Published Jul 03, 2015"I'm not a feminist," declares Kacey Musgraves (as my head explodes). "There are double standards that are annoying to me, but I just write about life. It's not a girl power thing. I guess I am an opinionated woman, so maybe I could be perceived that way, and that's also not a bad thing to be. But [my music's] not intended to be that. It's just about people, really. And me."
Perhaps the most excitingly feminist country musician in the game refuses to be called a feminist. What's going on here?
A white-hot country crossover whose major label debut rode a wave of near-universal praise all the way to a 2014 Best Country Album Grammy, 26-year-old Musgraves operates like a millennial outlaw, a love child of Loretta Lynn and Kris Kristofferson. She sings about pot, lesbianism, accidental pregnancy and friends with benefits with a matter-of-factness that marks her simultaneously as a punk in notoriously conservative Nashville, and perhaps the most genuinely hip country singer in the game.
"I don't really see those things [I write about] as being progressive or super controversial," she says, and she's right. There's nothing particularly shocking about what she describes in her songs if you're paying attention to what's going on outside your window. And yet, real life is "not really sung about a lot these days, or written about even, in country music. It's kind of baffling because country music to me is supposed to be the realest. It's supposed to be about life, about fucking up and whatever. About learning."
These days, with the triumphant rise of Musgraves (along with Ashley Monroe, Angaleena Presley, Brandy Clark and others), that artificial conservative bubble created and sustained by Nashville's songwriting conventions has burst. Or, at least, it's sprung a slow leak. For the first time in a long while, there's an audience for country songs that reflect the 21st century, and that means casual sex, recreational drugs, anti-corporatism and even a little atheism will find their way onto the radio. "I think things are changing," she assures me. But, she sighs, "I think it's slow."
Hailing from the east Texas hamlet of Mineola, Musgraves recorded three independent albums before she was out of high school. At 18, she appeared on the American Idol-style reality show Nashville Star (as Miranda Lambert had before her), finishing seventh.
It wasn't until 2011, after connecting with top-flight Nashville songwriters and producers Shane McAnally and Luke Laird, that Musgraves truly found her voice. Her debut single, a withering critique of American conformity and lack of imagination called "Merry Go Round," washed over the country music scene like a tsunami. It was honest, cynical, funny, sad, and insightful in equal measure. After signing to Mercury Nashville, Musgraves and her new writing team got to work, and the result was one of the best country records of the last 30 years, Same Trailer Different Park.
It opened at number two on Billboard, and sold almost 50,000 units in its first week. Before long she was touring with Lady Antebellum, Willie Nelson, and (to confound all expectations) Katy Perry. It was an astonishing rise for what was, in many ways, an unlikely star. Suddenly, everyone wanted to interview the "rebel" who was "saving country music."
"I'm a little over that," she says of the "rebel" tag. "I'm proud to be recognized for being willing to sing and write about this everyday stuff that inspires me… But, I feel like I just stay in my own lane, you know? There's a lot of other stuff going on on the radio, but I'll just do my thing."
I'm not buying it, and I tell her so. Her music is so clearly calibrated to thwart these Nashville conventions — isn't it a response to the sound of the moment? "I'm not really conscious of any outside factors when I'm writing and performing," she counters. "To me, it's just about making music that makes me feel good. It's based off the influences and the music that I really love. I love really live-sounding old records."
Her new album, Pageant Material, fits that bill. Working again with McAnally and Laird, the record is a master class in spare arrangements. Very much a sequel to Same Trailer, Pageant Material even picks up on some of the same themes, but it comes across as simultaneously more assured and less brash. For lack of a better word, it's less punk. It's hard to write from the outside looking in when you're standing at the centre.
A resolve to be who she is, and to shake off others' expectations, comes across in almost everything she says. "It's a constant thing," she explains, "to be aware of how I'm being perceived and where my music is taking me. I just want to make music, I just want to be creative. It's not fame that's driving me."
Taking a page out of Elvis Costello's book (his "Radio Radio" skewered the music industry after he found overnight success in the late '70s), the best song on the new record, "Good Ol' Boys Club," is a feminist (sorry not sorry, Kacey!) cannon aimed at Music City's atrophied, yet entrenched, patriarchy. But "that song can really apply to any industry," she emphasizes. "I feel like anybody can get behind that. I don't really know of anybody, none of my friends anyway, that would want to be part of a machine, part of an establishment that was designed to keep people in." The song is a hole in one. Her explanation feels like a deliberate whiff.
But, then again, Kacey Musgraves has always said that her songwriting guru was John Prine, another successful "outsider" artist whose songs have consistently worked that liminal space between politics and personal experience. He'd probably balk at being categorized in these ways, too. When I ask her about Prine's influence on her work, she gets animated fast. "Oh my gosh!" she exclaims. "I stumbled across John's music when I first moved to Nashville and I was floored. There's this song I wrote a long time ago about him. Kind of a funny song. [It's called 'Burn One.'] And I got to play it [for him]! It was really surreal. Playing this song that I never thought he'd even hear, and he's right there beside me."
It's a hell of an image: two hugely successful outsiders, a generation removed, swapping stories and songs. The torch passed from the man behind "Illegal Smile" to the woman determined to follow her arrow. Wherever it points.