Kacey Musgraves is looking to change a mammoth, 44.6 million-albums-sold-last-year music machine from the inside out. And she's going to use pot, homosexuality, and atheism to do it. "EGADS!", one might say. "POT, HOMOSEXUALITY, AND ATHEISM?!" And then one might think for a moment and realize, "No, wait. Those aren't that exciting anymore. Pfffft, Kacey Musgraves, nice try, with your 'controversial' singing music record. NEXT." But wait. How often do you hear about any of the above in a COUNTRY album? How often are small-town Texas and big-town Nashville starting conversations around atheism and gender norms? Kacey Musgraves is a native of the former, and a product of the latter, and she's changing the genre that made her famous one song at a time.
Musgraves isn't new to country, but she's relatively new to Nashville. She released three albums independently before being signed to a major label in 2012 and she placed seventh when she appeared in the 2007 season of USA's Nashville Star. Voices like hers, singing songs about queering gender expectation and Southern tradition, usually don't make it the TV screen at all. Which is why major label interest, and the record it spawned, matter to the music industry. Her new album Same Trailer, Different Park was released on Mercury Records last month. No amount of label-financed, Nashvegas shine can draw attention away from the fact that Musgraves is changing the country conversation.
Her voice draws attention first, because it is relatively un-attention-drawing. She sounds like a young woman, she sounds relaxed, and she sounds like she could be sitting in front of you. This is remarkable first because money spent making a record is usually inversely proportional to artist's relatability. It's also remarkable because country music loves a belt, a yodel, and a trill, and Musgraves employs none of the above to sound just as compelling. She's singing, but she's conversational. Nothing about her delivery is anthemic.
But Same Trailer, Different Park isn't about re-making "Born This Way" for the Bible Belt. It's about dismantling the master's house with a couple of the master's tools, and a few of her own. Not every song on Same Trailer pushes back at the country music status quo, but the ones that do are deeply necessary and deeply felt.
At the end of the day, the first lyric of the album is still, "Woke up on/ the wrong side of rock bottom." And hello, pedal steel. I didn't see you there. (JUST KIDDING YOU'RE THE FIRST INSTRUMENT IN THE FIRST SONG.) So, OK. iTunes is going to put this album in the "Country" genre label, no question. But what's the label for country music that also points out the human cost of tradition and the aforementioned status quo? Where would "Merry Go Round," the new album's first single, go?
What about songs that take the "I don't miss you at all WOOPS I got drunk and I miss you SO BAD!" trope and turn it directly on its head, as in "Keep it to Yourself?"
And most importantly, what in the world will mainstream country fans make of a rural Texan calling out fat shaming and sexist double standards, when she sings "Kiss lots of boys," followed immediately by "Or kiss lots of girls/ If that's somethin' you're into"?
Even when she's not pushing back at the boundaries of what gets played in bands that feature steel pedal and resonant guitars prominently, Musgraves is worth support. She's witty, and trustworthy, and compassionate, and sassy. And while she's not ACTUALLY the first country artist to espouse gay rights or pot smoking, she's the latest, and she's just getting started. Let's hope her stage, her message, and the park where she keeps her trailer expand to meet her.
Love feminist country music? Check back tomorrow—Kacey Musgraves will be on our Feminist Country Music Bitchtapes playlist released Friday!
Photo by Kelly Christine Musgraves/Courtesy of the artist.