Country music has suffered recently for not putting enough women on the radio, or in concert halls. But there is no shortage of talented and able ladies who could lead the field in the coming years.
FloydFest, of all places, featured two of them on Sunday, the festival’s final day.
Now, don’t think I’ve lost all my memory. FloydFest has always been a place for both women and country music’s kissing cousins, bluegrass and Americana. But Kacey Musgraves and Margo Price, one after the other, at the main stage? That was a cool move.
And it worked. Musgrave, a critical and commercial darling whose latest release, “Golden Hour,” won Grammy Awards for Album of the Year and Country Album of the Year, packed the field facing the main stage with a crowd that knew her lyrics and sang them loudly. Price, who has established herself as a rising honky-tonk queen, represented well the genre’s rowdier tradition, and her crowd responded in kind.
Musgraves’ commercial wheelhouse leans more pop, though the lyrics are definitely country-style, with plenty of nods to what it’s like to be young today. In the mid-tempo set-opener, “Slow Burn,” she sang that “Grandma cried when I pierced my nose,” but still, she is determined to do it her way. On “Wonder Woman,” she sang that she didn’t know how to “lasso the love” out of her paramour.
“I can already tell you guys are having a great time, by the smell of it,” Musgraves said, referencing the burning sweet leaf on the grounds. “That’s OK. Let’s get weird.”
She encouraged audience members to greet the person on each side of them, then raise a couple of middle fingers in the air, before going on with the show.
A few songs later, she hit her first big singalong, “Merry Go Round,” which contains the title words of her breakthrough album, “Same Trailer Different Park.” The number featured a modern classic lyric in the verse: “Mama’s hooked on Mary Kay/Brother’s hooked on Mary Jane/Daddy’s hooked on Mary two doors down.” But it was the chorus that brought out the crowd’s vocalese: “Mary Mary quite contrary/We’re so bored until we’re buried/And just like dust we settle in this town/On this broken merry go-round.”
Musgraves has the personal style and near-fragile, sweet charisma to hold a crowd. It took until about a third of the way through, though, to get to this writer, musically. “High Time,” where Hawaii’an steel guitar met a Latin-leaning groove with a dose of tremolo-bobbing electric guitar, was the first hint that her music going forward in the set would not be monotonous
“Is somebody gonna pass me somethin’ or what,” the 420-friendly singer said to the crowd after that one, getting a mixture of laughter and cheers. From there, she launched “Golden Hour,” during Sunday’s actual golden hour. Nice timing. The love song highlighted a voice that, though limited in range, has a pretty quality not too different in tone from Alison Krauss.
Her band was a versatile six-piece unit that could flavor songs with banjo, cello, bowed upright bass, spoons and whistling. The whistles came from both Musgraves and bassist Adam Keafer. The group provided every color and harmony she needed on songs that often sounded much more traditional, such as “Family Is Family” — in Musgraves’ estimation, that means whether “in church or prison.”
“Velvet Elvis” was a rocker. The cut-time country of early hit “Follow Your Arrow,” with its message of acceptance, got another singalong. “Just because you can’t beat ‘em don’t mean you should join ‘em,” she advised.
She broke out a gay pride flag for her set closer, “High Horse,” about the know-it-all who thinks he won when he really hasn’t. It was a country show that, despite its national heat, maybe isn’t a show for traditional, more conservative, country audiences. Up on the mountain at FloydFest, the crowd loved it.
Price, whose sound was more consistently vintage than Musgraves,’ was equally open to the greener side of life.
“Happy 420 everybody,” she said at 4:19 p.m. Later, she estimated that the festival site was “a real nice place to take psychedelics, if you’re into that sort of thing.” Paired with Musgraves’ story about writing a song for her mother after “trippin’ on my porch,” these two showed little use for fitting a particular country music image.
“Hands of Time,” “Tennessee Song” and “Four Years of Chances” made it onto the set list from her “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter” days. She leaned more heavily on material for her latest record, “All American Made” — performing “A Little Pain,” “Cocaine Cowboys” and “Do Right By Me.” The title cut was a highlight, with Price onstage alone, playing a Wurlitzer electric piano to accompany herself on a song that included the lyric “I wonder how the president sleeps at night.”
Musically, things were cooking with her band, as well. Keys, guitars, drums and bass fueled the country soul and rock that populated much of Price’s music. The group included her husband, Jeremy Ivey, to whom Price gave spotlight on his song, “All Kinds of Blue,” with her tight harmony help.
Price has just a killer voice, but it’s hard to say whether she’ll reach the commercial heights that Musgrave has so far, because her music doesn’t incorporate any contemporary pop elements, even if it’s lyrically as intriguing. Fortunately, Musgraves’ songs weren’t overrun with pop, and hearing them was a great way to spend any Sunday, including the final day of FloydFest 19 Voyage Home.
Price went on to sing a couple of numbers with Lukas Nelson, who with his band, Promise of The Real, closed the Hill Holler for the year. Their time onstage together included Nelson’s powerful original, “Find Yourself.” Later, Nelson and his band would burn through one of the best versions of Neil Young’s “Cortez The Killer” that I’ve ever heard. I guess all that recent time being Young’s backing band has given Promise of the Real the vibe to make something exciting out of an oft-covered number.
As I write this, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe is closing the festival. I’ll head that way for the last of that show and say so long from FloydFest. The weather has been as close to perfect as it gets up here, even if a bit cold at night. The musical lineup has been as diverse and intriguing as usual.
The bar for next year’s festival has just been set very high. I’m excited to see if the FloydFest crew can top it.