'Same Trailer Different Park' Review: Kacey Musgraves' Old Soul Still Has Some Learning to Do

You might say that Kacey Musgraves is a singer who knows where she came from. You might also say that she’s not entirely thrilled about it.

Twenty-four-year-old Musgraves is shaking up Nashville with her signature blend of traditional sounds and not-so-traditional lyrics. She’s co-written hits for Miranda Lambert and for the TV show Nashville. And her own first single, Merry Go 'Round, has created more excitement than any other debut country single in recent memory.

Musgraves’s new album, Same Trailer Different Park, largely justifies the hype. Her plaintive voice and folksy instrumentals root her firmly in country music tradition. With her intelligence, keen observational skills and raw honesty, she comes across as much older than her years--in some ways. In other ways she sounds very young indeed.

There’s a restlessness to Musgraves’s music. While other country singers are busy singing the praises of small-town life (e.g., Justin Moore’s number one hit Small Town U.S.A.), Musgraves regards that life with a jaded eye. The first verse from that first single, Merry Go ‘Round, sets the tone:

If you ain’t got two kids by 21

You’re prob’ly gonna die alone

Least that’s what tradition told you

And it don’t matter if you don’t believe

Come Sunday morning you best be

There in the front row like you’re s’posed to 

Same hurt in every heart

Same trailer, different park

While she’s occasionally willing to take a more playful tone about trailers in other songs (My House), I wouldn’t expect to hear this young woman reflecting on the joys of pickup trucks or moonshine ’round the bonfire any time soon. Which is precisely why Nashville is finding her so refreshing.

Undoubtedly there’s truth in Merry Go ‘Round. It reminds me, in fact, of the stories my mother tells of small town life in the 1950s. But then, it’s been a very long time since the 1950s. Small towns still exist, and so does small-town ennui, but lines like “We get bored so we get married” don’t always apply the way they used to; these days, if statistics are anything to go by, it’s more often “We get bored so we cohabit.”

The retro images Musgraves uses in her Merry Go ’Round video bear out what I’m saying: While she’s trying to make the point that the small towns she’s singing about are stuck in the past, it almost looks like it’s her own mindset that’s stuck there.

The song may be unique, but is it really edgy? Maybe it would have been in 1975, when Loretta Lynn was making waves by singing about the Pill, but nowadays ... not so much.

As is so often the case, an attempt to escape provincialism here leads to even greater provincialism. But when Musgraves really feels like showing her progressive credentials, she doesn’t mess around. Which makes her a particularly interesting case. If the country music world isn’t exactly the backwater portrayed in Merry Go ‘Round, it is a bastion of conservatism—for now. But whenever a subculture is resisting the direction of the larger culture, various voices within that subculture will start rebelling against it from the inside, and start to sound in sync with the rest of society.

Musgraves exemplifies this pattern.

Case in point: Though the record company went with Blowin' Smoke for her second single, the one that Musgraves herself wanted—and the one that’s had the most buzz—is Follow Your Arrow. The song kicks off with a verse that shows off both her talent for wordplay and her world-weary attitude:

If you save yourself for marriage, you're a bore

If you don't save yourself for marriage, you're a hor

-rible person, If you won't have a drink, then you're a prude 

But they'll call you a drunk as soon you down the first one

But it’s the chorus that’s really getting attention:

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, yeah

Follow your arrow wherever it points

That would be pretty tame stuff for pop music; in country, it’s revolutionary. One should at least give Musgraves credit for acknowledging that the chaste and the teetotalers have a right to their opinion--that’s more than most pop singers would do. But her attempt to be open-minded to every possible point of view leads her to this:

You're damned if you do

And you're damned if you don't

So you might as well just do whatever you want

I don’t think it’s an accident that this part sounds like a PG-13 version of Dr. Seuss. “Do whatever you want” is not a mature philosophy. On the contrary, it’s one that any six-year-old would buy into with enthusiasm. And though it’s winning her lots of acclaim from those who would like to see country become more like pop (in its attitudes if not in its sound), still, on close examination, it’s hard to see it as anything but a weakness.

With her undeniable talent, it’s no wonder that Musgraves is rocketing to country stardom. It remains to be seen, though, whether the world of country as a whole is truly willing to embrace the message along with the music.


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