Kacey Musgraves Reflects on her Whirlwind Ascent
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 majorâlabel 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 âBest New Artist,â and, at the 2014 Grammy Awards, Musgraves took home trophies for âBest Country Songâ and âBest Country Album.â
After growing up in the tiny town of Golden (population 600), Musgravesâ first big break came when she was chosen as a contestant on the reality TV singing competition âNashville Star.â 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, Musgravesâ 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, âFollow Your Arrow,â to censor out the lyric âroll up a joint.â 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.
âItâs going to be a year of checking more things off my bucket list,â 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. Itâs 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 Bonnarooâthat was a huge bucket-list item for meâthe 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. Theyâre such great guys, great players. Iâm just lucky! Yes, it has been kind of a blur. But itâs 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 thatâs 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 Iâve experienced or someone around me has gone through. It all has to feel really real to me or I canât sing it because it wonât be believable. So the defiance wasnât 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, thereâs 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 Iâve been about, especially the younger people. Theyâre 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 itâs partly a generational shift, and realizing that itâs time for everyone to be considered equal. Weâre all inspired by the same emotions and driven by the same feelings, no matter what weâre into. I also see it in a different way, too. I donât feel like Iâm doing anything crazy new. If you look back at Hank Williams or Willie Nelson or any of the country greats, theyâve been singing about real issues since the beginning.
Since you mention Hank and Willie, who are your biggest influences as a songwriter?
I didnât listen to a ton of radio growing upâbecause 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. Iâm also a huge Willie Nelson fan, and I love Alison Kraussâthink sheâs amazing.
Youâve been writing songs for most of your life. Tell me about writing what you thought was your first really good song.
Itâs funny because at the time you think theyâre good and then you hear them later and youâre all, âWhat was I thinking?â 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. Heâd say, âI donât care if itâs good, I donât care if itâs bad, I just want you to write something and bring it back.â And he would critique it and make me a work tape. Whenever I would play him back songs he would question, heâd be like, âWhy is this line here, and what were you trying to say? I think it could be more colorful.â So, it really sparked this interest with me. Thatâs 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 âNashville Starâ thing wasnât bad for me. I had just turned 18âit 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 kidsâ birthday parties as characters and singing and painting faces. It didnât last too long.
In terms of reality shows, theyâve influenced some notable careersâCarrie 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 donât 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 doesnât matter how people found you.
How did you feel about the âroll up a jointâ line being censored at the CMAâs during your performance of âFollow Your Arrowâ?
They told me that I would either have to change the lyrics or I would be censored, and Iâm 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 donât really understand it. Like I said, if itâs 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 âFollow Your Arrowâ seems to be âwhatever makes you happy.â Do you see yourself as a cultural relativist?
I donât know. Iâm really not one to say. You know, itâs a positive message. Youâre not going to be everyoneâs cup of tea and thatâs okay. Society is always going to have an opinion or something to say about what youâre doing. At the end of the day, if it makes you happy then it shouldnât 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?
Iâm in love with the guitar that I have now. I call her âJanice.â Sheâs a 1957 Gibson J-45. Sheâs 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. Itâs been through something. I got it at this place called Music City Pickers in Nashville. They always have a great selection of vintage instruments. Sheâs the first one Iâve ever gotten that was vintage. Sheâs 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. Iâm 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 âIt Is What It Is.â Iâm all over the recordâharmonica, harmoniesâbut I donât consider myself a crazy good guitar player, so I kind of let my favorite people do that.
Youâve written songs for other artists. Now that youâve broken into the business as a performer, is that something you think youâll continue to do?
Any songs that have been cut, they always start out as something that Iâm writing for me. Somewhere along the line, I either feel that they work for me or they donât, and thatâs when we decide to pitch them. It just depends. Yeah, I would love to have more artists sing or cut my songs. Iâll just be writing anyway, and if something happens to work for somebody, weâll just have to see.
Another thematic thread on your record, and one you find in a lot of country music, is that youâre 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 itâs 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, itâs the music and the songs. I think fame is kind of just a by-product of making music, and thatâs 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.
Whatâs next for you? Are you already planning your next album?
I always have some sort of creative vein flowing, but right now Iâm still kind of focused on this tour and whatâs in front of my face right now. There are still a lot of songs onSame Trailer Different Parkthat Iâm super excited about. I kind of want to stay in this moment for a while longer, but Iâve 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.