Taylor Swift’s “Red” was last year’s second-best selling record, but the qualities that drove those sales —its dubstep drops, arena-rock scale, boy drama and especially those hooky choruses— didn’t stem from the genre that made Swift famous. The 23-year-old megastar’s record didn’t abandon country completely, but it did exhibit a versatility that many critics praised as early steps on a path toward the much more ambitious end of pure pop stardom.
So where does that leave Nashville, and by extension, modern country music, in 2013? Swift certainly wasn't its first apostate — Shania Twain and Carrie Underwood each embraced the aforementioned pop qualities to court larger audiences — and won't be its last. But if there's one thing Nashville proved since the 1960s, it's that it's a great, big machine that's always churning with fresh, young talent.
There's a lot of worthwhile post-Swift Nashville country coming through the pipe, but two records stand out in particular, each with a distinct style and its own intended audience. Kacey Musgraves' "Same Trailer Different Park" parks its doublewide in some of the market space that "Red" abandoned while Caitlin Rose's "The Stand-In" offers a fresh take on a deeper tradition, evoking past archetypes present in the tunes of singers like Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn.
At first blush, Musgraves could be written off as teenybop but her songs — mostly co-written with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne — exude an unforced wit and wisdom that avoids jiving with her dirt-poor persona. Under the surface-level cutesiness of "Merry Go 'Round" and "Silver Lining" reside sharp criticisms and the sort of common sense that rarely sneaks into Top 40 pop. Listen closely to "Step Off" and its twee banjo and choppy hook quickly turn surprisingly morbid.
Unfortunately, it seems like critics enjoy Musgraves more than the charts do. Months ago when I heard her sassy, Miranda Lambert-indebted "Blowin' Smoke," I thought a Top 10 spot was well within reach. Released April 1, it never managed to surface.
Chart aspirations don't seem to be a concern for Rose, however, who's played around in Nashville punk and indie bands for years. (Worth noting: Caitlin's mother Liz is part of Swift's Grammy-winning songwriting team, with credits on "Teardrops on My Guitar" and "You Belong With Me".) She’s taken up the family business of country all the way through "The Stand-In" though, writing herself a more ladylike persona backed by Telecasters and a rich organ tone.
"I Was Cruel" proves her newfound delicacy in a time of self-discovery: "I never knew I was cruel baby, until I met you" and, along with that old-timey album cover, mentions of chantilly lace on "Pink Champagne" are among those aforementioned archetypes set by the female country singers before her.