Nearly two years have elapsed since the release of Kacey Musgraves’ Same Trailer Different Park, and what a boom time it has been for the Texan. Her immediately acclaimed album blitzed the country chart and won a Grammy for Best Country Album, while one of the most buzzed-about tracks, ‘Follow Your Arrow,’ won CMA Song of the Year and left Musgraves holding aloft the New Artist of the Year Award after having been a finalist for Female Vocal as well – damn fine fishing off a debut, in anyone’s say-so!
I spoke with Kacey a month out from her first visit to Australia where she will headline CMC Rocks Qld, and got the nitty gritty on what she thinks about her place in the hierarchy of country music.
“It has been a wild ride alright! I’m a huge fan of Country Music, so it means a lot that I would be thought of as representing it,” she said. “I really didn’t expect to win any of the awards. But overall their saying, ‘Hey, you’re somebody that deserves to be in this world,’ means a lot.’”
Musgraves has joined Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town and Katy Perry touring USA and Canada hauling her Trailer all over, while plotting her next musical move.
Fans whose appetites were whet by the capricious and at same time deadly serious Same Trailer Different Park can’t wait for the next album, and while she declared herself in no rush to get to it, (“There’s something just really special about a first record. I want to hold onto that as long as I can.”) her new record is now pretty much in the can, once again co-produced by the singer with Luke Laird and Shane McAnally.
While she was tight-lipped on an actual release date, Kacey said she will perform some of the new songs on live shows here, and said, “There are some with loads of sarcasm and humour, some with a sweeter, softer side to them, and more of the same as last time. It would be fair to say it is the same character but this time around she’s a little older, seen more and grown some maybe.”
“I’m just going with my gut and making it about the songs. . . I’ve found my stride, and I’m doing something that makes sense to me.”
Happily, judging by the accolades raining down on her from great heights, it makes sense to a lot of people.
Musgraves self-released three albums before appearing on the fifth season of the singing competition Nashville Star in 2007, where she placed seventh. Signed to Mercury Nashville in 2012, she released the album Same Trailer Different Park in March 2013.
The track ‘Follow Your Arrow’ exemplifies her contradictory approach. Its’ acceptance of weed and same-sex relationships is decidedly ‘now’, while the folk guitar riffs and lighthearted whistling evoke the sound of Marty Robbins’s 1965 hit ‘Ribbon of Darkness.’
“You’ve gotta have that push and pull,” she said. “That’s my favourite thing, when there’s juxtaposition between something that sounds really sad but has uplifting lyrics, or vice versa. Or something that has a really modern lyric but sounds uber traditional. I feel like if anything is too one-sided, then it’s either predictable or boring.”
It certainly stands out as a different album by today’s standards – it’s country from any perspective – no roaring soaring vocal bridges, no rapping, no tailgates and/or beer anthems.
‘Follow Your Arrow’ further points out the hypocrisies of a conservative society (If you save yourself for marriage you’re a bore/If you don’t save yourself for marriage you’re a horr…ible person) which she balances with a chorus that advocates throwing propriety to the wind: (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/Follow your arrow wherever it points.) Her message is clear: Be yourself and be happy. Kacey nimbly spins webs of words to create the quirky puns, lippy metaphors, and steely ironies that fill the record.
While her contemporaries generically (and increasingly tediously) wrap a lyric in arena-rock guitars and pop ‘grab’ phrasing, she soaks plain-speak in lashings of steel guitar. Musgraves is a walking contradiction. Here’s a young, hip ‘twenty-something’ who’s toured with Katy Perry, slam-dunked the ‘hallowed halls’ of country music with some home truths untarnished by any ‘people-pleasing’ phobias, and then she’s telling me, “I grew up singing Western swing and really traditional Country Music – Ernest Tubb songs, Jimmie Rodgers songs, Patsy Montana, Patsy Cline.”
“At the time, I liked the performance aspect. But I was like, ‘Mom! Nobody my age likes these songs!’ I was feeling kind of nerdy. Now, looking back, that gave me a huge, huge schooling in eras that came way before me, so now I can take bits and pieces that stand out to me and make them fresh.”
“A big part of my sound is inspired by my love of Willie Nelson, just his style of keeping it straight and really simple, and letting the lyrics speak for themselves.”
Musgraves is a whiz at working pop culture references into her lyrics. Recollections of kitch conversations between smack-talking Waffle House third-shifters (‘Blowin’ Smoke’) bump up against campy communiqués from cross-country road trips in the family caravan (‘My House’). It’s a testament to Kacey’s natural songwriting acumen that these songs sound clever instead of cutesy. Neither does she shy away from getting down and bawdy when the situation calls for it.
Rolling Stone magazine listed ‘Follow Your Arrow’ at number 39 of their list of 100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time, and said that Musgraves was ‘one of the loudest symbols of young country musicians embracing progressive values.’
She knows what she wants, but she comes off with not a hint of ego. There is no shortage of sass and smarts and you can tell she has that rare instinct – it’s something in the DNA of the true troubadour and it can be tweaked but not taught. Nor can it be filtered through a sieve of perceived approval. It needs to be impertinent and inquisitive, disrespectful if necessary and with enough backbone to back a smart mouth and tell a straight story.
On the subject of approbation Kacey is typically plain spoken. “I don’t set out to offend. Music makes me happy and I would like for it to make anyone listening happy too, but I can’t change it if they aren’t. I don’t think too much about people’s reaction in the creative process. At the same time, I think throwing the rebel card out there is really cheap. The things I’m singing about are not controversial to me. I don’t push buttons to push buttons. I talk about things that have made an impression on me that a lot of people everywhere are going through.”
The young songwriters’ confidence was bolstered no small amount with her songs being cut by Martina McBride and Miranda Lambert, among others, back before her own record deal came along. She lists Alison Krauss as a career role model. “I mean, how many Grammys does she have? She’s just remained solid and true and great, and I respect that”. Kacey’s favourite artist is John Prine because of his amazing songwriting, and Lee Ann Womack is a long-term pinup: “Lee Ann Womack is from near where I grew up in east Texas so I’ve always looked up to her.”
Kacey will bring a five piece band and crew to Australia with her and she is mustard keen to get started.
“I am so excited to get down there and see what y’all got goin’ on! It’s gonna be a great time! And I have an Aussie drummer, Jared Kneale, and he’s looking forward to getting home and to showing the rest of us his home turf of Sydney too. I have taken a few extra days to have a look around but this trip is mainly about work. I am sure we’ll want to come back after this first taste!”