Can a skinny, 24-year-old girl from Texas with three albums nobody heard and a seventh-place finish on Nashville Star save country music from itself? Quite possibly.
When Kacey Musgraves’ single, “Merry Go ‘Round,” sailed into the Top 15 on Billboard’s country singles chart at the end of last year, it felt like a breakthrough. Not because it was a good song, for a substantial minority of the songs on country radio are well crafted and heartfelt, even if they break no new ground. Nor did it stand out because it sounded so original; a substantial minority of Americana-radio songs sound distinctively fresh, even if they never get on commercial radio. No, “Merry Go ‘Round” sounded like a leap forward, because Musgraves hit the trifecta: a well-made song with a totally fresh perspective that still connected with a mainstream country audience.
That combination is crucial, because popular music means something special when it really is popular without pandering. And country music means something more when it’s welcomed by country people—a song about farms, small towns and ex-urbs vibrates a little more when it’s embraced by the people it’s talking about.
As a pure aesthetic experience, Kevin Gordon’s song about small-town Louisiana, “Colfax/Step in Time,” was the best song of 2012, but as a social experience it didn’t mean as much as “Merry Go ‘Round,” because “Colfax” was shared by many fewer people—and even then by people unlike the characters in the song. But when Musgraves sang, “Mama’s hooked on Mary Kay. / Brother’s hooked on Mary Jane. / Daddy’s hooked on Mary two doors down. / Mary, Mary, quite contrary, / We get bored, so, we get married,” small-town residents just like her characters recognized themselves and bought the record.
It was only two months ago that “Merry Go ‘Round” finally appeared on an album, Same Trailer Different Park, a title that’s not only a line from the hit single but also a clever pun on Merle Haggard’s album, Same Train, A Different Time. It’s a title that captures the universality of these songs—what happens in Musgraves’ trailer home is happening in trailer homes all over this nation. And that shared experience was confirmed when the album went to #1 on the country charts and #2 on the pop charts.
Just as importantly, the songs live up to the promise of the single; they’re written with the smart, barbed understatement of a John Prine and delivered with the nasal twang and conversational ease of a Loretta Lynn. The new single, “Blowin’ Smoke,” is a dead-on summary of the chatter between a bunch of waitresses taking a cigarette break “between the lunch and dinner rush” in the alley behind a restaurant. Musgraves not only gets the blue-collar language just right but also the wistful dreams and self-deception. The bar-band Southern-rock behind her voice seems to be coming from the “cocktail lounge” attached to the restaurant.
When the women swear they’re going to quit real soon now, you don’t know if they’re talking about their nicotine habits or their dead-end jobs, but you know the odds are against it in either case. The waitresses, cashiers and receptionists who make up so much of the country-music audience are willing to accept the criticism just to hear their own lives reflected so honestly on the radio.
That’s the astonishing thing about Musgraves’ album; she’s not just capturing white, small-town, working-class culture in revelatory detail; she’s offering a subtle critique of that culture’s discontent—and from a perspective very different from the Tea Party, which has tapped into that same disquiet. On “Merry Go ‘Round,” she suggests that the loveless marriages, pro-forma Christians and drug habits of her small town are the result of inertia more than choice, the default option of people who can’t change their habits or buck convention any more than those chain-smoking waitresses can.
She explores this theme in greater detail on “Follow Your Arrow,” where she encourages everyone stuck in a rut to “make lots of noise and kiss lots of boys—or kiss lots of girls, if that’s something you’re into.” This winking nod of approval to same-sex love may be her most controversial comment, but even more subversive is her suggestion that a lot of people in church don’t really believe what they’re repeating—so why are they there?
Musgraves could never have been so unconventional on country radio if not for the precedent of Miranda Lambert and her trio, the Pistol Annies, who made it okay for women to sing about guns, kerosene, alcohol, pills, joints, fast cars and lust. The Pistol Annies (Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley) have just released their second album in less than a year, proving that Lambert wasn’t kidding when she told interviewers that the trio wasn’t a one-off project but an ongoing concern. And that sophomore album, Annie Up, is even more impressive than the strong freshman effort, Hell on Heels.
The over-the-top comedy songs such as “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty” and “Unhappily Married” are just as funny as their predecessors on the first disc. The new songs have more bite, because challenging the cosmetics industry and the institution of marriage is more risky than confessing your own misbehavior. The serious songs have more depth as well. “Trading One Heartbreak for Another” is a smartly restrained Southern-rocker, where a woman asks if it’s worse to live with a husband she doesn’t like or to deprive her son of a father. “Blues, You’re a Buzz Kill” suggests that there are some heartaches that can be cured by whisky, pot or heroin, though the narrator seems to have tried them all.
The latter song boasts the sneaky understatement and sly humor of a Musgraves song, while Musgraves’ “Stupid” boasts the boisterous, sing-along chorus of a Pistol Annies song. Both Same Trailer and Annie Up are admirable records but Musgraves has the edge because she goes for knowing chuckles and uncomfortable criticism rather than out-loud laughs and pat-on-the-back affirmation.
What’s fascinating, though, is that it’s women who are doing most of the rule-breaking and innovating in Nashville these days. They’re the new Outlaws. What women could sing about and how they could sing about it was narrowly defined in Nashville for many decades. But now, in an unexpected role reversal, male country artists are far more constrained than their female counterparts. As the Pistol Annies sing on “Loved by a Workin’ Man,” the stereotypical good ol’ boy “won’t do the laundry, but he’ll keep your car real clean.” There are a lot of things he won’t—or can’t—do, and only a few that he can.
Modern country women, by contrast, can do it all: wash the laundry and change the tires, share their secrets and swear at an ex-lover, feed the baby and chug a beer, kneel in church and criticize the minister, shout over a rowdy Southern-rock band and croon over a pretty string band. Like the characters in Musgraves’ songs, Music Row seems to be running on inertia, because it’s too easy to keep going and too risky to change. If anyone’s going to shake the genre awake it’s going to be women like Musgraves, Lambert, Presley, Monroe (whose fine new album, Like a Rose, is out), Holly Williams (whose strong new album, The Highway, is also out) and Kellie Pickler. And maybe Taylor Swift, if she ever decides to make country music again.