Kacey Musgraves Reflects on her Whirlwind Ascent

Posted on April 1, 2014 | by David Knowles

There is no denying that Kacey Musgraves' arrow is pointing upward. 

Capping a breakout year in which the 25-year-old Texas native released her major–label debut album, Same Trailer Different Park (Mercury), and spent the summer touring with Kenny Chesney, Musgraves made the jump to bona fide headliner before raking in a slew of well-deserved honors. Last fall, the Country Music Association named her “Best New Artist,” and, at the 2014 Grammy Awards, Musgraves took home trophies for “Best Country Song” and “Best Country Album.”

After growing up in the tiny town of Golden (population 600), Musgraves’ first big break came when she was chosen as a contestant on the reality TV singing competition “Nashville Star.” Though she finished in seventh place, the show put her on the map, and she soon moved to Music City and started writing songs in earnest. After a couple of years paying dues, she eventually landed a publishing deal, and made the contacts that would lead to her contract with Mercury.

With its canny mixture of down-home traditionalism and what might be read as a socially progressive political stance, Same Trailer Different Park struck a chord with a younger generation of country-music fans.

Still, Musgraves’ message may be a tad ahead of its time. At the CMAs, ABC-TV opted to silence her microphone during the performance of her hit, “Follow Your Arrow,” to censor out the lyric “roll up a joint.” Joint or no joint, Musgraves came away with the New Artist Award, and gave a self-assured performance that left the network looking out of step with the times.

Now, as Musgraves prepares to hit the road with Alison Krauss and Willie Nelson, her success is finally starting to sink in.

“It’s going to be a year of checking more things off my bucket list,” she says by phone from Milwaukee as she prepares to take the stage.

I guess 2013 was a pretty good year for you.

It was! A few cool things have happened. It’s been awesome.

Looking back, what were the highlights?

Oh, wow, well, it started off touring with Little Big Town, then I did the summer with Kenny [Chesney]. I got to go to Europe and the UK and played Bonnaroo—that was a huge bucket-list item for me—the Grand Ole Opry, so many things. It was the first year on the road really having my band and my bus. Just that whole thing has been awesome. I love my band and crew. They’re such great guys, great players. I’m just lucky! Yes, it has been kind of a blur. But it’s been a breeze in that I just get to be who I want to be, and make the kind of music I want to make and have creative freedom, and that’s all I could ever ask for.

You seem to have an edge of defiance in your lyrics. Is that conscious?

Not really. I just write things that feel good and that inspire me, which happens to be a huge array of either things I’ve experienced or someone around me has gone through. It all has to feel really real to me or I can’t sing it because it won’t be believable. So the defiance wasn’t really intentional, though I guess some people may see it that way.

Whether talking about rolling up a joint, same-sex relationships, or not buying into organized religion, there’s a libertarian streak to your songs. Have you caught flack for that, either at the CMAs or anywhere else?

People have been really, really supportive of everything I’ve been about, especially the younger people. They’re really behind my views. And country music has been, in general, really welcoming, so it has been nice.

Do you think country music has changed in that way? Would you have gotten the same reaction, say, five years ago?

I do think it’s partly a generational shift, and realizing that it’s time for everyone to be considered equal. We’re all inspired by the same emotions and driven by the same feelings, no matter what we’re into. I also see it in a different way, too. I don’t feel like I’m doing anything crazy new. If you look back at Hank Williams or Willie Nelson or any of the country greats, they’ve been singing about real issues since the beginning.

Since you mention Hank and Willie, who are your biggest influences as a songwriter?

I didn’t listen to a ton of radio growing up—because of my parents, really. Around the house, they always had a whole lot of Neil Young playing and a whole lot of Tom Petty and some Texas singer-songwriters, like Ray Wylie Hubbard and some female ones, too, like Jewel. So it was kind of a wide array. But then when I kind of moved out and started liking different things, I really got into John Prine. I am ahugeJohn Prine fan. His conversational storytelling is just the epitome of songwriting to me. I’m also a huge Willie Nelson fan, and I love Alison Krauss—think she’s amazing.

You’ve been writing songs for most of your life. Tell me about writing what you thought was your first really good song.

It’s funny because at the time you think they’re good and then you hear them later and you’re all, “What was I thinking?” But I have this guitar teacher who really pushed me to write and cultivated that love in me for songwriting. I went to him when I was 12 and kept going until I was 16 or 17. He would give me my homework, which would be to write. He’d say, “I don’t care if it’s good, I don’t care if it’s bad, I just want you to write something and bring it back.” And he would critique it and make me a work tape. Whenever I would play him back songs he would question, he’d be like, “Why is this line here, and what were you trying to say? I think it could be more colorful.” So, it really sparked this interest with me. That’s when I started writing a lot of the songs that felt like, hey, I could be a songwriter. Then, after moving to Nashville, I wrote and wrote and wrote as much as I could, and I felt like I was getting better and better. I was figuring out what makes me tick.

You had a pretty quick rise once you appeared on the reality show. Did you also have any hard times along the way?

The “Nashville Star” thing wasn’t bad for me. I had just turned 18—it was my first time away from home. It was what it was, and great for certain reasons. I was living in Texas at the time and coming back and forth to Nashville when I could afford to, and eventually about a year and a half later I decided to move there. I did little odds-and-ends jobs. I sang harmony for people for extra money, including back up for Rodney Foster for a while. One time, I dressed up for kids’ birthday parties as characters and singing and painting faces. It didn’t last too long.

In terms of reality shows, they’ve influenced some notable careers—Carrie Underwood, Scotty McCreery. When you talk to young performers, do you advise them to steer clear of these shows or do you still see them as an opportunity?

I don’t think that music is supposed to be about a certain panel of people judging you in front of America, but there are so many outlets today that it comes down to how good you are and what you have to say. It comes down to your songs. If you make a good record it doesn’t matter how people found you.

How did you feel about the ‘roll up a joint’ line being censored at the CMA’s during your performance of ‘Follow Your Arrow’?

They told me that I would either have to change the lyrics or I would be censored, and I’m not changing the lyrics, so . . . .

Given that national polls show a majority of Americans favoring the legalization of pot, it seemed like a really weird choice to censor that line.

I don’t really understand it. Like I said, if it’s a small compromise that I have to do in order to get the world to hear the song, then so be it.

The abiding message of ‘Follow Your Arrow’ seems to be ‘whatever makes you happy.’ Do you see yourself as a cultural relativist?

I don’t know. I’m really not one to say. You know, it’s a positive message. You’re not going to be everyone’s cup of tea and that’s okay. Society is always going to have an opinion or something to say about what you’re doing. At the end of the day, if it makes you happy then it shouldn’t matter.

You use an acoustic guitar on stage, in the studio, and in your videos. What kind of acoustic guitars are you using these days?

I’m in love with the guitar that I have now. I call her “Janice.” She’s a 1957 Gibson J-45. She’s the first guitar that I picked up and played and thought, I have to have this. It looks like it has a story to tell. It’s been through something. I got it at this place called Music City Pickers in Nashville. They always have a great selection of vintage instruments. She’s the first one I’ve ever gotten that was vintage. She’s a tobacco sunburst kind of thing, and the soundhole, somebody a long time ago took a red pen and wrote his name: Ted Keaton. Kind of makes me wonder where Ted Keaton is today. I’m in love with the guitar. It feels so good to play.

Do you play a lot of guitar on your record, or did you use studio musicians?

I played on “It Is What It Is.” I’m all over the record—harmonica, harmonies—but I don’t consider myself a crazy good guitar player, so I kind of let my favorite people do that.

You’ve written songs for other artists. Now that you’ve broken into the business as a performer, is that something you think you’ll continue to do?

Any songs that have been cut, they always start out as something that I’m writing for me. Somewhere along the line, I either feel that they work for me or they don’t, and that’s when we decide to pitch them. It just depends. Yeah, I would love to have more artists sing or cut my songs. I’ll just be writing anyway, and if something happens to work for somebody, we’ll just have to see.

Another thematic thread on your record, and one you find in a lot of country music, is that you’re an ordinary, simple person. With your success, have you ever thought to yourself, am I going to be able to maintain this sense of who I am?

Yeah. I think it’s important that from Day One I let people know who I am, so nothing will come as a surprise or a shock. I have people around me that really understand my goals. First and foremost, it’s the music and the songs. I think fame is kind of just a by-product of making music, and that’s never been my reason for making it. I love music and I love playing, but I do want to remain true to myself, and I think the people around me understand that.

What’s next for you? Are you already planning your next album?

I always have some sort of creative vein flowing, but right now I’m still kind of focused on this tour and what’s in front of my face right now. There are still a lot of songs onSame Trailer Different Parkthat I’m super excited about. I kind of want to stay in this moment for a while longer, but I’ve been writing a little bit here and there. You only get your first record once, so I want to make it last.         

This article appears in the May issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine. 

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