With "Merry Go 'Round," Kacey Musgraves Starts Writing the Future of Country
Whether or not you've heard Kacey Musgraves's voice, if you watch ABC's Nashville, you've probably heard one of her songs.
Written with her friend Trent Dabbs and selected by the show's musical director, T-Bone Burnett, "Undermine" first appears in the second episode, when pop country star Juliette Barnes attempts to prove to local legend Deacon Claybourne she's more than a manufactured celebrity. Together, they drive to a plot of land once owned by Tammy Wynette and start writing on a hand-stitched quilt in the bed of a vintage Chevrolet.
Although the episode had been moving quickly, cross cutting between storylines involving record deals and the city's upcoming mayoral race, the song makes everything stop, Barnes extending its title couplet, "And it's a whole lot harder to shine, than to undermine," with a light vibrato that impresses even her veteran collaborator. Then they go skinny-dipping.
"I wish co-writes were like that!" Musgraves laughs over the phone, talking to me across time zones as she prepares to leave the real-life Nashville to tour with Country Music Award Vocal Group of the Year Little Big Town. "It was in a tacky '80's corporate office building with fluorescent lights, and nobody uses pen and paper. It's, like, computer only."
Whatever works, and lately, fluorescent lights and laptops have made Musgraves one of most exciting young acts in country music: Her major label debut, Same Trailer Different Park, is set to hit stores March 19, its lead single, "Merry Go 'Round," remains in radio rotation nearly five months after its release, and she was recently voted "Best New Artist" in Nashville Scene's annual poll of country music critics.
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Born in Golden, Texas, a tiny town (by her estimate, 600 to 800 people) best known for its annual sweet potato festival, Musgraves grew up singing and yodeling western swing. She first learned to play music on the mandolin, then at age 12 transitioned to guitar and began writing songs soon after.
"The guy that I took lessons from knew that I wouldn't be the kind of student who would shred scales," she says. "So he gave me homework every week to write a song and then bring it back to him."
After graduating from high school in nearby Mineola, songwriting brought her first to Austin, then to another country music television show, USA's Nashville Star--the American Idol jack that launched fellow Texan Miranda Lambert. Finally Musgraves arrived in Nashville itself, where she and her computer wrote songs like Martina McBride's "When You Love a Sinner" and Lambert's own "Mama's Broken Heart," in which a depressed daughter contemplates revenge against her ex despite her mother's instruction to act like a lady and hide her crazy.
Musgraves began work on her own album in the summer of 2011, leaving Nashville with a group of collaborators for a songwriting retreat at a ranch in East-Central Texas, just as the region fought off some of the most destructive wildfires in its history. "Everything, like, for miles has been burnt, like burnt up," she recalls, "All the trees were charred. It was really creepy. You could see where the fire had stopped right by the house."
In that environment, she wrote the song that would change her career. An account of small-town ennui unlike anything else on the radio, "Merry Go 'Round" opens bleak--"If you ain't got two kids by 21 / Then you're probably gonna die alone / At least that's what tradition told you"--and never recovers. Different characters in the song seek different fixes--Mary J for the son, Mary Kay for the mom--but every heart has the same hurt, and everyone has resigned themselves to the way things are.
Although not involved in the song's writing, Nashville vet Luke Laird came along for the retreat and heard the result before nearly anyone else. "I got chills all over my body," he remembers. "I was sitting there thinking, 'Is that as good as I think it was?' And so they played it again, and I was just like, 'Oh my gosh, that's amazing.' "
"We felt like we had something special," says Musgraves of the song's popularity. "But I wasn't sure how the country genre would take to having, not necessarily fingers pointed at it, but a blanket pulled away."
Same Trailer pulls that blanket even further. "Blowin' Smoke," for instance, is something of a counterpart to "Merry Go 'Round," an account of a woman ditching her waitress gig midshift and catching a bus out of town, told from the perspective of the coworkers who are never going to make their own break, no matter how much they talk about it.
Still, the record isn't entirely grim. "My House," a tribute to mobile homes, is as light as a Moldy Peaches song, and "It Is What It Is"--the one her grandma refers to as "the slut song"--falls somewhere in between, a track about a hook-up whose title reflects the deflationary, no-pretense sentiment that registers across the record.
"Every song that she writes, that I've heard, is really good, especially for her age, just the way that she can observe things," says Laird, who contributed to both "Smoke" and "What It Is."
Whether or not she becomes, as a few ambitious critics have predicted, the future of country music remains to be seen. But Same Trailer Different Park looks to be one the highlights of the present, the product of an artist whose songs about small-town life have seen her grow bigger than her native Golden. Kacey Musgraves performs at Irving Plaza Tues., Feb. 12.
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