The Key To Kacey Musgraves' Hard-Won Country: Funny Women : The Record The witty musician sits in a sweet spot where her charm and humor attract traditional country die-hards and pop fans alike. Ann Powers explores other women in country who paved the path.

The Key To Kacey Musgraves' Hard-Won Country: Funny Women

The Key To Kacey Musgraves' Hard-Won Country: Funny Women

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On Kacey Musgraves' second album, Pageant Material, she follows in the footsteps of several artists who expanded the sometimes binding roles of women in country music. Kelly Christine Sutton/Courtesy of Mercury Nashville hide caption

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Kelly Christine Sutton/Courtesy of Mercury Nashville

On Kacey Musgraves' second album, Pageant Material, she follows in the footsteps of several artists who expanded the sometimes binding roles of women in country music.

Kelly Christine Sutton/Courtesy of Mercury Nashville

In a conversation with Morning Edition's Renee Montagne, Ann Powers talked about the country musicians who serve as Kacey Musgraves' artistic forbears. At the audio link on this page, you can hear the conversation; below, read more about how Musgraves' wit is a key element in establishing that lineage, and a playlist of some of the women who have employed comedy to great effect in country music.

Kacey Musgraves is a funny lady. The 26-year-old country star has become a crossover darling for her beautifully executed sound, grounded in the Western swing music of her youth, and an image that strikes people as simultaneously pure and pop. She takes risks in such a charming and self-confident way that they feel like privileges to which everyone should be entitled. She celebrated the release of her second album, Pageant Material, with a drag show at her favorite Nashville gay bar, Play; there, her openly gay writing partner Shane McAnally sat with her grandma, who wore a tiara just like the sequined queens lip-syncing lyrics like, "mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy." With Pageant Material, Musgraves continues to build the matter-of-fact, fluidly millennial persona she established so beautifully on her Grammy-winning 2013 debut Same Trailer, Different Park in songs that hit the palate with a perfect combination of sweetness and pungency, like the lavender lattes served during Pride month in East Nashville coffee shops.

It's humor that most easily unites the grandmas who listen to Musgraves with the gay folk who adore her style, the musical purists who fetishize her twang and even the mainstream country partiers who'll slip her onto a playlist next to Blake Shelton. Going for jokes may be Musgraves' savviest traditionalist move. A well-slung punchline has been the essence of countless country hits, from the first days of the Grand Ole Opry to Maddie and Tae's 2014 instant classic "Girl in a Country Song." What Musgraves specifically honors is the long line of women who've used jokes and playful jabs to tell their stories within a male-dominated environment; to speak of the contradictions particular to an era of changing gender roles, and to defy, with a smile, the conventions that would limit their movements and their speech. Here are a few of Kacey's foremamas, all of whom cultivated a particular stance that has helped their newest champion to define her own.

The Comediennes Of Country

  • Minnie Pearl

    Country's greatest comedian and one of the genre's most wide-ranging ambassadors was Tennessee-born Sara Ophelia Colley, a child of the Great Depression inspired by the blues and vaudeville queens of her youth to create a character whose broad gestures and cries of "Howwwwdy!" both celebrated and gently made fun of small town life. Minnie Pearl celebrated women's ways of talking by playing a rampant gossip whose flights of fancy astounded and amused, and her plain-Jane warmth allowed her to express female desire in ways that never proved threatening. Kindness was her virtue, one that Musgraves incorporates in songs like "Family is Family," which chides the tackiness of some relatives while admitting that true kinship is stronger than small-mindedness.

  • June Carter Cash

    Gamine and sexy, but also able to use silliness and a knack for verbal sparring to fit in as one of the boys, the Carter family scion and soulmate of husband Johnny Cash was a groundbreaking comedienne in her own right. Her routines on the Grand Old Opry and other television shows brought a rock and roll-style frankness about sex to the family stage; Carter was expert at giggling through double entendres while her real message — that women sought both pleasure and respect from men — sneaked through under her breath. As Cash's partner, she laid bare the ups and downs of a long and sometimes rocky marriage in ways that made their great love story feel utterly real. Boldness was her virtue, one that Musgraves claims in more intimate songs like "Late To the Party."

  • Loretta Lynn

    No country singer has articulated feminist concerns with more consistency and power than Loretta Lynn. Emerging in the 1960s, the Coal Miner's Daughter spoke for rural and small-town women who'd never make it to a New York women's liberation march, but who nonetheless were questioning the bonds of marriage, facing abandonment through divorce and trying to cope by sneaking birth control or steeling themselves against domestic violence. One of country's most important songwriters, Lynn foregrounded political thinking within frameworks that used humor to make new ideas relatable. Plain-spokenness was her virtue, one that Musgraves employs in challenges to the status quo like "Good Ol' Boys Club."

  • Dolly Parton

    The world-conquering crossover country star from Pigeon Forge, Tenn., isn't primarily known for funny songs; it's her whole way of being that incorporates a transformative comic touch. Taking on the character sexist men would ascribe to her — a wide-eyed bunny with a head full of air and a gold-plated heart — Parton turned that role around by out-singing, out-writing and outsmarting everyone who crossed her, all the while wearing a smile as bright as her actual brain. Parton's collaborations with comediennes like Carol Burnett and Lily Tomlin allowed for other women to help in disassembling the myth of the dumb blonde, and her outrageous femininity made her an ally to queer fans by showing how gender is a bewigged construction. Her virtue is self-awareness, one that Musgraves still finds relevant in songs like the new album's title track.

  • k.d. lang

    Before she became an adult-contemporary pop star and an LBGTQ icon, k.d. lang was a country music outsider whose love for the genre, combined with an astonishing vocal talent, allowed her to do it proud while simultaneously exposing its inherent campiness. Established on the heels of the pop breakthroughs of gender rebels like Boy George and Annie Lennox, Lang's androgynous persona, glammed up in Nudie-style suits and the occasional wig, challenged perceptions of what a country diva could be. At the same time, the respect she and her band, the Reclines, had for the music's roots showed fans who came for the laughs that this music was much deeper than a pile of sequins. The levity that was central to lang's concert performances helped her claim a heritage previously denied unconventional people like herself, and though her presence within the genre's mainstream was short-lived, she had a lasting impact, widening country's audience and challenging the presumptions of its core. Lang's virtue is subversiveness, which she exercised in a loving way that Musgraves incorporates into playful songs like "Dimestore Cowgirl."

  • Shania Twain

    Shania Twain was the Madonna of country, challenging old notions of propriety in high pop style with her midriff tops and big rock and roll riffs. Her critics found her image too slick and her musical approach too contemporary, but Twain pushed country into the category-busting future by consistently projecting a bubbly sense of fun. Songs like "Man! I Feel Like a Woman" and "That Don't Impress Me Much" unfolded like musical Sex and the City vignettes, appealing to '90s women for whom success included forthright erotic self-realization. Her gift is elegance — a certain cool, amused distance that Musgraves cultivates in her gamine image and even in songs as goofy as "Biscuits."

  • Gretchen Wilson

    Though her staunch Republican politics might seem a world away from the rainbow-hued messages of tolerance Musgraves puts forth, the girl from Golden, Texas does share a strong working-class consciousness with the Illinois-born Redneck Woman. Wilson's massive hits in the early 2000s reminded country fans enchanted by haute couture-clad glamour goddesses like Twain and Faith Hill that the genre had long spoken for the often otherwise voiceless women and men who work in America's factories, chain restaurants and mini-marts. The broad, raucous laughs she and fellow MuzikMafia members like the duo Big & Rich wasn't as refined as what Musgraves offers, but her insistence of the value of the unrefined — a throwback to Minnie Pearl, but with a trucker cap on instead of a straw hat — suited a nation moving toward another Great Recession. Her virtue is earthiness, a quality that Musgraves embraces in her paeans to small town not-quite-heroes, like "Cup of Tea."