Kacey Musgraves tells it like it is.
After listening to Same Trailer Different Park, the Nashville-based singer-songwriter’s first album for Mercury Records, it’s clear that this is a girl who has something to say. A true language artist, Kacey nimbly spins webs of words to create the quirky puns, shrewd metaphors, and steely ironies that fill the record.
The fact that she executes these lingual exercises in a clear, unaffected voice makes the ride all the more fun.
“I love words,” Kacey says. “I love how intricate they can get. Even in simple conversation, I like it when language is colorful.” This appreciation for wordplay shines in songs like “Silver Lining,” a sunnyside-up ode to positive thinking packed full of commonplace idioms that she’s given clever tweaks . Take the bridge, for example: If you wanna find the honey/You can’t be scared of the bees/If you want to see the forest/You’re gonna have to look past the trees. “When I was in school, one of my favorite subjects was always creative writing,” she admits. Of course it was.
It’s worth noting that at age 24, school isn’t that distant of a memory for Kacey. You’d never know that from her lyrics, though, which are wise beyond her years and read as if they were written by someone who has seen dozens more birthdays – and nursed at least that many broken hearts. Take the opening lines of “Stupid,” in which she personifies love as an exhausting masochist: Plays you like a fiddle/Shakes you like a rattle/Takes away your gun/And sends you into battle.
Love isn’t the only subject matter in Kacey’s songwriting repertoire: she’s a whiz at working pop culture references into her lyrics. On the album, recollections of kitchsy conversations between smack-talking Waffle House third-shifters (“Blowin’ Smoke”) bump up against campy communiqués from cross-country road trips in the family trailer (“My House”). It’s a testament to Kacey’s natural songwriting ability that these songs sound clever instead of cutesy. In fact, she can get downright bawdy when the situation calls for it.
On “Follow Your Arrow,” she points out the hypocrisies that society imposes on even the most conservative among us (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 preaches throwing caution and propriety to the wind: (Make lots of noise/Kiss lots of boys/Or kiss lots of girls if that’s something your 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 grew up in Golden, Texas, a town of 600 about 80 miles east of Dallas that Kacey admits is “kind of out in the middle of nowhere.” She grew up in a household that was creative, though not necessarily musical. Kacey’s mother is a visual artist; together, her parents run a print shop in nearby Mineola – “a little mom-and-pop Kinko’s kind of thing.”
Music came naturally to Kacey, a precocious kid who wrote her first song well before her elementary school graduation. (“It was called ‘Notice Me,’” she remembers. “I can’t help but wonder now what the hell a nine-year-old would’ve had to write about!”) Kacey made her public singing debut at church when she was around eight years old. From there, she hit the regional opry circuit. “In Texas, every few towns have an opry house,” she explains. “Performers come up on stage and sing old country songs with a live band. I did that every weekend. It got me familiar with being in front of people and working with musicians.”
She learned to play music first on the mandolin, and at age 12 started taking guitar lessons from a local musician named John DeFoore. It was an experience that Kacey describes as “one of the most important things that ever happened to me. He could tell early on that I wasn't the kind of student who was going to go home and shred scales, so he taught me chords and encouraged me to write. My homework every week would be to write a song. I'd bring it back to him the next week and he would critique it.”
“When I first started writing my own songs, they were pretty bad,” she admits. “I hadn’t found my own voice yet. But it made me appreciate the creative process, and it made me better. I learned not to be scared to just throw an idea out there. I had no clue how useful this would be to me when I moved to Nashville and signed a publishing deal. My ‘homework’ was essentially the same: write songs, bring them in, put them on tape and then have them critiqued. It’s the exact same thing John had me do.”
She played out through high school; when she graduated, her parents and grandparents helped fund her first record. Then at 18, with a self-released album under her belt, she moved to Austin. Not long after that, Kacey was chosen to compete on Nashville Star. The show was a bust (she finished seventh), but it introduced her to Nashville. The atmosphere and creative community grew on her. A couple of years later in 2008, Kacey left Austin for Music City, to fully pursue songwriting.
To make money, she sang on other artists’ demos. The work allowed her to pay the bills and introduced the industry to her voice and songs. “I went around to all the publishing companies with little EP type things,” she says. “I was, like, ‘Hey, you might need a new voice for demos... and also, these happen to be my songs.’” Kacey soon had a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell. “I developed a real passion for the construction of songs and probably wrote a couple hundred during that time, putting aside the ones that felt the most like me.”
There was some early label interest, and Kacey was booked on a few sessions with some well-known producers but it wasn’t really her thing. “What we did sounded like them, not me,” she explains. “It just wasn’t the right time yet. If you only get one shot to say something, it better be exactly what you want to say from the beginning, you know?” She stepped back. “I spent time developing my own mindset, writing more songs and honing in on how I wanted to sound. As that became more apparent, I ran with it.”
During this formidable time, Kacey met Luke Laird and Shane McAnally, two like-minded writers who quickly became her good friends and later co-producers on Same Trailer Different Park. By 2011, the three had laid the foundation for what would become Kacey’s debut. With McAnally and Laird as her co-pilots, Kacey cut four tracks and shopped them around. Several labels were interested; she chose Lost Highway, which is now defunct. “I'm sad it’s not around anymore,” she says. “When I met (founder) Luke Lewis, he told me, ‘I dig what you do. I'll never try to get you to change what you're doing. Even if it fails, you’ll know that at least you got to do what you wanted.’ That spoke volumes to me.”
That winter, Kacey and some of her favorite co-writers, a group that includes Josh Osborne and Brandy Clark, went on a writing retreat in desolate Strawn, Texas. There, reminders of recent wildfires set the scene and somber mood for the record’s first single, “Merry Go ‘Round.” “It was really creepy looking out there,” Kacey remembers. “All the trees were charred for miles and out in the middle was this huge house that barely escaped the fires. That was where a lot of the songs on this record were born.”
Kacey, who co-wrote every song on the album, enjoys a collaborative songwriting process. “When a co-write is going well, and all brains are working in the right way, it's like a good volley in a volleyball game - boom, boom, boom, boom,” she says. “‘Merry Go Round’ was written in a few hours. It went really fast.” The lyrics to the song, which boasts a chorus that goes Mama’s hooked on Mary Kay/ Brother’s hooked on Mary Jane/ And Daddy’s hooked on Mary two doors down, came from a conversation the writers had about the uneasy complacency and day-in deceptions that take place in even the most placid-seeming communities. “We started talking about how towns have secrets and how people everywhere are guilty of filling their parent’s expectations, settling, and never leaving their comfort zones,” Kacey says.
The retreat over, back in Nashville, Kacey had the job of culling through the new songs, which she added to the stash she’d been compiling during her time at Warner. “I had a ton of songs to choose from,” she admits. “I narrowed them down to about 30, and those down to 15, which we cut.” Tracking for the album began in December of 2011 at the historic RCA Studio A and by spring, the album was nearly complete.
Kacey spent the summer of 2012 touring. “I opened some shows for Willie Nelson in Texas,” she says. “Down there, that’s like Jesus coming back, you know? It was amazing.” In the fall, she did a stint in the U.S. with Alison Krauss before heading to Europe with Lady Antebellum. She returned in time for the September 10th release of “Merry Go ‘Round.” It was a hit – and a big one at that.
“Merry Go ‘Round” garnered quick airplay and critical acclaim from the likes of Rolling Stone (the magazine later placed the song in its vaunted list of the top 50 singles of the year); NPR, which named her their 2012 Best New Artist (all genre); and Slate, where the headline above a rave review of Kacey’s work read “Is This the Future of Country Music?” Billboard took a different track, looking to the past to qualify its praise: “Had Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton arrived on the scene in 2012 instead of the 1960s, some of their compositions could very well have ended up sounding like this.”
Kacey is, of course, honored by the comparison. “I’m really inspired by both of them,” she says, adding that other favorites include Patti Griffin and John Prine. “I like anyone with something to say. Loretta was writing stuff that was pretty ahead of its time, like with ‘The Pill’ and ‘Rated ‘X.’ She pushed a lot of buttons and I love that.”
In 2013, Kacey will hit the road to promote Same Trailer Different Park, first as a special guest on Little Big Town’s “The Tornado Tour,” and then as an opener on Kenny Chesney’s “No Shoes Nation” tour this spring and summer.
“I’m just stoked that I get to wake up every day and do what I really love,” she says. “As long as it lasts, I'm grateful.”
Kacey Musgraves - "Merry Go 'Round":
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