With "Merry Go 'Round," Kacey Musgraves Starts Writing the Future of Country
Whether or not you've heard Kacey Musgraves's voice, if you watch ABC's Nashville, you've probably heard one of her songs.
Written with her friend Trent Dabbs and selected by the show's musical director, T-Bone Burnett, "Undermine" first appears in the second episode, when pop country star Juliette Barnes attempts to prove to local legend Deacon Claybourne she's more than a manufactured celebrity. Together, they drive to a plot of land once owned by Tammy Wynette and start writing on a hand-stitched quilt in the bed of a vintage Chevrolet.
Although the episode had been moving quickly, cross cutting between storylines involving record deals and the city's upcoming mayoral race, the song makes everything stop, Barnes extending its title couplet, "And it's a whole lot harder to shine, than to undermine," with a light vibrato that impresses even her veteran collaborator. Then they go skinny-dipping.
"I wish co-writes were like that!" Musgraves laughs over the phone, talking to me across time zones as she prepares to leave the real-life Nashville to tour with Country Music Award Vocal Group of the Year Little Big Town. "It was in a tacky '80's corporate office building with fluorescent lights, and nobody uses pen and paper. It's, like, computer only."
Whatever works, and lately, fluorescent lights and laptops have made Musgraves one of most exciting young acts in country music: Her major label debut, Same Trailer Different Park, is set to hit stores March 19, its lead single, "Merry Go 'Round," remains in radio rotation nearly five months after its release, and she was recently voted "Best New Artist" in Nashville Scene's annual poll of country music critics.
Born in Golden, Texas, a tiny town (by her estimate, 600 to 800 people) best known for its annual sweet potato festival, Musgraves grew up singing and yodeling western swing. She first learned to play music on the mandolin, then at age 12 transitioned to guitar and began writing songs soon after.
"The guy that I took lessons from knew that I wouldn't be the kind of student who would shred scales," she says. "So he gave me homework every week to write a song and then bring it back to him."
After graduating from high school in nearby Mineola, songwriting brought her first to Austin, then to another country music television show, USA's Nashville Star--the American Idol jack that launched fellow Texan Miranda Lambert. Finally Musgraves arrived in Nashville itself, where she and her computer wrote songs like Martina McBride's "When You Love a Sinner" and Lambert's own "Mama's Broken Heart," in which a depressed daughter contemplates revenge against her ex despite her mother's instruction to act like a lady and hide her crazy.
Musgraves began work on her own album in the summer of 2011, leaving Nashville with a group of collaborators for a songwriting retreat at a ranch in East-Central Texas, just as the region fought off some of the most destructive wildfires in its history.
"Everything, like, for miles has been burnt, like burnt up," she recalls, "All the trees were charred. It was really creepy. You could see where the fire had stopped right by the house."