No matter how pop it gets, country remains a stubbornly utilitarian music, its hits often built to perform specific functions in listeners’ lives. Hate your boss? Play Johnny Paycheck. Having a party in a parking lot? Luke Bryan’s got the song for you. Tired of the fact that the traits that distinguish you, your friends, and your family just don’t seem to be valued by the new American economy? Spin Blake Shelton’s “Boys ‘Round Here” or any of 1,000 other audience-mythologizing hits that truck in trucks, beer, prayer, and reassurance. After all, anyone who likes hearing about the all-American greatness of Skoal and red-dirt roads must by rights be pretty great, too.
The millions that Nashville pockets off that reassurance make Kacey Musgraves’s Same Trailer Different Park somewhat miraculous. Here’s a major-label debut whose lead single’s depiction of small-town life is closer to Chekhov than Eric Church. “Merry Go Round” is a diagnosis set to the delicate pluck of a minimalist string band: Everyone in the narrator’s life suffers from some addiction or another, their drugs and cheating and churchgoing all rote, time-killing distractions rather than the rah-rah hobbies enjoyed by the boys ’round Blake Shelton’s way.
Tradition in “Merry Go Round” is a grind to escape from, a set of lies everyone tells to make their shared disappointment more palatable. Like much of Musgraves’s album (her fourth), it has the feel of a gentle yet insistent correction, as if Musgraves and her co-writers are saying to the songs that bookend her singles during drive-time, “No, this is what life actually feels like.” In that way, her music is just as utilitarian as Shelton’s: This one’s for anyone who wants to be assured that it’s OK to chafe against all that reassurance.
Perhaps that helps explain how an RCA/Mercury release wound up placing so highly in this poll. Fortunately, Same Trailer Different Park stands as tall as music as it does Opryland apostasy. When’s the last time a country star — or any pop phenomenon, really — sounded this easygoing? Musgraves’s singing is like honeyed conversation, her phrasing direct and unfussy, her inclinations bent toward charm and intimacy rather than belting. Songs like “Step Off” or “Blowin’ Smoke,” both monologues from beleaguered young women, would make better audition pieces for young actors than for Nashville Star contestants. They’re composed of nothing but the things that must be said, and Musgraves says them with the understatement that in real life makes such things sayable, sounding wry, annoyed, and pleased with herself all at the same time.
Her band shares her commitment to an old-fashioned, serve-the-song formalism. But for all the pedal steel and banjos, the music never seems to be looking backward. The pickers are loop-minded, their spare and repeating rhythmic figures stripped of flourishes. At times they risk asceticism — only on the last track does anyone essay anything like a solo, and the songs with the subtler hooks might sound, at first, like featureless folk. That, too, is a corrective. One of the strangest quirks about today’s country music is that it’s the radicals who tend to demand the music sound more conservative. The biggest stars these days burn through more pyrotechnics per concert than your average WWE event.
Those hungry for a more radical Nashville have rallied around Musgraves’s latest single, the witty and cagey just-be-yourself number “Follow Your Arrow.” It’s the most rousing song on the album, possibly the most affecting, and certainly the most flagrant about its attention-grabbing. As every piece written about Musgraves in 2013 was obliged to mention, “Follow Your Arrow”‘s chorus endorses marijuana and invites country-radio listeners to sing along to lines advising them to “kiss lots of boys/or kiss lots of girls/if that’s something you’re into.”
The song cuts deeper than Katy Perry–style provocation. Crucially, its taboo-flouting is inviting, inclusive even. “Roll up a joint — or don’t!” Musgraves laughs with winning insouciance. She’s not copping out or contradicting herself; she’s acknowledging a libertarian truth: Pot ain’t for everyone, and neither are non-heteronormative hook-ups, but they’re nothing to look askance at. The only thing that good-hearted people shouldn’t care for is harshing the buzz of good folks just being themselves.
“Same hurt in every heart/Same trailer, different park,” she sings on “Merry Go Round,” a song about the ruts you might wind up in after not following your arrow. Gay, straight, bi, high, drunk, teetotaling — that insistence that we’re more alike than different no matter what we’re into turns up on song after song, here — and now, on actual radio stations. Musgraves isn’t just a breakthrough for country music, as many critics have backhandedly branded her. She’s a breakthrough, period, persuasively articulating the pleasures of an open-minded life. Her message: Find something — or someone — you love, rather than just another thing to kill the time. This record is a fantastic place to start.
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