Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Kacey Musgraves and Ashland Craft

Kacey Musgraves – Star-Crossed

Kacey Musgraves’ last album Golden Hour was all about finding love (‘a wild thing’) and appreciating life (‘let go of your umbrella’). Now divorced from Ruston Kelly, her fourth album is full of songs about losing that love. The record comes with a film which puts Kacey alongside the likes of Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Beyonce and (surely) Lizzo and Ed Sheeran.

But none of those acts would take psilocybin to help zap their neural pathways into forming new thoughts. Kacey, like Dolly before her, is starting to become her own genre, with a sort of cosmic American music thanks to co-producers Dan Tashian and Ian Fitchuk who can get the best out of her voice. It’s very difficult not to hear this album as Music Industry A-Lister Sounds Sad.

We have nylon-stringed acoustic pattens on the title track, which begins with Kacey setting the scene: ‘Two lovers ripped right at the seams/ They woke up from the perfect dream’. The middle section piles voice upon voice to create a cavalcade of woe. Melancholy reigns on If This Was A Movie (‘I’d be surprised hearing your car coming up the drive’), Camera Roll (‘chronological order and nothing but torture’ is a good rhyme) and Angel, where the soft acoustic guitar from the title track returns.

Easier Said contains the ever poignant diminished fifth chord (F minor in the key of B-flat) where Kacey lingers on the art of love, which many divorcees will find comfort in. It segues effortlessly into Hookup Scene, a song with minimal production trickery and all the better to transfer the starkness of the emotions of a woman warning the listener to hold love close, lest you end up sleeping around and feeling even more lonely.

Being grown-up, sings Kacey on the majestic Swift-like Simple Things, ‘kinda sucks’, which has the same percussive drive as tracks like Golden Hour or Love Is A Wild Thing, proving a musical continuity with the last album which gained her millions of pop fans. I hope Kacey gets her due as a songwriter and melodist, as this one is watertight. As is the album’s single Justified, with its ‘just a little justified’ lyrical hook.

Breadwinner is driven by a percussive guitar part, over which Kacey warns that certain boys want ‘your dinner till he ain’t hungry any more’ (Dolly could have written that line). Without the brilliant melodies the songs would sound angry but there’s some sugar in her scorn.

Good Wife is a majestic melody with some patented Tashian 7th chords sitting underneath a lyric about uxoriousness. Cherry Blossom double- or triple-tracks her vocals and adds some pentatonic touches to allude musically to Japan. This would work as an acoustic track but lashings of contemporary production give it warmth. This is the ‘in love’ phase of the album, tinged with the melancholic wish of Kacey singing ‘don’t let me blow away’.

The final tracks on the album are full of hope and optimism; it’s almost a joke to hear the fingerclicks and jaunty major key of Keep Lookin’ Up. Ditto the self-referential What Doesn’t Kill Me, where the ‘golden hour faded black’ and where a bright guitar and percussive beat try to pick Kacey up by musical osmosis. She continues, on the next track, ‘There is a light inside of me’, where the production recalls High Horse’s cosmic disco. I imagine this will work well live, especially with the flute solo (Ron Burgundy? Lizzo? The guy from Jethro Tull?). It’s also the sound of a confident artist whose record label realised that it’s probably wise to push her to a pop market (via Interscope) as well as a country one (she is still signed to MCA Nashville).

The album, which recalls Red by Taylor Swift in its defiant push beyond Nashville, ends with Gracias A La Vida, a folk song written in 1960s Chine by Violeta Parra, who killed herself soon after it was released. Initially sung in Spanish, like an old Tejano melody, over crackling vinyl, before different production choices mark each section of the song and becoming more emphatic. Having started with analogue production, we have a heavily treated vocal line to end the song and ground it in the digital era. It’s probably a sonic metaphor of how time passes, and it’s a fine interpretation of what I am sure will also be a concert staple. If nothing else, this is an interesting piece of work.

Ashland Craft – Travelin Kind

I first heard Ashland on the duet So Close with Hardy and admired her EP which included Two Wildflowers and a Box of Wine. I don’t know why the EP was released before the album but I trust Big Loud in how they roll out their artists (even when they are forced to suspend them when they realise their cash cow is an alcoholic who needs careful handling).

One of the live performance videos to promote the album was of the final track That’s The Kinda Place (‘I grew up in’), a shoutout to smalltown life written with producer Jonathan Singleton and the brilliant Rodney Clawson: ‘The place you fall out of love and back in love with’ is a whole album in itself.

Ashland’s voice can be filed with that of Ashley McBryde, a Southern rock vocal which suits piledriving guitar parts. She takes old tropes familiar to the genre, as you can tell from the title track which will surely open her live show. Fab blues harmonica underscores what may well be Ashland’s life in a song. On Make It Past Georgia, she’s fleeing an ex who likes to drink and can’t ‘get his shit together’. The boot is on the other foot as she shows her love for a cowboy by ‘letting you go’ on Letcha Fly because ‘you can’t rope an Always Gonna Go When The Wind Blows cowboy like you’.

She continues common country themes with reference to parentage on Your Momma Still Does, to drinking on both the fun honky-tonker Last 20 Dollars (‘plastic maxed to the limit’) and the midtempo Mimosas In The Morning (which revolves around a drunken escapade) and heartache, of which there are plentiful examples. The fiddle-ful Leavin You Again reminds me of the country-rock that Sheryl Crow was recording in the late 1990s. Marcus King, who also features on the upcoming Zac Brown Band album, joins Ashland for Highway Like Me, a triple-time ballad full of heartache on which Ashland compares herself to a road being driven on. Jessi Alexander, a common writers room occupant, helps Ashland here.

Day By Day begins with a man who ‘jumped ship’ who causes the protagonist more heartache and into the arms of a stranger ‘to make the bad feel a little better’. The vocal carries the song and the production from top songwriter Singleton is perfect on this track and throughout the album. Great voice, great style and worthy of your time.

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