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The twists that both Ms. Musgraves and the Dixie Chicks provide to country music have been so meaningful because, at root, they’re genre traditionalists, loyal to its structures and its mythologies. Both are from Texas, and both began their careers as keepers of old-school flames: The Dixie Chicks are bluegrass-fluent, and Ms. Musgraves performed Western swing music as a teenager.
Now Ms. Musgraves is a polished-smooth refabricator of classic country with forward-thinking political values. She’s not a polemicist, but a nudger, someone who delivers homilies with a shrug and an exasperated, amused eye roll.
At Ms. Musgraves’s concert — as part of the Northside Festival in Williamsburg — she performed in a sea of kitsch: Neon cactuses dotted the stage, and her band was outfitted in gunslinger-cum-mariachi chic. At the end of the show, she wore cowboy boots illuminated with white lights. “Can we just get really weird tonight?” she asked.
Ms. Musgraves’s idea of weird, though, is to use slashes of bold color firmly inside the lines. Her show was breezy and precise, one masterwork of sly songwriting after the next. She has a sweet voice — never tart — and she sounded lovely when winking, “I’m always higher than my hair” on “Pageant Material,” or, on the “Hee Haw”-esque “Family Is Family,” sighing exaggeratedly about kin who “own too much wicker and drink too much liquor.”
This is Ms. Musgraves’s rebellion: polite, knowing, exuding a we’ve-all-been-there embrace. As country’s mainstream has become more distanced from its heritage, Ms. Musgraves has somehow become both the keeper of the genre’s old rules and also its leading internal dissenter.
In that, she differs from the Dixie Chicks, who were, by and large, country centrists right up until the moment Ms. Maines bad-mouthed President George W. Bush. The group’s first two major label albums went diamond, the third six times platinum.
At this show, the Dixie Chicks — Ms. Maines, and the sisters Emily Strayer and Martie Maguire — were part arena act, in diminished comeback mode, and at times vivid and scrappy, especially when digging back into their earliest, rootsiest material like “Sin Wagon” and “White Trash Wedding.”
Ms. Strayer, primarily on banjo, and Ms. Maguire, primarily on fiddle, are exceptional musicians, bringing intensity, dexterity and attitude in equal measure. And Ms. Maines is still a powerful singer. But there was a malaise that all too often crept into the set — a lack of enthusiasm among the bandmates, and a fatigue that clouded even some of their most incendiary songs, as when they listlessly pumped their fists during the anti-domestic-violence anthem “Goodbye Earl.”
Big musical umbrellas have lately become de rigueur in country, and both Ms. Musgraves and the Dixie Chicks flaunted their pop fluency. For Ms. Musgraves, it was covers of Bob Marley and TLC, and a Hank Williams duet with a shaky Conor Oberst (who shared the bill), a collision of Nashville professionalism and indie shambles. The Dixie Chicks showcased a couple of Patty Griffin songs and flatly performed their version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” but also delivered a superfluous Prince cover and, during a bluegrass instrumental interlude, wove in snippets of Beyoncé and the Weeknd.
Ms. Maines also wore her sympathies on her chest. In the first half of the concert, she sported a T-shirt bearing an illustration of Beyoncé hoisting two middle fingers (a scene from the “Formation” video); in the second half, she switched to one with an image of Kanye West.
There were also brief flashes of the Dixie Chicks’s formal politics during this show. During “Goodbye Earl,” Donald J. Trump was depicted with devil horns and beard on the large backdrop screen, and the group closed with a passionate, energetic cover of Ben Harper’s “Better Way,” dedicated to the Orlando shooting victims.
“We’ve got to put positivity out there in the universe to counterbalance all these crazy nut jobs,” Ms. Maines said, as Ms. Maguire draped a rainbow flag on stage. (The group also removed a cover of Patty Griffin’s “Don’t Let Me Die in Florida” from its set.)
Ms. Musgraves, performing the night before the shooting, introduced her breakthrough hit “Follow Your Arrow,” with its plea for inclusivity and tolerance regarding sexual orientation, with a question: “Where my gays at?”
The next day, she reacted to the tragedy on Twitter. “Let’s go back to saloon days,” she wrote, where everyone “is carryin a revolver and anyone walkin in to disturb the peace might maybe think twice.” Within minutes, and after some backlash, she had deleted it, posting: “Emotions are high today. Mine included. Just hating hate.”
Unlike Ms. Maines’s controversial comment, which was a burst of liberal disruption in a traditionally conservative space, Ms. Musgraves had cut her anti-establishment brio with a dash of Texas-friendly conservative thinking, making her an outsider two times over — or a secret insider who peeked out ever so briefly.Continue reading the main story