Kacey Musgraves’ ACL Concert Was A Beautiful Reminder That For Those Born There, Texas Is Forever

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If you spend enough time in Texas, it’s easy to see why everyone who lives here is so obsessed with living here. It’s the kind of place where, if you and your friend are sitting on a picnic table outside the venue doors, sweat dripping down the plastic cups of your $14 gin and tonics, the nice couple sitting next to you will actually talk to you. They’ll tell you about how their daughters love Kacey Musgraves, how they stopped and bought Pageant Material on a driving trip down to South Padre Island, how they’ve been living in Austin forever and are so thankful for the twist of fate that brought them, after so many times entering the Austin City Limits ticket giveaway lottery, to see Kacey tape her ACL TV special tonight.

Texans talk. There’s a natural congeniality that Texans share at every large group function. You get used to it after living here long enough, but it always surprises visitors. I was offered a stick of gum in the pit at one punk show, and a teen at another handed me a $20 after he accidentally knocked a bottle of Topo Chico out of my hand. Lines at doors feel like a family reunion, because after a while, you start recognizing the same faces at all those gigs. And even if the line is full of strangers, it somehow still feels like catching up with old friends — a bit like a small town, even within a big city.

The atmosphere at the Moody Theater was different last Wednesday night. I’d been to the venue quite a few times, since the Moody hosts regular concerts in addition to broadcast tapings. But walking in a half hour after doors opened, there was a long line of campers outside, sitting in those foldable cloth chairs that dads bring to their kids’ softball games or to listen to The War on Drugs super far away at music festivals.

Upstairs and inside the venue, everyone was buzzing, milling about, always talking, not sure where to go. My friend and I almost stood in the wrong line to buy bottles of water. We tripped up the stairs finding our seats. I heard some people behind me say the stage looked beautiful, they’d never been here before. I’d only seen the Austin City Limits mural from the TV before, and being there in person was a little surreal. I told my friend that — by extension, also telling it to everyone sitting around me.

Like so many of us, Kacey Musgraves is also a little bit obsessed with Texas. Same Trailer, Different Park and Pageant Material, especially, are informed by her experiences growing up in a small town in east Texas. Songs like “Merry Go Round,” a melancholy ode to small-town complacency, and “This Town,” about that specific brand of Texas gossip, might paint Musgraves as kind of a prodigal daughter. She’s the girl who “made it all the way past Austin City Limits,” got out of her small town, moved to Nashville and became one of its brightest stars.

But Texas is home.

Just as we were all giddy at the opportunity to see her do this taping, Musgraves was excited to be back in the city she lived in for a while, in the state that is her whole heart, singing and talking about us, to us. When she got on stage, Musgraves mentioned how she did her hair extra tall in honor of Texas. (I was reminded of that lyric in “Pageant Material,” “I’m always higher than my hair” and laughed, along with probably half the audience.)

The cameras, stationed around the stage where the stage barricade is usually set up, glided around Musgraves and her band. A lucky few audience members got to stand right by the cameras and right in front of Musgraves, and the rest of us filled the mezzanine and balcony, which still offered incredible views of the brightly lit, open stage. The cameras didn’t feel intrusive; they just made the show seem bigger and even more special. ACL has a pretty strict no-phones policy during its tapings, and it was almost freeing to know that the moment was being documented in full. My iPhone couldn’t have done it justice, anyway.

Musgraves has a gorgeous voice and incredible stage presence, but she’s also incredibly funny and a great storyteller, in both her lyrics and her audience banter. She introduced most of the songs on the setlist with a few sentences about her inspiration for the songs or any relevant anecdotes. At one point, she mentioned that she actually used to live in Austin, far away from the nightlife downtown and the booking agency where she worked as a receptionist.

Looking at Musgraves, poised and naturally funny, glamorous with her giant hair and sequined dress, it’s impossible to imagine a time when she “didn’t know what she was doing.” She didn’t start in Austin, and she didn’t stay there, but the skyline projected behind her holds some memories for her, too.

Musgraves introduced “Family Is Family,” a full-band stomper and one of the highlights of the set, by shouting out her hometown of Golden, Texas. It’s a setting familiar to any fans of her music, showing up either as a contrast to her own rebellious spirit or the subject of admiration. Musgraves writes about Golden as specifically a product of Texas culture, but also recognizable to anyone from a small town.

“I went to high school in Mineola,” Musgraves said, and the audience cheered. “Don’t cheer for Mineola!,” she joked. “I’m kidding. I love where I’m from.” The playful lyrics of “Family Is Family” were warmed by her introduction. The arrangement was rich, different from its recording on Pageant Material, with an especially killer pedal steel. Musgraves played the song twice, to get it perfect “for the television,” and though I didn’t hear any imperfections in the first go-around, I was thankful for the treat of hearing it again.

Texas has a reputation among people who haven’t spent much time there. It’s supposedly stuck in its ways, stifling and regressive. Maybe it’s like that sometimes. Some of Musgraves’ songs — especially the performance of “Merry Go Round” she gave alone onstage, accompanied by only her guitar — echoed the specific kind of lonely that it feels to be different in a place that’s run on tradition and sameness.

But Musgraves also recognizes the community of all those talking Texans, and how beautiful it is when all those voices join together for good. “Follow Your Arrow” is a song that always gives me chills, but hearing Musgraves perform it live, tipping the microphone back into the crowd to trade lines in the chorus (“Make lots of noise / And kiss lots of boys / Or kiss lots of girls / If that’s something you’re into”) made me especially emotional. I’ve seen Musgraves perform that song live a few times now, but the audience never sounded louder than they did at ACL that night.

Maybe we were all just performing extra loud for the cameras, or to let Musgraves know that we were happy to see her back home. But I’d bet on the sincerity and big hearts of Texas any day.

Golden Hour is out now. Get it here.