Newcomer Kacey Musgraves Takes Nashville By Storm

Kacey Musgraves hates the genre column on iTunes. It’s the label to end all labels.

Photo: Jason Moore
Durham Performing Arts Center, Durham, N.C.

The 24-year-old Texas-born singer-songwriter is the focus of Nashville this week as she releases her new album Same Trailer Different Park. She has two songs in the Top 20 at country radio and is on tour with Kenny Chesney. By the end of that sentence, like iTunes, you probably stamped the word country on her music.

That’s only partially true. Everybody’s finding out there’s a lot more to Kacey Musgraves.

“My favorite compliment probably ever is when someone tells me, ‘I don’t like country music, but I like your music,’“ Musgraves said. “It really stokes me out when I hear that. It’s cool because I don’t want to be defined by the iTunes label. So if I can just make good music that can appeal to a range of people, then I’ll be happy.”

So far, she’s on target. Those songs, “Mama’s Broken Heart,” written for Miranda Lambert, and her own lead single “Merry ‘Go Round,” have stormed right on up the radio airplay charts. She’s gotten her fair share of hosannas from likely sources in the country music world, too, and even netted an Academy of Country Music Awards nomination for best female vocalist – before her major label debut hit stores.

Even the media types who often ignore mainstream country music are on board. Rolling Stone’s Jody Rosen says in a four-star review, “The album showcases a songwriting voice you won’t hear anywhere else in pop: young, female, downwardly mobile, fiercely witty.” And Ann Powers of indie rock-focused tastemaker NPR says it unfolds like a novel and considers it a “gift”: “Pop desperately needs women artists like Musgraves – women who can tell the stories of their regular sisters and nieces and aunts and uncles and boyfriends in optimistic but realistic terms.”

Musgraves sings of small-town lovable losers stuck in a loop on “Merry ‘Go Round” and espouses smoking weed and erasing romantic gender lines in “Follow Your Arrow.” That’s just the start. Musgraves has delivered an album meant to gently, but pointedly, jostle the status quo.

“I would love to change things about country,” she said. “I think we need to be a little more accepting. If you listen to every other genre there’s no issue talking about pot or homosexuality or atheism or whatever it is. But you move to our genre and you’re like X’d if you bring up any of that. And that makes me want to say it even more.”

That insightfulness, and the easy performing style she uses to pull it together, is what first attracted Luke Laird to Musgraves’ music. After a few songwriting sessions, he eventually agreed to co-produce her new album with Shane McAnally. Same Trailer – her first for Mercury Nashville after three independent releases – offers just one facet of a deep songwriting talent he sees as limitless.

“I can hear her doing a record that’s super traditional country but it’s sounding legitimately honest,” Laird said. “That’s the kind of background she has. But she’s got pop melodies in her. It’s so diverse. This record is just barely scratching the surface. I just can’t wait to see how she continues to grow and how she’ll evolve artistically.”

The best guess is unpredictably. That’s the way it’s gone so far.

Given her choice of labels at Universal Music Nashville, she initially chose the respected imprint Lost Highway even though it would have limited her commercial appeal. Offered the usual star-making producers kept on speed dial in Music City, she turned them all down.

She even rolls differently when it comes to promotion. The petite brunette showed up to a recent interview at an East Nashville coffeehouse that serves hipsters, not honky-tonkers, without a hint of country in her wardrobe. She then proceeded to do her own hair and makeup for a photo shoot.

From lip gloss to producer, all these choices are calculated.

Photo: Donn JonesInvision/AP
At the Barista Parlor in Nashville, Tenn.

It took a few years of writing and tossing out songs till she came across her true voice. Now that she’s found it, she wants you to hear it – and really, really listen.

“I think it’s time that a new normal was created,” she said.