At last week’s South by Southwest music conference, there was one telling absence on the list of participating artists: Kacey Musgraves. If things had gone according to plan from a couple of years ago, she likely would have been showcasing there. In 2011, she signed to Lost Highway Records, the boutique division of Universal Nashville, created by industry veteran Luke Lewis as a home for left-of-center artists like Ryan Adams and Lucinda Williams. She was doing sit-down acoustic gigs where she would play songs like “John Prine,” which included lines like, “Grandma cried when I pierced my nose” and “I ain’t one to knock religion/Though it’s always knocking me” and “My idea of heaven is to burn one with John Prine.”
No doubt about it: She was -country.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the alternative forum: The 24-year-old upstart became mainstream country — or the mainstream came to, and fell in love with, her. Instead of doing a little acoustic gig at SXSW, she spent Saturday night playing a Tampa stadium on the first night of a months-long tour that has her opening for Kenny Chesney in front of as many as 70,000 people a night, 69,000 of whom have probably never heard of John Prine, though they’d be open to burning one with him, whoever he is. They , however, already heard of Musgraves.
What happened? Part of it has to do with the Lost Highway imprint being quietly dissolved when Luke Lewis, whose pet project it was, retired as head of UMG Nashville last spring. But the bigger answer is that the transition to Universal’s mainstream Mercury label might have occurred naturally anyway after country radio got an early listen to Musgraves’ “Merry Go ‘Round” single. It’s a downbeat, anecdotal exploration of small-town life as a dead end — in other words, just the kind of thing that’s perfect for a folk festival and country radio would never touch with a 10-foot antenna. Except, improbably, they did, and “Merry Go ‘Round” became a Top 10 radio hit.
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Programmers liked it, Musgrave figures, precisely because “it’s not your typical radio per se song.” Not that that was one of their criteria before. But “the reaction at radio is really surprisingly all-positive,” she says. “I maybe had one person that tried to rip on it a little, and I think that was just an insecure person anyway. But it’s been really cool to see people welcoming just different subject matter — even though in my heart of hearts, I don’t really feel like it’s that different. It’s just maybe not what’s been out there in the recent 10 years.”
Her major label debut album, , arrives in stores March 19, and if it doesn’t much resemble the country of the last 10 years, what it does hark back to, at least a little, is the country of 20 or 25 years ago — specifically, the now-dormant singer/songwriter strain then represented by Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash and Mary Chapin Carpenter.
And what this admittedly “mid-tempo mood” piece of an album doesn’t recall so much is Miranda Lambert, or at least her better-known feisty side. It’s surprising that there isn’t more of a resemblance just because Musgraves and Lambert have been long-time friends, and Mrs. Blake Shelton even has a rising hit in the country top 20 that was written by Musgraves, “Mama’s Broken Heart.” The barn-burning tune was slated to be recorded for Musgraves’ debut set, but Lambert talked her into letting her have it. (Having a writing credit on another song rising up the chart more than makes up for losing the tune for her own album: “It makes me feel like if the artist thing went away tomorrow, then I could still have a job as a songwriter.") But if anyone thought from that song that Musgraves would be coming out of the gate as a fiery rocker or tough-talker — like, you know, the fourth Pistol Annie — they’ll be surprised by the mostly more reflective tone of .
“I’m just kind of over the angry Southern ball-busting chick songs,” Musgraves says. “Not that I don’t have times where I’m angry or sassy. I do have moments of just kind of going for it, but I don’t want that to be my thing, really. I just feel like as a whole, I would like to offer a different perspective. I’d rather be more of the hippie country chick — as in, instead of pointing a finger, just maybe saying, ‘We’re all screw-ups. We’re all in this kind of together. We’re all just figuring this out.’”
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There is something a little bit shy or reticent about Musgraves’ demeanor and delivery that’s refreshingly matter-of-fact in the post-Gretchen Wilson era of redneck women, and in contemporary country in general, where even the best artists sometimes seem to be trying a little too hard and will certainly let you see them sweat. “No, I don’t strut anything,” she laughs. “On one hand, I really enjoy the theatrical Katy Perry side of things, where it’s just glitz and glamour and flash. But on the other hand, I really love raw and real, and even when mistakes are still in the show and it’s not just so polished and rehearsed. Yeah, I don’t think I’ll be flying in on a wire or anything.”
She’s doing her share of genre-busting, if not, as she says, ball-busting. “John Prine” did not make the album, though you can still find her performance of it on YouTube. But a different and arguably better light-one-up song did: “Follow Your Arrow,” a sort of anthem for emergent country social libertarians, the chorus of which encourages conflicted young ladies to “Make lots of noise/Kiss lots of boys/Kiss lots of girls/If that’s something you’re into…/Light up a joint/Or don’t/Just follow your arrow wherever it points.” (In the final chorus, she gets off the weed fence and replaces the line “Or don’t” with “I would.”)
Mild evocations of lesbian smooching and marijuana may not seem radical outside the world of mainstream country. But it seemed like a huge risk when Musgraves chose that song, of all the ones on her album, to perform at a UMG luncheon for hundreds of country radio programmers at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium last month. Any doubts she had about performing the song disappeared when attendees started laughing uproariously after the first line and applauding furiously after the first chorus. Afterward, the radio types were all abuzz about what a brilliantly catchy and clever ditty it was… and how they could never play it on their stations. In any case, it’ll be huge as a sing-along on the Chesney tour this summer, if nowhere else.
Country radio is not a bastion of pro-tolerance anthems — “definitely not,” she concurs — “but it’s 2013. I mean, it’s time, you know.” As for how she got above her raisin’ back in Texas, “I definitely see both sides, because I grew up in that environment and I can understand the mentalities surrounding that and what comes along with religion and small town life. But when I was old enough to think for myself, I got away, and it opened me up to a lot of different ideas. I guess I’ve always had an ‘I’m gonna tell you what I think’ attitude. But when I left and found other inspirations, it gave me of something to say, instead of just (the teenaged) ranting for no reason.”
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But the best songs on the year’s best country album don’t have to do with preaching tolerance so much as exploring self-tolerance. “Dandelion” is, as the title itself might suggest, a terribly delicate song that explores her vulnerability as well as her gentle-on-our-minds Glen Campbell influence. The opposite of that romantic wistfulness is the closing “It Is What It Is,” the greatest and least emotional song ever written about letting a relationship peter out more slowly than it should just because the companionship and sex are still okay. Imagine Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” if the drunk-dialing were portrayed as kind of blasé instead of desperate. “I don’t feel like many girls say ‘Hey, I’m bored, and this may not last, but come over here.’” She just did.
Musgraves is bound to be not just tolerated but embraced by a wide demographic that ranges from Taylor Swift-loving teen girls to Americana-favoring grumpy old men. “I am 24, but — and this may be a bit of a cliché — I do feel like I’m an old soul, and I don’t know really why or where that comes from. Maybe I feel like I’m able to relate to a wide variety of situations, or at least be compassionate toward what people are going through. No matter the age, people are inspired by the same emotions. That’s why singing about homosexuals doesn’t bother me. Young or old or gay or straight, people are just driven by the same wants and needs, so it really shouldn’t matter.”
As for the discarded possibilities of being in the “alt” world, “It was cool to be part of the Lost Highway family before it kind of went away. I would love to be able to be an artist that can play Bonnaroo and also play the CMA Festival and it makes sense. But I think if it’s good, it’s good no matter what label is on it. It’s hopefully steps toward creating a new normal, or a new idea of what’s accepted. Usually people throw out more of what’s worked before and hope that it’ll stick again because it’s safe. But that got to be safe because it was at one point new. So if I can be a part of that at all, then that’s my goal.”
And in the meantime, there is the matter of ramping up her act for tens of thousands of possibly inebriated Kenny Chesney fans every other night. “It’s gonna be ian interesting challenge to see how I adapt what I do, just as a songwriter, without making it cheesy, but also reaching the person in the nosebleed section that has to hear every lyric,” she says. “I don’t think I necessarily have to strut around to get my point across. But there will have to be some changes made, because it’s not a show in a coffee shop.” Same trailer, different ballpark.