Kacey Musgraves, country music’s new real deal

(MATT MCCLAIN/ FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Musician Kacey Musgraves near the 9:30 Club, where she performed a Valentine’s Day show on Feb. 14.

(MATT MCCLAIN/ FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Musician Kacey Musgraves near the 9:30 Club, where she performed a Valentine’s Day show on Feb. 14.

She’s too savvy to be completely heart-on-sleeve, so for Valentine’s Day, Kacey Musgraves has gone heart-on-sweater — a big, bubble-gummy blob sewn into the front of the thing.

Instead of cowboy boots, the 24-year-old Texas native wears black high tops with skinny jeans, an itty-bitty nose ring and sunglasses with lenses the size of beer coasters, the kind of shades Joan Didion wears on old dust jackets, the kind of shades that make Musgraves look like anyone other than the country star she’s about to become.

Country music's women's movement

Country music's women's movement

Kasey Musgraves soon-to-be-released album is one in a cascade of hotly anticipated albums expected from female country singers this year.

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Her magnificent new album “Same Trailer, Different Park,” contains some of the most straightforward storytelling you could ever ask of a dozen country tunes. No bells, no whistles, no throwaway lyrics — just 12 pithy singalongs, often beautiful, sometimes brilliant.

Merry Go Round,” her debut single about the psychic vise grip of small-town living, punches hardest:

“Mama’s hooked on Mary Kay,

Brother’s hooked on Mary Jane,

And daddy’s hooked on Mary two doors down.

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,

We get bored, so we get married,

And just like dust we settle in this town.”

Of any hit that’s cracked the country music airwaves in a decade, “Merry Go Round” feels the most “real” — a dangerous word that the rest of America haphazardly lobs toward Nashville as a synonym for “authentic.” Or “idealized.” Or “anything Taylor Swift says.”

But Musgraves’s lyrics feel so much realer than those other quasi-reals. Yes, her tunes are set in trailer parks and roadside diners, but her music doesn’t evoke a sense of place so much as a time in life — that sobering stretch of 20-something when your idealism first starts going sour.

“It’s like I saw behind the curtain, and nobody’s an adult,” Musgraves says, sitting on her tour bus outside Washington’s 9:30 Club. “We’re all [in trouble], we’re all in this together, we’re all big kids trying to figure it out.” Then she pops a gummy bear in her mouth.

When she talks about songwriting, she swears. When she talks about her tiny home town of Golden, her vowels turn Texan. And when she talks about fame, she slows down to really think about it. Her jaw clenches, her poise momentarily slips and her brown eyes reflexively go misty, because it’s Feb. 14 and she’s in a weird city somewhere between East Texas and the senseless void of American celebrity.

“Fame freaks me out,” she says. “Do you just wake up different? I don’t know how to scale it back if it gets too crazy.”

She sighs, sniffles, apologizes, laughs, says she’s working on two hours of sleep and dabs her eyes before any tears go spilling down her cheek.

Early beginnings

Her sister Kelly knocks on the door of the bus, a rolling apartment bigger than the trailer Kacey remembers as the sisters’ first home.

Kelly, a 22-year-old photographer now living in Dallas, wears her nose ring in the opposite nostril from Kacey’s, tours with her whenever she can and snaps portraits of her at every turn. She remembers spotting Willie Nelson backstage once and pushing her big sister through the tiny window of opportunity: “‘We can either get a picture of you smiling, or we can get a picture of you kissing him.’”

In addition to gigs with Nelson, Musgraves traveled Europe last July with Lady Antebellum and will tour with Kenny Chesney deep into this summer. The day before pulling into Washington, she was nominated for three Academy of Country Music Awards, all thanks to “Merry Go Round,” currently peaking at No. 14 on Billboard’s country singles chart. All of this, 16 years after her first yodel.

“She started singing, or wanting to sing, at the age of 8,” says her mom, Karen Musgraves, over the phone from Texas, where she runs a copy shop with Kacey’s dad, Craig. “That was right around the time that LeAnn Rimes came out with ‘Blue,’ and all the kids wanted to learn to yodel.”

So the kid sang Western swing tunes at countless East Texas talent shows, honing her vocal loop-de-loops. But she was over it by 13 and started taking guitar lessons from John DeFoore, a teacher in neighboring Mineola, Tex., who had taught Miranda Lambert and Michelle Shocked when they were teens. In addition to doing chords and scales, DeFoore makes his students write songs.

At home, Craig Musgraves played Tom Petty, Neil Young and Sade on the family stereo while Kacey expanded her vocabulary further by dipping into her grandfather’s record collection.“That’s how I first heard the Byrds’ ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo,’ ” she says. “I picked it out because I loved the cowgirl on the cover.”

High school gets a shrug. She was “the girl who sings,” a “not-so-great student” itching to “get out into the real world, where gay people aren’t the devil,” Musgraves says. “So it was either pursue music or try not to fail basic courses at a community college my parents couldn’t afford.”

She moved to Austin after graduating from high school in 2006, and then to Nashville, where she landed a spot on the 2007 season of “Nashville Star,” the since-canceled singing contest on USA Network that kick-started Lambert’s career in 2003.

Musgraves finished in seventh on the show but refused to retreat to Texas, supporting herself with odd jobs, including a stint performing at children’s birthday parties as Hannah Montana. (Once, she was paid entirely in change.)

When the booking agency asked her to deliver some balloons to a famous Nashville steakhouse dressed a French maid, she dodged a bullet by hanging up the phone. Turns out, it was a prominent music-biz figure’s birthday party. “So I’m glad I have some amount of self-respect,” Musgraves says.

She also sought out an early mentor in Radney Foster, the Texas-born singer-songwriter who would eventually invite her to sing backup on the road. “He’s so great. On tour, everyone called him ‘Dad-ney,’” Musgraves says. “He totally paid it forward and introduced me to so many people.”

In addition to connecting her with other Music Row types, Foster was a collaborator, helping Musgraves surface her own story in melody. Years later, he’s especially proud to see a song as fresh and risky as “Merry Go Round” floating up the charts.

“It’s all about swinging for the bleachers,” Foster says. “You might not be a Reba McEntire, but people remember those pull-over-the-car-moment kind of songs.”

Hold the poetry

A song begins whenever a phrase pops into her head, lands on her ear or, best case scenario, jumps out of her mouth.

“I just want [my lyrics] to sound like something I’d say in a conversation,” she says. “And once you have lyrics, you know what kind of music should go with that vibe. You have a snowball you can pack around.”

Good metaphor. A Kacey Musgraves song is clean, simple, compact. Throw it at someone and you’ll certainly get their attention, maybe even hurt them, but not too bad.

“And don’t make it poetic,” Musgraves says. “It’s the John Prine school of songwriting. Literally just [really] say how it is. And it wins every time. Too many people focus on writing what they think they should write, what should be in a song, what radio would want. [Forget] that, that’s so boring.”

And while “Same Trailer, Different Park” is particularly even-keeled, it’s never boring. Co-written with some of Nashville’s shiniest songwriters — Shane McAnally, Luke Laird and Brandy Clark among them— it’s an album inspired by the massive gravity of tiny home towns, the disorienting letdowns of growing up and Musgraves’s split with her punk-rocker boyfriend of five-plus years last August. Musgraves sings about all of these things with contemplative restraint. Especially love and fallout.

“I’m just so over the angry . . . scorned female perspective,” she says. “And it seems like that’s the only option for females today in country. ‘You did me wrong and now I’m gonna burn your house down!’ I have no way to relate to that. Of course I get angry, but I want to use my brain a little bit and not just smash things.”

She’s talking about the type of song that helped make Lambert, one of Musgraves’s heroes, one of today’s biggest country stars.

Irony: Lambert’s current single, “Mama’s Broken Heart,” a ditty that connects heartbreak with arson, was co-written by Musgraves.

More irony: Lambert’s early singles were once deemed too wild for risk-allergic radio rotations. Now, after years of following in Lambert’s footsteps, Musgraves is fighting that battle anew.

She says she’s been urging the label brass at Mercury Nashville to release “Follow Your Arrow” as her next single. And they should. It’s a euphoric affirmation anthem about ignoring the conformist hordes and trusting your gut (which is fitting). It’s also Musgraves’s most gripping combination of message and melody. But its refrain mentions marijuana smoke and same-sex smooching, which means that stuffier radio programmers won’t go near it.

Still, Musgraves says she’s leaning hard, reprising the argument she made while stumping for “Merry Go Round” as her first single: “‘Let’s create the new normal!’”

That’s certainly a goal worth raising her voice for, but the potential result is exactly what makes Musgraves’s eyes well up with anxiety.

“I don’t mean to be [complaining]. Obviously, there is happiness in commercial success,” she says. “But people get attached to you and who they think you are. And if you do something that throws them for a loop, well, then you’re the bad guy.”

For a songwriter hoping to enjoy a long career of loop-throwing, these thoughts can overwhelm.

“It’s like poking a bear with a stick,” says Karen Musgraves of her daughter’s bolder lyrics. “There are people that aren’t gonna like it. . . . I know that’s scary for me, and I could just imagine how scary it is for her.”

The real Kacey

On the 9:30 Club stage, Musgraves doesn’t look scared for a second.

The most hopeless romantics in the Valentine’s-night crowd are sucking down Budweisers in preparation for a headlining set from Little Big Town, Nashville’s answer to Abba, a foursome that snapped up its first Grammy just a few nights earlier.

Also pinballing around the parquet dance floor is Kelly Musgraves. She says she’s happy to finally see the same Kacey up on stage whom she’s known her entire life.

“THE SONG THAT MENTIONS POT? SHE WOULDN’T HAVE EVEN TALKED ABOUT THAT A YEAR AGO,” she shouts over her sister’s music. “I’M REALLY PROUD OF HER!”

And when Musgraves and her band ease into “THE SONG THAT MENTIONS POT,” the beery audience chit-chat quiets down. By the first chorus, she has every ear in the house:

“So make lots of noise.

Kiss lots of boys.

Or kiss lots of girls if that’s something you’re into.

When the straight and narrow gets a little too straight,

Roll up a joint — or don’t.

Just follow your arrow wherever it points.”

“You agree?” Musgraves asks. The crowd roars the affirmative. But by then, her eyes are back on the strings of her guitar. She was hoping they’d say yes, but she wasn’t asking for permission to continue.

“Same Trailer, Different Park” is out on March 19. Kacey Musgraves opens for Kenny Chesney at FedEx Field on May 25.

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