Jim Myers The Tennessean.com 03/22/13
Kacey Musgraves’ songs pop and catch your ear, which makes them jangly fun. Listen carefully, though, and you’re rewarded with poetic and unabashed truths.
That fearless approach to laying emotions bare, without pretense, earned her four nominations for the upcoming Academy of Country Music awards, all for her first single, “Merry Go ’Round,” a lyrical exposé of the unseen reality of people’s lives, which came out last year.
The song, still at No. 16 after an impressive 28 weeks on Billboard’s Hot Country chart, peaked at No. 14 last week.
Her first full major-label album, “Same Trailer Different Park,” released Tuesday.
Sitting and talking with Musgraves, in between the hiss and foam at Portland Brew along the 12South corridor in Nashville, you meet a young singer-songwriter, all of 24 years old.
The songs themselves, though, belie her age and speak of precocious wisdom. And in terms of tackling sticky issues, the Texas transplant doesn’t look away.
“It feels like it’s the only way to do it, to make music. I would much rather bring to light real, almost disturbing issues and have somebody go, ‘Damn, I’m not alone,’ than just skate over it.”
She refers to the happy gloss in much of country music as too idealized and often unreal, calling it “a postcard.”
With a panoply of situation songs to choose from, there was quite a discussion over what the follow-up single to “Merry Go ’Round” should be. The label settled on “Blowin’ Smoke,” an anthem of hash- and trash-slinging waitresses, for the April 1 release.
What it won’t be is the more challenging “Follow Your Arrow,” which Musgraves sprung on a private Ryman Auditorium crowd at her Country Radio Seminar showcase earlier this month.
At first, she’s a bit understated about its content, calling it “out there,” but then becomes refreshingly frank.
“It talks about pot, it talks about homosexuality, and obviously for country music that’s a very taboo subject,” she says, never breaking eye contact.
“I’m going to ruffle some feathers, but I would almost rather weed out the people who are not going to be my fans because of that, in the beginning, than give them some rosy idea of who I’m not, and then release that later.”
Already wise to Music Row machinations, she lapses into mock marketing-speak,
“ ‘Let’s get you more fans first and then you can do crazier stuff.’ And it’s like, ‘No.’ You do crazy stuff now so people have the right idea of who you are and then, you know.”
Musgraves credits Taylor Swift with opening up the genre to younger and more open-minded listeners.
Swift, she says, brings in “a huge group of people who are gay, and loud and proud about it, and that hasn’t been catered to yet. Not that I just want to cater to it. I just want to show them some love. Why can’t we talk about you? You’re a real person, you’re in a real relationship, and I’m tired of people acting like it’s not, just because of their religious beliefs. It’s not fair.”
Having a talented producer and co-writer in Shane McAnally, who is gay, probably doesn’t hurt, either.
This is clearly a singer who does not blindly conform. She tried, but later eschewed early attempts to fit her into a tidy production mold.
“In a way, it was kind of hard, and I did kind of obligate myself to working with (other producers), trying something out, because how are you going to know it won’t work?”
Worried she might be pegged as difficult or wishy-washy, she slowed down, resisting the pressure to cut a record while there was still Texas dust on her guitar case.
“I’m so glad that I waited and didn’t push anything, because I wouldn’t have the songs that I have now, and the point of view and the relationships I have now. I did the right thing, I went by my gut. I try to make all my decisions like that and it’s never really steered me wrong.”
A leap of faith
It was publisher Steve Markland who helped cast the net, she says, to see who would be the best creative fit. That was how she came to meet writer Luke Laird, who, along with McAnally, rounded out this unlikely troika.
“The first time we got together, we wrote ‘Blowin’ Smoke.’”
Musgraves felt the demos were so spot-on to the sound she was looking for, she hired the neophyte duo to produce the album.
“We had been producing all our demos together and I loved the way those came out. We seemed to be on the same page, so (Shane) signed up to take on a producer role.” Laird soon followed.
“We just like being around each other and that’s half the battle. I’m really happy that it came together organically, not the label saying, ‘Here, you need to work with this producer. He’s well known, he’s had lots of hits.’”
That label trust turned out to be a leap of faith that might not have happened. Musgraves signed her original deal with Luke Lewis’ imprint Lost Highway.
Lewis offered her a chance to be herself, and if she failed, then at least she knew she was being true.
“I had the free reign to completely be who I wanted to be creatively,” she says. “Unfortunately (Lewis) left. Mike Dungan came in, and I was already way down the road on my project, so it wasn’t like he could come in and start changing things. We already had the license to do that.”
Naivete aside, Dungan likely could have changed anything he wanted, but publicly he didn’t blanch at the approach of his inherited charge. He kept the production — at times banjo-laden and more folk than country glam — and seemingly put the full weight of Mercury Records behind this debut project.
Into the spotlight
After a limited tour of small venues opening for Little Big Town, Musgraves now heads for the lights of a little big time, opening stadiums for uber-entertainer Kenny Chesney.
It will be the ultimate leap for the girl who once traveled across Texas in her grandparents’ minivan.
“They were huge pieces of that puzzle, helping me, paying for guitar lessons, putting rhinestones on shirts or driving me 14 hours to a show. It was never a burden.”
Those early days of flatbed stages and broken sound systems prepared her for myriad scenarios as a performer, but it will pale in faded memory when she steps out into places like Cowboys Stadium in Dallas.
“I always equate things to the size of my hometown. I don’t know why. I went to school down the road in Mineola, and the population is five, almost six thousand, so when I picture a stadium that has 70,000 people in it, I’m like, that is so many of my hometowns squished into one place.”
That sheer enormousness presents the challenge that concerns her the most, letting the humble singer-songwriter show through the still-thin veneer of a budding star.
“My songs, I feel like you have to listen to every word to get what I’m saying. A full band is not something I feel like I had to have. I can get my point across with just a guitar. It’s going to be a challenge to take what I do and not make it cheesy, but also reach the person in the back of the stadium.”
She smiles thinking about it, and for the first time hints at her future.
“I don’t strut the stage, but I’m going to have to compromise a little. You have to.”
Whether she truly is prepared for the searing light of celebrity, for having her own life examined like one of the characters in her songs, should become apparent by summer’s end.
What stories will she tell then? What human vagaries and foibles will she marry to verse and chorus? Or will Music Row eat its young as it is wont to do when format and function don’t align?
“Follow Your Arrow” points the way.
“You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t/ So you might as well do just whatever you want/ so, make lots of noise/ kiss lots of boys/ 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.”
Something tells us that Kacey Musgraves won’t flinch.
– Growing up in Golden, Texas, a town of about 600 people, helped hone her story-telling instincts. “I talk about ‘Merry Go ’Round’ being inspired by growing up in a small town, but really it’s like, the cycle of life, that inspired it. I guess it’s more see-through in a small town, just because there’s less to do and all you have to do is focus on yours and everyone else’s problems, mainly everyone else’s.”
– Musgraves started on mandolin, but then got her first guitar when she was 12. She took lessons from John Defoore, who taught out of the old Beckam Hotel in Mineola, Texas, and also taught Miranda Lambert and Michelle Shocked. Musgraves credits him with introducing her to the art of song craft. “I didn’t know how useful that would be down the road, but it totally set me up for what I’m doing now.”
– Musgraves graduated from high school at age 17 and immediately headed for Austin. “I knew that Nashville was going to happen some time but that it couldn’t be right away. I had to move away in pieces to get on my own feet.”
– As soon as she turned 18, Musgraves auditioned for, and won, a spot on reality show “Nashville Star.” She topped out at No. 7, but says it was a good experience. “I’m glad that I did it, and I’m also glad that I didn’t get further than I did, because that can really brand you, or stain you. I wanted a fresh start.”
– Musgraves will be the only woman performing on Kenny Chesney’s tour this summer, but she credits Chesney for making her feel at home, saying what you see is what you get. “There don’t seem to be any weird walls (around him) that it seems like a lot of famous people have.”
In addition to having a hand in all 12 cuts on her debut album, “Same Trailer Different Park,” released Tuesday, Musgraves also is enjoying co-writing credit on the following tracks:
“Mama’s Broken Heart” (Miranda Lambert, currently at No. 2 on Billboard Hot Country song chart)
“Undermine” (from the ABC show “Nashville” soundtrack)
“When You Love a Sinner” (Martina McBride)
“There’s a Person There” (Lee Ann Womack, unreleased)
Tags: Kacey Musgraves