatibility and fickle partners. “This album is so fuckin’ depressing, but we can be sad together,” she said, and on this night, sadness never seemed quite so fun.
Resplendent with her hip-length brown hair, blue tube dress and matching thigh-high boots as she traversed the heart-shaped stage, Musgraves was equally at home being vulnerable, silly, wistful and in the mood to party. “Simple Times” found her longing for the bygone, pre-adult days of putting on lip gloss, hanging out at the mall and talking on the phone for hours, while “Camera Roll” downloaded simple wisdom from those ill-advised trips down the digital memory lane: “Chronological order and nothing but torture / I don’t wanna see ‘em, but I can’t delete ‘em.”
Following the “Star-Crossed” ear-worm “Breadwinner,” a block of four songs from 2018’s Grammy album of the year “Golden Hour” heightened the energy, culminating in a big, electric guitar finish on the modern-day disco jam “High Horse.” “The energy in here is amazing,” Musgraves said afterwards. She jokingly introduced the acoustic “Hookup Scene” as a “traditional gospel song about hooking up” and quizzed the crowd, “Who right now is in their ‘ho’ phase? We’re gonna get on Grindr to make sure.”
Musgraves was alone on the stage with an acoustic guitar to play that aforementioned 2012 debut single, “Merry Go Round,” an evocative snapshot of small-town malaise: “Mama’s hooked on Mary Kay / Brother’s hooked on Mary Jane / Daddy’s hooked on Mary two doors down.” On this song about trailer parks and lives spent spinning into nothingness, Musgraves saw no need to sugar-coat. “I know we have some day one-ers in this room,” she said, saluting the fans that have been with her since the beginning. “Thanks for embracing all the chapters since this one.”
As an outspoken Texan female raised on country music but held at arm’s length by some elements of the country establishment, Musgraves in many ways recalls Dolly Parton in her dogged dedication to telling it like it is and her willingness to experiment with both genre and storytelling techniques. It was a thrill, then, that Musgraves covered Dolly’s iconic “9 to 5” as part of the nightly “Kacey-oke” segment, where she chooses a random audience member to then select a cover for the band to perform from a list written on a Torah-esque scroll. The lyrics dutifully appeared on the giant screen, turning the arena into one big happy-hour singalong.
Near the end of the main set, “Justified,” which went top 10 last year at the adult-alternative radio format, was perhaps the best example of Musgraves’ ability to blend relatable lessons from her own life with melodies that get stuck in your brain for weeks. The versatility of her seven-piece band was on further display during the Madonna-esque “There Is a Light,” which featured a bad-ass flute solo from Benjamin Jaffe amid arena-enveloping lasers and a shower of confetti.
By now, there was a palpable glow in the room, and “Golden Hour’ standouts “Slow Burn” and “Rainbow” closed the evening with some final notes of solace. The crowd sang along particularly loudly on the latter, connecting both with its solidarity to the LGBTQ community and its comfort for those with more on their emotional plate than they may be able to handle. “I hope this is the first of many sold-out Madison Square Garden shows,” Musgraves said before leaving the stage. We sure do too.
Here is Kacey Musgraves’ set list:
“Merry Go Round”
“9 to 5”
“There Is a Light”
“Gracias a la vida”