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 blendof traditional sounds and not-so-traditional lyrics. She’s co-written hits for MirandaLambert 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 instrumentalsroot her firmly in country music tradition. With her intelligence, keen observationalskills and raw honesty, she comes across as much older than her years–in someways. In other ways she sounds very young indeed.
There’s a restlessness to Musgraves’s music. While other country singersare 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 versefrom 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 othersongs (My House), I wouldn’t expect to hear this young woman reflecting on thejoys of pickup trucks or moonshine ’round the bonfire any time soon. Which isprecisely why Nashville is finding her so refreshing.
Undoubtedly there’s truth in Merry Go ‘Round. It reminds me, in fact, of the storiesmy mother tells of small town life in the 1950s. But then, it’s been a very long timesince the 1950s. Small towns still exist, and so does small-town ennui, but lineslike “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 wecohabit.”
The retro images Musgraves uses in her Merry Go ‘Round video bear out what I’msaying: While she’s trying to make the point that the small towns she’s singing aboutare stuck in the past, it almost looks like it’s her own mindset that’s stuck there.
Thesong may be unique, but is it really edgy? Maybe it would have been in 1975, whenLoretta Lynn was making waves by singing about the Pill, but nowadays … not somuch.
As is so often the case, an attempt to escape provincialism here leads to evengreater provincialism.But when Musgraves really feels like showing her progressive credentials, shedoesn’t mess around. Which makes her a particularly interesting case.If the country music world isn’t exactly the backwater portrayed in MerryGo ‘Round, it is a bastion of conservatism–for now. But whenever a subculture isresisting the direction of the larger culture, various voices within that subculturewill start rebelling against it from the inside, and start to sound in sync with the restof society.
Musgraves exemplifies this pattern.
Case in point: Though the record company went with Blowin’ Smoke for hersecond single, the one that Musgraves herself wanted–and the one that’s had themost buzz–is Follow Your Arrow. The song kicks off with a verse that shows offboth 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
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 theteetotalers have a right to their opinion–that’s more than most pop singers woulddo. But her attempt to be open-minded to every possible point of view leads her tothis:
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.any six-year-old would buy into with enthusiasm. And though it’s winning her lotsof acclaim from those who would like to see country become more like pop (in itsattitudes if not in its sound), still, on close examination, it’s hard to see it as anythingbut a weakness.
With her undeniable talent, it’s no wonder that Musgraves is rocketing tocountry stardom. It remains to be seen, though, whether the world of country as awhole is truly willing to embrace the message along with the music.