Kacey Musgraves isn’t sure how high she can get today. Hanging out in Aspen, Colorado, a couple days before she’s to share a bill with Tim McGraw at Country Jam U.S.A. in nearby Grand Junction, Musgraves wants to go hiking, but worries that the altitude won’t be to her liking.
“Even walking around, I’m somehow way out of breath,” she says.
Such a sentiment would be understandable even if the 26-year-old weren’t literally breathing rarefied air. After eking out a living performing before near-empty rooms in Austin and selling songs to the likes of Martina McBride and Miranda Lambert in Nashville, Musgraves’s Same Trailer, Different Park was one of 2013’s most lauded records, earning a Grammy for Best Country Album.
Unafraid to cast same-sex relationships and pot-smoking in a positive light, as she did on “Follow Your Arrow,” Musgraves’s appeal transcends the usual demographics. “I just want to make sure that while it’s definitely country music I’m making, I’m not bound by any genre boxes,” she says. “Last summer, touring with Katy Perry and turning around and touring with Willie Nelson — those two could not be further apart musically.”
Fans of Musgraves who feared that her Perry pairing might steer her in a poppier direction can rest easy: Her new album, Pageant Material, is, as she recently put it, “country as shit.” If anything, it’s twangier than Same Trailer; thick with lap steel and soaring orchestration, the record occasionally makes you feel as though you’re stoned in the desert, with Pee-wee’s Playhouse lurking behind a far-off cactus.
“It was kind of cool to have a ten-piece string section on the record,” she says. “A lot of the records I know and love kind of have that vibe going on — a lush sound like that.”
Musgraves grew up in tiny Golden, Texas, and began writing songs and performing in elementary school. Small-town life is a perennial theme in country music, but as Musgraves proved with Same Trailer’s “Merry Go Round,” she’s the rare artist who’s unafraid of painting a less-than-idyllic portrait of folks in two-stoplight backwaters.
“I grew up in East Texas. I really love where I came from — very tiny town, knew all the kids by name. I definitely think it made me who I am; there’s a nice sort of transparency in small towns. If you act a certain way, people are gonna know about it. You don’t have the luxury of acting like an asshole like you would in a big city.”
This is the precise theme of the fifth track on the new album. “?‘This Town’ is based on this idea my sister gave me after she went to Marfa,” explains Musgraves. “She asked someone what it was like to live there, and she said, ‘This town’s too small to be mean.’?”
“Biscuits” is Pageant Material’s first single, with Musgraves recently releasing a Hee Haw–inspired video for the song. While she insists that it’s lyrically “quite different” from “Follow Your Arrow,” the new tune’s “do you” theme beats a similar path. It’s unlikely, however, to generate anywhere near the controversy that “Follow Your Arrow” did, as mainstream culture has leapt closer to where Musgraves was politically in 2013.
“I think the world is moving in a great direction,” she says.
Musgraves has been heralded for her gutsy songwriting. But while she has a penchant for clever, compact phraseology and bold (for country) subject matter, she doesn’t spin vivid, McMurtry-esque yarns. She’s not concerned with taking you somewhere, to have each verse play like a mini-movie in your head. She’s more interested in connecting with listeners, letting them know that their struggles are shared. Most songs that the masses find memorable strike a similar chord, but at some point — like on her next album — one wonders whether these topical wells might begin to run a bit dry.
“Ten years from now, I’m not going to be making records about the same thing,” she insists. “I get inspired by life as I’m living it. I’m a huge fan of John Prine. I really admire his style and witty turn of phrase. He was always commenting on the social stuff of his time, but in a funny way. He’d use some dark themes, but in kind of a lighthearted manner. I love how his songs are very conversational. They don’t sound super-poetic; they’re just kind of the way they are.”
Musgraves’s adorable visage appears on the front of Pageant Material. She looks uncannily like Pippa Middleton, and the crown seems to fit. But, as she sings on the title track, “Just ’cause I’m higher than my hair don’t mean that I don’t care about world peace, but I don’t see how I can fix it in a swimsuit on a stage.”
“Nobody’s perfect. I’m definitely not,” she says of that song. And therein lies her charm.
Kacey Musgraves’s Pageant Material is out now via Mercury Nashville. She will play the Paramount Theatre on July 18.