Kacey Musgraves Makes Country Music You Can Use
No matter how pop it gets, country remains a stubbornly utilitarian music, its hits often built to perform specific functions in listeners' lives. Hate your boss? Play Johnny Paycheck. Having a party in a parking lot? Luke Bryan's got the song for you. Tired of the fact that the traits that distinguish you, your friends, and your family just don't seem to be valued by the new American economy? Spin Blake Shelton's "Boys 'Round Here" or any of 1,000 other audience-mythologizing hits that truck in trucks, beer, prayer, and reassurance. After all, anyone who likes hearing about the all-American greatness of Skoal and red-dirt roads must by rights be pretty great, too.
The millions that Nashville pockets off that reassurance make Kacey Musgraves's Same Trailer Different Park somewhat miraculous. Here's a major-label debut whose lead single's depiction of small-town life is closer to Chekhov than Eric Church. "Merry Go Round" is a diagnosis set to the delicate pluck of a minimalist string band: Everyone in the narrator's life suffers from some addiction or another, their drugs and cheating and churchgoing all rote, time-killing distractions rather than the rah-rah hobbies enjoyed by the boys 'round Blake Shelton's way.
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Tradition in "Merry Go Round" is a grind to escape from, a set of lies everyone tells to make their shared disappointment more palatable. Like much of Musgraves's album (her fourth), it has the feel of a gentle yet insistent correction, as if Musgraves and her co-writers are saying to the songs that bookend her singles during drive-time, "No, this is what life actually feels like." In that way, her music is just as utilitarian as Shelton's: This one's for anyone who wants to be assured that it's OK to chafe against all that reassurance.
Perhaps that helps explain how an RCA/Mercury release wound up placing so highly in this poll. Fortunately, Same Trailer Different Park stands as tall as music as it does Opryland apostasy. When's the last time a country star — or any pop phenomenon, really — sounded this easygoing? Musgraves's singing is like honeyed conversation, her phrasing direct and unfussy, her inclinations bent toward charm and intimacy rather than belting. Songs like "Step Off" or "Blowin' Smoke," both monologues from beleaguered young women, would make better audition pieces for young actors than for Nashville Star contestants. They're composed of nothing but the things that must be said, and Musgraves says them with the understatement that in real life makes such things sayable, sounding wry, annoyed, and pleased with herself all at the same time.