Photos by Liza Jane (left), Rachael Polack/Palomino Fest (center/right)
As a queer Indian-American, the country genre has always seemed antithetical to my existence, a mix of hypermasculinity and overwhelming whiteness. Observing country artists like Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan, I perceived country as music for the white man and the white man only. However, as country music has evolved, so too has my understanding and appreciation for the genre. Country music, as an industry, has been inching toward greater inclusivity and experimentation, and Palomino Festival was a manifestation of this growth; it married tradition with progress, as it presented upcoming artists like Amythyst Kiah, Valerie June, Orville Peck, and Kacey Musgraves with established country-icons like Willie Nelson.
As the event kicked off, Amythyst Kiah had everyone on their feet, swaying and singing along to her Grammy award-winning song “Black Myself” from the album “Songs of Our Native Daughters,” which she featured on with four other Black female banjo players in 2019. It was a pseudo-religious experience as audience members, equipped with Modelo bottles and cowboy hats, chanted along to her lyrics, “I pick the banjo up and they sneer at me / ‘Cause I’m black myself.” Kiah is a shining example of the diverse new generation joining the country ranks; in an interview with Billboard, she described herself as a “funny-talking, sci-fi-loving, queer” Black woman. Kiah is unafraid to share political commentary, which, as evidenced by the downfall of The Chicks, has historically been frowned upon by the industry. Perhaps it is this vulnerability that makes her music more impactful. To round out her set, Kiah performed “Wild Turkey,” in which she addresses her mother’s suicide and comes to terms with her grief. The powerful ballad, which utilized traditional country storytelling techniques, held the audience in a silent, emotional chokehold. Her performance at Palomino demonstrates a new era of country, one which combines tried-and-true techniques with a bold discussion of identity.
A short while later, Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Valerie June took the stage, ready to rock out in the Pasadena sun. Dawning cheetah print sunglasses and shiny red boots, she brought energy and positivity to the festival. June’s music — a blend of Afrofuturism, soul, bluegrass, and folk — exemplifies the perfect mix of country roots with new sounds; her performance of “Astral Plane,” after delivering a riveting spiel about individualism, reflected this new style. Her welcoming demeanor and pure joy on stage contributed to an overall feeling of warmth and comfort at Palomino.
Festival headliner Kacey Musgraves is another artist pushing the boundary of country and fusing it with new sounds. Musgraves, who has collected several accolades for her 2018 album “Golden Hour,” including the Grammy Award for Album of the Year, delivered a performance that teetered between pop and country. Her performance of “there is a light,” from her most recent album “star-crossed,” featured giant balloons, flashing laser lights, and a show-stopping flute solo, while her performance of “good wife” featured only her vocals and her sleek black guitar. With “star-crossed,” Musgraves tackles long-held beliefs about marriage and gender roles as she talks about her divorce in songs like “breadwinner” and “justified.” She challenges conventions about womanhood, masculinity, and femininity that many older country songs reinforced (see Shelton’s “Honey Bee”). However, the highlight of Musgraves’ set was when Willie Nelson, a country music legend known for his extensive, decades-long career, joined her on stage for a rendition of Nelson’s “On the Road Again.” The duet was a crowning moment for the unification of old and new, exemplified throughout the festival.
The country genre is slowly, but steadily, diversifying. The demographic of listeners and musicians is changing, and Palomino Festival was a stunning reflection of these new artists, sounds, and styles.
Author: Tavish Mohanti (He/Him)
Copy Editors: Emma Blakely (They/She/He), Bella (She/They)