Kacey Musgraves popped up on my radar earlier this year with the release of her major label debut Same Trailer Different Park, one of those funny records that’s so effortlessly smart and sure-footed it makes everything else in its category look totally insubstantial by comparison. (The category is mainstream country, although there’s a rootsy, alternative edge to Musgraves’ music, as well as a pop sensibility that lends it a certain degree of crossover potential.) The production is airy and spare, making space for her lyrics to shine — and those lyrics dazzle as frequently as they devastate, sharply observed, witty, heartbreaking missives on the perils of intimacy and the insularity of small-town life.
Despite well-deserved critical acclaim, Musgraves’ songs have a way of subverting country convention that hasn’t always gone down so easy with conservative listeners and industry types. Consider “Follow Your Arrow,” a laissez-faire anthem built on this hook: “Make lots of noise and kiss lots of boys / Or kiss lots of girls if that’s what you’re into / And if the straight and narrow gets a little too straight / Roll up a joint, or don’t, just follow your arrow wherever it points.” Its genius isn’t in courting controversy in the heartland by espousing drug use or homosexuality, but in the breezy dismissal of either being anyone’s business — and at her set at Bonnaroo this weekend (a just-do-you environment if ever there was one), the song’s lyrics elicited roars of approval from the crowd, and more than a few delighted smiles from people who appeared to be hearing the song for the first time.
“I’m really glad that I got to make the record that I really wanted to make,” she told me. “There was nothing compromised in that way at all.” But despite having that latitude, the end game wasn’t to be a provocateur: “I never wanted to push buttons just to push buttons, because none of my songs are that crazy to me,” she said. “They don’t seem that controversial. But anything that came up along the way, where I had qualms — ‘Can I say this?’ — it was just kinda like, ‘Yeah, I can. Why not?’”
Similarly honest is the closing track, “It Is What It Is,” which has the sonic texture of an old-fashioned country dirge, all twang and longing, but tells the story of a modern friends-with-benefits relationship. (“Maybe I love you / Maybe I’m just kinda bored,” she sings over a whining guitar.) “It was inspired by a relationship that I’d been in previously,” Musgraves said, “and all I had for the song was, ‘It is what it is till it ain’t anymore.’ I brought it into Luke [Laird] and Brandy Clark, who’s this amazing songwriter I’m obsessed with — she wrote, like, half the record with me — and I was just like, ‘I need to be really blunt, really simple, and really freaking country. It’s one of my favorites.”
That confessional impulse buoys much of the record, but just as appealing is the storytelling on songs like the lead single “Merry Go ‘Round” and its follow-up “Blowin’ Smoke,” both of which confront small-town complacency — but where “Merry” is resigned and a little bit melancholy, “Smoke” is spunky in its frustration. “It’s a different color than ‘Merry Go ‘Round,’” Musgraves said. “I wanted something a little more fun. I feel like it’s the same character. It’s the same person who feels claustrophobic, or trapped by their surroundings.”
If that hits uncomfortably close to home for listeners, she isn’t worried about it — the huge crossover success of the Taylor Swifts and Shania Twains of the world aren’t the end game, she said, and it shouldn’t be, since part of the appeal of an album like Same Trailer Different Park is its closeness, its intimacy, not the bombast of big production and radio hits. “I’m cool just having the people that really dig me really dig me,” she said. “If it’s a smaller number, I’m cool with that. I don’t want to be of the moment — there for 30 minutes on somebody’s radar, then gone. I’m not gonna be everybody’s cup of tea.”
Still, she was pleased to hear that she’s reaching beyond the country bubble. “I think it’s really cool when people outside of country love my music,” she said. “I’m inspired by all different kinds of things. I just want to make good music across the board.”
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