Until last week, I’d never heard of Kacey Musgraves. Today, I’m tempted to call her the future of country music—or, at least, to hope that she is.
“Merry Go Round,” Musgraves’ major label debut single, is a quiet stunner—the most surprising sound to come out of Nashville in 2012, a year full of fine country songs. Musgraves is a 24-year-old singer-songwriter from Golden, Texas, 80 miles east of Dallas. She placed seventh in the 2007 season of Nashville Star, the now-defunct American Idol-style TV competition. In the years since, her singing has hardened and brightened, she’s developed a sharp songwriting voice, and she’s started to make inroads on Music Row. She co-wrote the spunkiest song on Miranda Lambert’s Four the Record (2011), “Mama’s Broken Heart,” a thumping two-step that ponders the generation gap between mothers and daughters. How should a woman respond to a painful breakup? With “ladylike” poise and stoicism? (“Powder your nose, paint your toes/Line your lips and keep ’em closed.”) Or by going on drunken bender and blowtorching your ex’s house?
“Merry Go Round” has a gentler sound, but an even steelier spine. Musgrave co-composed the song with Josh Osborne and Shane McAnally, and it’s expertly made, full of plinking banjos and finger-picked guitars, with a melody that rises and dips over simple, deft chord changes. It’s delicate music, and Musgraves refuses to raise the temperature, delivering the song straight, without ornament or histrionics. You could mistake it for a pretty but innocuous pro forma country ballad, or a Taylor Swift song. But listen closer. “Merry Go Round” begins like this:
If you ain’t got two kids by 21
You’re probably gonna die alone
At least that’s what tradition told you
And it don’t matter if you don’t believe
Come Sunday morning you best be there
In the front row, like you’re supposed to
When’s the last time you heard a major label country ingénue announce her arrival with a song that casts a skeptical eye on motherhood and churchgoing? The answer is, you haven’t. And Musgraves is just getting warmed up. The lyric is a piece of high-Nashville craftsmanship, ringing witty variations on the homonyms Mary/married/merry. But it’s not wordplay-for-wordplay’s sake. The chorus is a gut-punch—a bleak home-movie vision of small town life, where addiction, adultery, boredom, and disappointment are passed down from generation to generation.
Mama’s hooked on Mary Kay
Brother’s hooked on Mary Jane
And Daddy’s hooked on Mary, two doors down
Mary, Mary, quite contrary
We get bored so we get married
And just like dust we settle in this town
On this broken merry-go-round
Music Row songwriters are pop’s most skilled storytellers, but they’re also its most beholden to orthodoxy. Spend an hour listening to a commercial country radio station and you’ll hear a dozen clever, tuneful versions of the same message: Rural America is a bastion of faith, family, trusty pickup trucks, cane pole fishing, sweet tea drinking, etc. There’s truth and beauty in those clichés, of course, but the triumphalism can be suffocating—and if it annoys a music critic from New York City, imagine how it must get under the skin of a young woman from East Texas with dyed hair and a nose ring. A full-length Kacey Musgraves album is promised for 2013. Let’s hope she keeps it up: honoring Nashville’s grand songwriting traditions while—gently, viciously—tipping its sacred cows.