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.”