Shes too savvy to be completely heart-on-sleeve, so for Valentines Day, Kacey Musgraves has gone heart-on-sweater – a big, bubble-gummy blob sewn into the front of the thing.
Instead of cowboy boots, the 24-year-old Texas native wears black high tops with skinny jeans, an itty-bitty nose ring and sunglasses with lenses the size of beer coasters, the kind of shades Joan Didion wears on old dust jackets, the kind of shades that make Musgraves look like anyone other than the country star shes about to become.
Her magnificent new album Same Trailer Different Park, contains some of the most straightforward storytelling you could ever ask of a dozen country tunes. No bells, no whistles, no throwaway lyrics – just 12 pithy singalongs, often beautiful, sometimes brilliant.
Its like I saw behind the curtain, and nobodys an adult, Musgraves says, sitting on her tour bus outside Washingtons 9:30 Club. Were all (in trouble), were all in this together, were all big kids trying to figure it out. Then she pops a gummy bear in her mouth.
When she talks about songwriting, she swears. When she talks about her tiny home town of Golden, her vowels turn Texan. And when she talks about fame, she slows down to really think about it. Her jaw clenches, her poise momentarily slips and her brown eyes reflexively go misty, because its Feb. 14 and shes in a weird city somewhere between East Texas and the senseless void of American celebrity.
Fame freaks me out, she says. Do you just wake up different? I dont know how to scale it back if it gets too crazy.
She sighs, sniffles, apologizes, laughs, says shes working on two hours of sleep and dabs her eyes before any tears go spilling down her cheek.
Her sister Kelly knocks on the door of the bus, a rolling apartment bigger than the trailer Kacey remembers as the sisters first home.
Kelly, a 22-year-old photographer now living in Dallas, wears her nose ring in the opposite nostril from Kaceys, tours with her whenever she can and snaps portraits of her at every turn. She remembers spotting Willie Nelson backstage once and pushing her big sister through the tiny window of opportunity: We can either get a picture of you smiling, or we can get a picture of you kissing him.
She started singing, or wanting to sing, at the age of 8, says her mom, Karen Musgraves, over the phone from Texas, where she runs a copy shop with Kaceys dad, Craig. That was right around the time that LeAnn Rimes came out with Blue, and all the kids wanted to learn to yodel.
She moved to Austin after graduating from high school in 2006, then to Nashville, where she landed a spot on the 2007 season of Nashville Star, the since-canceled singing contest on USA Network that kick-started Lamberts career in 2003.
She also sought out an early mentor in Radney Foster, the Texas-born singer-songwriter who would eventually invite her to sing backup on the road. Hes so great. On tour, everyone called him Dad-ney, Musgraves says. He totally paid it forward and introduced me to so many people.
Years later, hes especially proud to see a song as fresh and risky as Merry Go Round floating up the charts.
Its all about swinging for the bleachers, Foster says. You might not be a Reba McEntire, but people remember those pull-over-the-car-moment kind of songs.
And while Same Trailer Different Park, which was released last week, is particularly even-keeled, its never boring. Co-written with some of Nashvilles shiniest songwriters its an album inspired by the massive gravity of tiny home towns, the disorienting letdowns of growing up and Musgraves split with her punk-rocker boyfriend of five-plus years last August. Musgraves sings about all of these things with contemplative restraint. Especially love and fallout.
Im just so over the angry scorned female perspective, she says. And it seems like thats the only option for females today in country. You did me wrong and now Im gonna burn your house down! I have no way to relate to that. Of course I get angry, but I want to use my brain a little bit and not just smash things.
Shes talking about the type of song that helped make Lambert, one of Musgravess heroes, one of todays biggest country stars.
Irony: Lamberts current single, Mamas Broken Heart, a ditty that connects heartbreak with arson, was co-written by Musgraves.
More irony: Lamberts early singles were once deemed too wild for risk-allergic radio rotations. Now, after years of following in Lamberts footsteps, Musgraves is fighting that battle anew.
She says shes been urging the label brass at Mercury Nashville to release Follow Your Arrow as her next single. And they should. Its a euphoric affirmation anthem about ignoring the conformist hordes and trusting your gut (which is fitting). Its also Musgraves most gripping combination of message and melody. But its refrain mentions marijuana smoke and same-sex smooching, which means that stuffier radio programmers wont go near it.
Still, Musgraves says shes leaning hard, reprising the argument she made while stumping for Merry Go Round as her first single: Lets create the new normal!
Thats certainly a goal worth raising her voice for, but the potential result is exactly what makes Musgravess eyes well up with anxiety.
I dont mean to be (complaining). Obviously, there is happiness in commercial success, she says. But people get attached to you and who they think you are. And if you do something that throws them for a loop, well, then youre the bad guy.