Kacey Musgraves’ new album puts her at the forefront of a loose-knit movement of female country singers who are rebelling lyrically, if not musically, against the long-standing strictures of the genre. Though Musgraves and her comrades—most prominently Ashley Monroe and Monroe’s band mates in the Pistol Annies—don’t sound too much different than the country mainstream, their lyrics, which are anti-patriarchal and tolerant of drug use and homosexuality (if, as Musgraves put it, “that’s what you’re into”) stand out. Musgraves in particular has gotten an especially large amount of attention from critics because she suggested not only that girls kiss other girls and but that they can “roll up a joint, or don’t.” And she did it in the same song.
Musgraves got her break on television—not on one of the big national shows like American Idol (where country star Carrie Underwood started out); on the more focused Nashville Star. Musgraves came in 7th, but the show’s title seems on the right track, even if the ranking was wrong. Same Trailer Different Park, her fourth solo album but her first post-Nashville Star (and her first for a major label) went to number one on the country charts and two on pop.
The two pillars of Same Trailer Different Park are “Merry Go Round” and “Follow Your Arrow,” which espouse a rebellious doctrine while sounding sweet and entirely law-abiding. “Merry Go Round” takes aim directly at rigidity, whether it stems from “what tradition told you” or religion—“it don’t matter if you don’t believe/ Come Sunday morning, you best be there in the front row like you’re supposed to.” Everyone in the song is either on drugs or having an affair, and people get married because they “get bored;” in other words, it’s America! “Follow Your Arrow” tells the flip side of this story—break free! Do what you want! Follow your passion! Or whatever other cliché might pop up in a graduation ceremony (though graduation speakers are unlikely to tell their listeners to roll up a few joints).
But just as on Monroe’s Like A Rose, every hint of rebellion must be accompanied by something light-hearted, head-over-heels in love, carefully completely non-threatening. So Musgraves sings the stock ballad “I Miss You,” where she’s “got a fistful of four-leaf clovers,” and “Dandelion,” where she makes wishes on the non-smokeable (to the best of my knowledge) weed, only to decide that “it’s a waste of breath and it’s a waste of time. . ./ Cause just like him, you always leave me cryin,’ dandelion.” A tune like “Silver Lining,” with its refrain of “If you’re ever gonna find a silver lining/ It’s gotta be a cloudy day,” is somewhat system-affirming—just pick yourself up, think positive, and everything will be fine. Musgraves favors soft sounds, gentle picking at guitars and banjos, light piano, percussion that wouldn’t wake a sleeping baby. Her voice is easy and innocent; on a couple of songs, there are jaunty whistles.
The exception to the rule is “Blowin’ Smoke,” the album’s second single, which didn’t do as well as the easy-going “Merry Go Round.” Musgraves sings about a bunch of waitresses “just blowin’ smoke,” talking shit about each other on their break, each one gabbing about how she can leave whenever she wants too: “we all say that we’ll quit some day when our nerves ain’t shot and our hands don’t shake. . .” But they never walk the walk, because they can’t, and besides, where would they go? Musgraves gets to blow off some smoke of her own, toughening up her vocals and cranking up her guitars. She doesn’t try to knock down any walls here, in that she’s not calling out tradition and religion by name. But caught up in her depiction of those trapped by circumstance, she doesn’t need to throw in any caveats like “if that’s what you’re into.” Hopefully Musgraves won’t always have to hedge her bets.