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What country looks, sounds and feels like has virtually always been a moving target. And since, like everyone else, the music's creators and fans have been living more suburban realities for a few generations now, the impulse to find meaning in reaching back to rural identities — usually in lyrics as opposed to sound — is understandably strong.
What's phenomenal about Musgraves is that she's fleshing out a new way to live that tension. She hails from unincorporated Golden, Texas, whose biggest claim to fame, besides her, is a sweet potato festival that's been spotlighted by Oprah. She owns and appreciates how her roots have shaped her.
Yet she does that, consciously and authentically, through the lens of an ever-widening worldview. In her latest single, "Blowin' Smoke," she plays the part of a straight-talking waitress working a dead-end diner gig and feeling utterly and completely hemmed-in. It's a companion piece to "Merry Go 'Round."
Musgraves says of the small-town experience that informs her writing, "I came from that, but I also moved away from it. So I see both sides and I can appreciate both. And I'm not dogging people that still feel that way. It's just time for somebody to be a realist about it."
She's not only a realist, but an important generational voice for country music. "There are some older people in there," she says of the fans she's earned so far. "But I think the majority is younger, and they're outspoken. I think they're open-minded. Whatever they're feeling when they hear my music, they're liking enough to be really loud about it."
Musgraves' recent Ryman performance would be a strong contender for the hippest mainstream country show ever to grace the stage of the Mother Church. She and her scruffy young band stood on Astroturf, flanked by lawn flamingoes, with a cute, kitschy image of a trailer park hanging behind them. (That particular night she was opening for Little Big Town; she's also toured with Lady Antebellum, and she's out with Kenny Chesney right now. Speaking of getting around, her scheduled appearance at Wednesday night's CMT Awards marked the first time she's taken part in CMA Music Fest, and she's also about to make her Bonnaroo debut.)
The matter-of-fact modernity of Musgraves' millennial-generation perspective also extends to all manner of personal freedoms. Take her song "It Is What It Is," about an ambivalent hookup. She's fond of noting that her grandmother calls it "the slut song," but she considers it "just honest." Her most-discussed composition, though, is "Follow Your Arrow." Depending on whether or not you count Garth Brooks' utopian anthem "We Shall Be Free" or Miranda Lambert's "All Kinds of Kinds" — which playfully embraces a couple that gets off on cross-dressing, among other things — Musgraves' tune may or may not be the first mainstream country song to take on heteronormativity.
"I wrote it with Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark," she says. "Shane is my producer — one of 'em [Luke Laird is the other] — and [Shane and Brandy are] both gay."
The song started with a note she wrote to a friend who was taking an overseas trip. "It said, 'Kiss lots of boys,' " Musgraves says. "Well, I took that, because I wanted to make a song called 'Follow Your Arrow,' encouraging people to do that. When we were writing it, that line came up, 'Kiss lots of boys,' and I was like, 'I wish we could say something like "Or kiss lots of girls." ' And Shane was like, 'Why can't we?' So, boom."
She later elaborates, "I do think it's time. I mean, we're now in a time period where we should all be equal. What gets me is that whether or not you agree with the political stance on that, it's like we're all driven by the same emotions, you know? So people want to hear that in their music. They shouldn't have to go find gay music."
"Follow Your Arrow" is a whimsical, twangy shuffle with an insinuatingly hooky chorus. And it's not by accident that the well-crafted song strikes a quintessentially country balance between familiarity and novelty.
"If you're going to have a really in-your-face lyric," Musgraves says, "the music can't be that too, or it's gonna wear people out. So I feel like there's gotta be a balance."
She also has a pretty good handle on how to juggle art and commerce. Here and there critics have floated theories about whether the youthful sound of her voice or her physical attractiveness helps her songs go over. But it's worth considering that she's in step with the intimate-scale songs and performances that have proven so popular on ABC's Nashville — she co-wrote one of those songs — and that she's figured out her strengths and limitations.
"A lot of times what I feel like people might appreciate about my music or about my voice is that I don't try to do anything that I know I can't do," she says. "I just don't have a very acrobatic, you know, technical, Martina McBride kind of voice, or Carrie [Underwood] kind of voice. ... I fell in love with John Prine's music. I just love conversational music, when it feels like you're sitting there and it's coming at you very easy.
"As far as the appearance thing, I mean, I'm girly. I love makeup and big hair and big lashes. To me, that doesn't matter. I mean, if I listen to a record, I'm not seeing the person. So it doesn't really matter to me what they look like. I mean, I guess it does to other people. But the physical part of that is fun to me, getting dolled up. ... I think there's important sides to all of it. But overall I think that I'm not here just to look pretty. Or I don't wanna be. I want the other side of it to come first, and then if people think I'm hot, then awesome."
McAnally says, "She has more a sense of herself than any artist I've ever met, hands down. ... With that, you kinda don't give anyone the option of changing things, because it's this or nothing. That can be a really scary place to go, because you don't know if it's gonna end up being nothing. There is no middle.
"We got real lucky where it fell. But it's not luck."