If ever there was a debut country single that didn't require a hard sell to critics, Kacey Musgraves' "Merry Go 'Round" was it. Last fall, Mercury Nashville mounted a promotional campaign to convince tastemakers to give it a listen, and the song did the rest. Ears calibrated to the fortress-like density of much contemporary country production were in for a surprise.
The track began with balmy banjo arpeggios, elegantly minimal piano and wisps of melancholic steel guitar, leading up to the moment that the quiet, canny authority of Musgraves' voice introduced itself. "If you ain't got two kids by 21, you're probably gonna die alone," she sang, "at least that's what tradition told you."
The video offered glimpses of a slender 20-something sporting BluBlockers, a dainty nose ring and an insouciant smile, interspersed with footage of idyllic, Caucasian 1950s American life; the cookie-cutter subdivisions and frolicking children, sure, but also the pharmaceutical cocktail that took the edge off the monotony. Behind those images, her turns of phrase deftly pulled back the curtain. "Just like dust we settle in this town," she sighed.
There was nothing in-your-face about any of it, but it certainly gave the impression that this singing and songwriting young woman would have something profoundly different to offer country music.
Plenty of country-savvy critics, like Brooklyn-based Jody Rosen, were sold on Musgraves in no time flat. Then a contributor at Slate, Rosen immediately anointed her the "future of country music" — and meant it.
"That's an incredible song," Rosen says on the phone, "and what blew me away was the fact that it's recognizably a pop-country song, and I saw [Music Row songwriter] Shane McAnally's name in the credits there. So she's not some alt-country person at all. ... It combined what I love most about Music Row, which is the wit, the pop savvy, you know, the hook, just great songcraft, with this message that was so dark and is so not what you hear on country radio."
When Musgraves' dozen-song album Same Trailer, Different Park came out in March, it made good on the promise of that first single, and the buzz about her spread even to the sort of outlets that self-consciously avoid giving commercial country music the time of day — one of the more striking examples being an admiring write-up on the blog of the pop-feminist magazine Bitch.
It was almost as though the music journalists of the world had been waiting for this 24-year-old Texas-to-East Nashville transplant to come along.
"Well, I mean, I was hoping people would have that kind of reaction," says Musgraves, relaxing at a sunny table outside Edgehill Cafe. "But I mean, I didn't expect it, you know? I mean, I do think [my music] is coming from a different perspective, so I would hope that people would say, 'Yes! We love this!' instead of, 'Where is this coming from? We need to go back to what we were doing.' So I'm thankful for that, that people recognize that."
Glowing reviews are a source of affirmation, but they're hardly the only, or even the most important, ingredient in a country performer's long-term success. Musgraves has also received some significant votes of confidence within her genre. Earlier this year, "Merry Go 'Round" made it into the Top 10 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart, was certified gold and earned her three ACM Award nominations, including in categories where she found herself the lone first-timer — then a month out from the release date of her debut album and going up against established superstars.
"To be included in that family feels really good," she says of the country music industry's embrace, "because I know how loyal the genre is."
Those are pretty miraculous feats for a new country artist — especially a new artist who's actually doing something new. They're downright unheard of for an act that was initially signed to a label aimed at the Americana market, Mercury Nashville imprint Lost Highway.
"I mean they definitely were all about the music," Musgraves says. "I was a fan of their roster, Ryan Adams and Lucinda [Williams] and everybody."
When Universal Music Group Nashville was reorganized last year, Lost Highway and its roster went away, but Musgraves didn't. Convinced she had what it took to make it in mainstream country, new chief Mike Dungan shifted her to Mercury proper. The instinct was a good one.
"I tried to sign Kacey to Capitol Records when I was still there," he writes in an email to the Scene. "I aggressively pursued her, and was honestly crushed when she informed me that she ultimately decided to sign with Universal. When I later discovered that she was signing officially to the Lost Highway imprint, I was puzzled, to say the least. It was clear to me from the moment I met her that this was not down-the-middle-of-the-road mainstream country music, but that was exactly what excited me the most. It was fresh, it was different ... and those qualities, along with what I perceived to be the obvious star power that exudes from her very core ... I just felt from the beginning that this is precisely what mainstream country music needed."
Just two summers ago, before anybody'd heard of "Merry Go 'Round," it was mighty slim pickings for solo women acts on the country chart; two whole weeks went by without a single one appearing in the Top 30. And lately, the contrast between the men and women of country has been not just quantitative but qualitative. A rising crop of female performers are giving voice to deep-seated desires and wrestling with constricting conventions and relational let-downs — real, hefty, on-the-ground stuff — while a good many male performers continue to mine the fine-in-moderation theme of weekend tailgating out in the sticks.
Says McAnally, a recording artist himself before his career as a pro songsmith caught fire, "What I've noticed in the last 10 years is that the girls are the ones saying everything. Back in the day — I don't even know specifically when — but guys would really lay it out there. ... We went through a phase of about 20 years when girls got real sweet and it was all slick, and they didn't say a whole lot. And I feel like that's coming around. ... I mean, they're talking about some real things. 'Merry Go 'Round,' a guy could say that, too. But right now, I don't know any guys that would."
Talking about real things is finally starting to bring commercial payoffs. Having made a long trek to the top of the country singles chart, Miranda Lambert put her oomph behind her all-girl trio Pistol Annies, who scored a surprise No. 1 with their debut album even though it was initially a digital-only release. (Not coincidentally, their label made this year's vital, unvarnished, fun-as-hell follow-up, Annie Up, available in all formats from the get-go.) And Ashley Monroe, aka Hippie Annie, is getting a much-deserved second chance at a stone-country solo career.
None of these developments says more about the possibility that country is once again making room for potent voices and interesting points of view — particularly from women — than Musgraves' right-out-of-the-gate success. She's harboring great hopes too for her frequent co-writer Brandy Clark, who's put in more than a decade chasing cuts on Music Row and is, at long last, preparing to release an album of her own, stocked with dark-humored doses of reality like "Get High" and "Take a Little Pill."
"What's going on right now is kind of naturally where I fall," Clark says. "But yeah, there were a lot of years where I didn't get a lot of cuts, didn't get any at some points. You know, I was told that my songs were too country."
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