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Kacey Musgraves: The girl most likely to ...

A Texas singer-songwriter shakes up -- and charms -- country fans

By Alan Light
Special to MSN Music

Kacey Musgraves / ©Mercury Nashville
Kacey Musgraves (©Mercury Nashville)

Mark it down: Feb. 13, 2013, could turn out to be the day that Kacey Musgraves officially arrived. The most buzzed-about newcomer in country music played her New York debut the night before and woke up to the news that she had been nominated for four ACM awards (including Female Vocalist of the Year) before heading off for her first-ever network television performance on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon." All of this, mind you, a full month prior to the release of her album, "Same Trailer Different Park," and the start of a lengthy tour playing stadiums nationwide, opening for Kenny Chesney.

"I know people are going to be like, 'What is this girl doing just walking up in here? Who's this newbie trying to take everything over?'" says Musgraves with a laugh. "It's so much that I can't even process it. I don't want to knock everything off the bucket list the first year -- it's like, 'My record's not even out yet; don't jinx me!' It's exciting, but it kind of freaks me out, because I want this career to last a long time."

The acclaim, of course, had already started before this eventful day. Last fall, the release of Musgraves' single "Merry Go 'Round" was enough to get her named NPR's Best New Artist of the Year and one of Esquire magazine's "15 Music Artists to Watch in 2013," and earn her a spot on Rolling Stone's list of the top 50 songs of the year. She's not even a rookie in the television world, having competed on "Nashville Star" as a teenager, and her song "Undermine" was featured prominently on ABC's hit series "Nashville."

New this week: Kacey Musgraves

But what is so bracingly fresh and exciting about 24-year-old Musgraves is her singular voice as a songwriter. Plainspoken yet evocative, her control of language and creation of vivid characters and imagery stands alongside the work of some of her inspirations, like John Prine and Patty Griffin (though she also professes love for a range of artists from Frank Ocean to Weezer to the Beach Boys). While the songs on "Same Trailer Different Park" offer emotions from humor to pathos, Musgraves returns again and again to the prevalence of hypocrisy and superficiality, the public faces that people put on to cover up their real feelings. When those themes turn to church or marriage or sexuality, they veer into areas that feel new and brave for country music. ("Make lots of noise/Kiss lots of boys/Or kiss lots of girls, if that's something you're into," she sings on "Follow Your Arrow.")

Cross-legged on a couch in the lounge of a trendy downtown hotel, passing the time before she and her band head back to the Fallon studio to play "Merry Go 'Round," which had climbed into the Top 20 of the country charts, Texas-born Musgraves seemed thrilled and stunned by her rapid ascent, but also impressively sure of herself and her direction. If Taylor Swift has changed the possibilities for country music in the global pop universe, and Miranda Lambert (whose latest single, "Mama's Broken Heart," Musgraves co-wrote) is staking out new territory for creative and independent female artists in a male-dominated marketplace, Musgraves -- like another of her idols, Loretta Lynn -- illustrates how Nashville's sense of tradition and roots can be harnessed to reveal honest truths with unique force and clarity. Like her songs, Kacey Musgraves offers up both defiance and humility, and tries to just tell it like it is.

"I think that Taylor especially has opened doors up for other country artists, since she's introduced so many people to our genre that wouldn't even look at it," she says. "And that's cool, I think that's awesome  but there's still a plethora of guys to choose from, and literally just a handful of girls. So maybe the simple fact that there's someone new makes people want to give me a chance."

MSN Music: Aside from the album title, last night your set opened and closed with songs about trailers. What is it with you and those things?

Kacey Musgraves: Being from Texas, it's just a funny part of the culture down there that's interesting to me, and I think there's a lot of people who can relate. I experienced a small bit of trailer culture early in my existence, so at least I can poke some fun at it without being too much of an outsider. I wouldn't say I grew up in a trailer park, but the first house that I lived in when I came home from the hospital was a yellow trailer. I don't remember too much about it. I remember that there were stickers in the yard, so we couldn't go out there barefoot.

Bing: Kacey Musgraves

When did you first start writing songs?

I wrote my first song when I was 9. It was called "Notice Me." I can't imagine what a 9-year-old would have to write or complain about, but when you don't have any boundaries on your brain, I bet you can come up with some cool stuff. But I didn't get serious about it until I got a guitar and started taking lessons, when I was around 12, 13, 14. My guitar teacher really pushed me to write; my homework for the week would be to write a song.

It's hard at first, like exercising any kind of muscle or part of your brain, but it's like putting a puzzle together, and the more you do it, you get faster and better. Before that, I just wanted to be a singer, but then I fell in love with the actual construction of songs and I felt like I found my voice more.

After high school, I lived in Austin, and the scene there was great for playing out and honing your chops, but there wasn't really a songwriting community. And going back and forth to Nashville, I realized there's an amazing, tight-knit community that's completely devoted to songwriting, and I thought, "I'm going to try that."

Was there one song where you felt it click, felt like maybe you were actually good at this?

Throughout the couple of years I was writing for other people and pitching songs, I would set aside songs or ideas that I liked for myself. One of the first ones was "Blowin' Smoke." That's the first one that I wrote with Luke (Laird) and Shane (McAnally), my producing team, and we loved it so much and wrote it so quickly that we were sort of like, "OK, this is kind of the tone, here's where we want it to sit, let's keep going for that character." It's not even easy for me to know exactly what that character is, but it's definitely a point of view where I don't think you can tell whether it's outside or in. It's like I'm pointing a finger at people sometimes, but also at myself, and at all of us, saying, "We're all in this together, messing up."

Why do you think your music is getting such a strong reaction?

I'm not going to say a "real" perspective, because I'm sure that other people are real from their own perspective. It's just something a little different from what has worked before -- which scares my label sometimes, but I have to keep reminding them not to just keep throwing something out there that's worked previously and hoping that it will catch again. People aren't dumb, they'll say, "We've seen this before; it's not interesting." But the positive reaction to "Merry Go 'Round," which we initially thought might be somewhat controversial, was great, because if that's my song out of the gate and people like it, then at least they know who I am.

So I guess it's just that realness, and the fact that I'm not scared to push buttons or not be everybody's cup of tea. If you're pleasing everyone, I think something's wrong. It's going to be boring. I'd rather have stronger, smaller numbers. I don't think it's about getting as big as you can as fast as you can.

Have you started thinking about what it's going to be like to play stadiums?

For some reason, when I think of large numbers of people, I equate it to the size of my hometown, which is about five or six thousand people. So to take so many of my hometowns and put it in one area, all watching me, that's the only way I can process how many people that is -- and it's a s---load of people!

It's going to be a learning curve. I've never even really felt like I had to have a full band to get my songs' point across; it's always been me and a guitar. Now I'm going to go straight from the listening crowd in theaters straight into stadiums, and I'm not sure how my music is going to reach the people at the back of the nosebleed section yet, because I'm not one that's going to strut around, get a wireless Garth Brooks mic and fly in on a wire -- maybe later! But for now, hopefully I can convey the songs without changing too much of what I already do.

I was sitting behind a bunch of your family members at the show last night. What do they think of the songs you're writing?

They're real supportive and generally stoked and agree with my message, but there's a few things here and there like, "You shouldn't say that." A couple of the themes aren't my parents' or my grandmother's favorite, but by now they've realized that I'm going to do what I'm going to do. They still give me their two cents, believe me. My nana calls me every day and says, "I can't believe you'd say that," or whatever, and I'm just like, "Well, I'm sorry -- let me mess it up. It's my career, so let me do what I do."

Alan Light is the author of "The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of 'Hallelujah.'" A regular contributor to MSN Music, he is the former editor-in-chief of Vibe and SPIN magazines. He is the director of programming for the public television concert series "Live From the Artists Den," and contributes frequently to The New York Times and Rolling Stone. Alan is a two-time winner of ASCAP's Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music writing.

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