Music

Grammy Darlings Kacey Musgraves And Travis Scott Prove Texas Is A Highway To Creative Genius

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There’s something special about Texas.

If you haven’t spent a lot of time here, you might not realize how big the state truly is, in every sense of the word. The cities are a nice little cluster on a map, but the enormity of Texas can only really be felt in the liminal spaces between them. See how long five hours can feel sitting in (no-exaggeration) million-car traffic on the drive up I-35 to Dallas, or travel from the Valley to Houston and watch the land grow mushier and marshier across a long afternoon. The sky, somehow, seems to extend higher here than anywhere else in the country. When I first moved to Texas all I could do was stare with wonder at how far away the clouds were, how the ground shone in the midday sun, lighting up the blacktop like chrome and making me feel a million hours from the rest of the world in outer space.

My city, Austin, is known as the “live music capital of the world.” In a town teeming with talent both storied and new, it’s thrilling to know that Richard Linklater could walk up to the snack bar at your movie theater and ask for a popcorn, or you could go early to a club show and catch a local indie act that’ll be on all the Best Of The Year lists by December.

In this big-skied, faraway place, it’s exciting to count the number of legends who once lived on streets like the one you do right now. A decade ago, Kacey Musgraves lived in the neighborhood adjacent to mine. As a teen, St. Vincent went to parties on my alma mater’s campus. They tell us stories like these when they visit Texas, always saying how excited they are to come home.

If you’ve spent enough time here, it’s not surprising that some of the artists with the most Grammy nominations this year are from Texas. Kacey Musgraves and Travis Scott released two of the most critically acclaimed albums of the year — Uproxx put Astroworld at the top of our Best Of 2018 list, and Golden Hour was voted the best record of 2018 on our aggregate critic poll list.

Astroworld is up for three Grammys, including Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song for the standout “Sicko Mode.” Golden Hour swept the country categories, of course, but also crossed over to compete for Album Of The Year against artists as generically diverse as Janelle Monae and Brandi Carlile.

Country fans have long known that Musgraves is something special, but her big crossover year topples the myth that country is a niche genre that only has appeal in small towns and yeehaw capitals in the south. Scott’s labyrinthian, multilayered production is far from the easy listening rap that dominates the charts, but “Sicko Mode” still cut through to become a massive radio hit. They’re also just damn good albums. Each listen uncovers a delightful new discovery. Have you ever listened to “Love Is A Wild Thing” with really good headphones? You can hear every guitar string thrum as it’s picked in the bridge, and it’s transformed into a whole new song.

And it’s not just my predisposition to see them as such — Astroworld and Golden Hour are certified Texas albums, inextricably tangled in memories of the artists’ shared home state. Both Scott and Musgraves named their records for their hometowns. Astroworld is an homage to Six Flags AstroWorld, the Houston theme park that closed in 2005. The closing of the park marked the end of childhood for Scott. The rapper told British GQ: “They tore down AstroWorld to build more apartment space. That’s what it’s going to sound like, like taking an amusement park away from kids. We want it back, we want the building back […] It took the fun out of the city.” Scott puts the fun back in Houston, narrating adventures with drugs, sex, and money — grown-up thrills that almost make up for the loss of their youthful counterpart, but not quite.

Scott tosses a reference to Houston or Texas in nearly every track on Astroworld. They range from casual — “This is at home, right down the street from Alamo” — to whole songs’ worth of odes to Texas and its people. “R.I.P. Screw” adopts a mellow beat and languid, take-your-time verses to honor Houston legend DJ Screw, who passed away in 2000. As Scott adopts the patterns of other Texas legends (saying “man” at the end of every line in the second verse like Big Moe) and raps about the haircuts he used to have and the drugs he used to do, it’s a bittersweet tribute to youth and the heroes we idolized and keep alive in memory.

But Texas doesn’t just exist in the past for Scott. He returns home throughout Astroworld. Houston is the place he goes in between 13-hour flights and the rush of international fame. It’s both a state of mind and a very real physical place. After taking listeners to California on “Yosemite” and “Butterfly Effect,” Scott lands back in Texas right before the close of the album. “Houstonfornication” borrows a name from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but replaces the much idolated California for his own beloved home. Where his house in Los Angeles is “built like a prison where that b*tch is gated,” Houston is the place where he can truly relax, get “some ventilation, a little vacation.”

Texas is most like home as it’s passing through a car window. When Scott raps “Space coupe back out of the space station / Float around town, do that on the daily,” I can’t help but think about how many other Texan songwriters are obsessed with the power and freedom their car gives them. Maren Morris‘ 80s Mercedes is the love of her life, and singing along with its radio is her church. The brilliance of Astroworld is the whirlwind ride in its 17 tracks, in planes across the globe, floating through trips and half-remembered nights out — dipping close enough to touch the wealth, thrill, and excitement of Scott’s life. And still he lands with us back in Texas, back to the hilly roads and relived nostalgia of his hometown.

If Astroworld is a trip from outer space to home, Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour shoots you into the sky and dares you not to come back down. Golden Hour is named for Musgraves’ tiny hometown, Golden, TX. Musgraves has written about Golden and small, insular towns like it before — the bleak “Merry Go Round,” the winking “This Town.” But Golden Hour sees Musgraves stepping away from Texas and Golden, at least in the ways she’s described them in the past. Instead of cigarette-smoking waitresses in a tumbleweed parking lot, Musgraves sings about the grandiosity of the whole world, the beauty of everything that can’t be distilled down to a pointillistic, slice-of-life lyric. Her own love, the person who “gives her butterflies,” has opened up her eyes to appreciate the beauty in everything giant. Her contemplative, ruminative country-pop isn’t shifting genre as much as it is shifting focus. Musgraves leaves Texas behind to explore the depths of her own brain, her own love, and the rest of the world, experimenting with new sounds as she travels.

Golden Hour dips back and forth between tender nostalgia and anticipation for the future. It’s an album about liminal spaces, between youth and adulthood, the home you were born into and the ones you choose. On the contemplative album opener “Slow Burn,” Musgraves tosses off seemingly unrelated couplets, all of them united by a love for the place she came from. Musgraves speaks for every Lady Bird weirdo stoner half-rebel when she sings “Texas is hot, I can be cold / Grandma cried when I pierced my nose.” On the soaring “Mother,” Musgraves sounds a million miles from Golden as she foggily muses on “how time is slippin'” and wonders what her mom is doing right now. (Musgraves claims she wrote the song high on LSD, which I guess explains everything.) Musgraves’ perspective on these songs is always distant, though. On “Slow Burn,” she imagines her grandma back in Texas with the same casual free association as a sunset in Tennessee or Beijing residents heading out to work.

But even as it avoids the small-town Texas stories Musgraves told on previous albums, Golden Hour never really shakes Texas. Musgraves’ older material describes one version of Texas, sure, but Golden Hour puts music to another side of the state and the people who live in it. Texas often makes the news for its unsavory headlines — students getting stabbed on the UT campus, our voters electing Ted Cruz for another Senate term in 2018. People’s intolerance and ignorance is more insidious and disguised than I was used to in the blunter Midwest — everything they say about Southerners being painfully polite is true. Sometimes the bigness and remoteness of living here can feel tiring. My New York friends are antsy for me to live in a tiny box up in the sky with them, and everyone who doesn’t want me there wants to gravely convince me that California Is The Move.

But this year’s Grammy nominations show that you don’t have to leave home to make great art. The little town you grew up in is rich with inspiration and stories to tell, and for all the hype about New York and LA being the creative centers of the US, Beyonce is from Houston, which makes it an automatic iconic destination. Texas is a highway to the top of the charts and a gateway to outer space.

When Kacey Musgraves sings about her “golden hour,” that thing that catches the sky aglow with surprising beauty, I think of this big, gorgeous state that I’ve stuck in past my expiration date. I think of Travis Scott, rubbing sleep from his eyes and getting off a plane to touch back on the ground. The weirdos, the change-makers, the sons and daughters and non-gendered kiddos who are rebuilding the parks those tacky old farts tore down. All that space for joy, all that sky to take off and fly.

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