East Texas native Kacey Musgraves’s best-selling debut has made some Nashville establishment types pretty nervous. But she’s not sure what all the fuss is about.
The last time Kacey Musgraves spoke to Texas Monthly, in late 2012, the Golden native, who had written songs for the likes of Miranda Lambert and Martina McBride, was preparing for her own gig at a sweet potato festival in East Texas. Fifteen months later, she took home a Grammy Award for Best Country Album. In between, her major-label debut, Same Trailer Different Park, topped the country chart. More recently, though, country radio has all but rejected her third single, “Follow Your Arrow,” which casts a friendly eye on same-sex relationships and recreational marijuana use. Yet the praise keeps coming: she’s nominated in four categories at the Academy of Country Music Awards, which will air April 6.
Andy Langer: In 2012 there was already a notion that the stars might align for you: Mercury Nashville seemed to believe in the record you’d made, and your first single, “Merry Go ’Round,” was on the radio. But you seemed to have relatively modest expectations.
Kacey Musgraves: Definitely. My expectations were already surpassed when I got to become a full-time songwriter. Of course, I always wanted to be an artist, but when I figured out I could make a living being a songwriter, that’s where my expectations dropped to. So getting to do all these crazy bucket-list kinds of things I’ve done over the past year, I can already say that if it ends tomorrow, I’ll be stoked I’ve gotten where I’ve gotten.
AL: Between high school graduation and moving to Nashville, you lived in Austin. Your story might’ve been dramatically different if you’d stayed in Texas.
KM: Totally different. I grew up a lot when I moved to Nashville. I was so inspired by the songwriting community there. I wouldn’t have the songs I have now; I wouldn’t have the relationships I have. In Austin I was playing open mikes at little clubs like Momo’s and Threadgill’s. Nobody was there.
AL: But there’s probably something still romantic about those days.
KM: In a way, because it was just me and my guitar. But I wouldn’t trade it for getting to connect to all these people now. It’s a dream situation come true: I have complete control over every single thing around me. Even deciding on the font color for a T-shirt at the merch booth—if I don’t like it, it’s going to bother me forever. I’m a little OCD in that way. My team knows this and makes fun of me for it; if I don’t like something I’m doing, I’m really bad at it. I’m not a good liar. It’s better for everyone involved if I’m comfortable.
AL: You’ve sparked a bunch of big conversations in the country world. For better or worse, you made people talk about things they usually don’t like to talk about.
KM: I’ve learned that people want you to be real until you do something that doesn’t correspond with their individual belief system.
AL: And for that, they’ll brand you an outlaw.
KM: I get where people might label me an outlaw. But I feel like it’s pretty cheap, because nothing I’ve done has been designed to push buttons just to push buttons. If you look back at somebody like Willie Nelson, I don’t think he was ever playing the rebel card. He was just being Willie. When people play the rebel card, it’s like a wrestling persona. You’re not going to burn somebody’s house down—sing about it. It’s fun. But you’ve got to know that it’s not true.
AL: The story goes that the radio promotion people at Mercury Nashville brought “Follow Your Arrow” to radio programmers, some of whom replied with some variation of “I like the song, but I won’t play it because I wouldn’t want my kids listening to it in the car on the ride to school.”
KM: It’s funny, because people are buying “Follow Your Arrow” T-shirts for their children. There are a lot of people on the other side of the fence from those radio programmers.
AL: Radio programmers played a large part in running the Dixie Chicks out of the country music industry.
KM: I guess in radioland the idea is that they would rather have all twenty people like something than fifteen people love something and five not. They consider that dangerous. It’s just interesting that while I’m playing “Follow Your Arrow” on the Grammys, that song is sitting at number fifty on the radio. Maybe there doesn’t have to be a correlation between success and radio.
AL: When you get validation from fans, or even from the Grammys, is there a little part of you that feels like you’re somehow getting away with something?
KM: Sure. But good songs always win. I hate saying that about my own songs, but if I didn’t feel they were good, I wouldn’t sing them. It always comes back to the song. You can look good, you can sound amazing and have the biggest and best team with the most money, but if you don’t have songs, none of it matters.
AL: But there are some truly terrible songs on country radio right now.
KM: There are. My goal is to outlast them.
AL: You have opportunities outside country music, like touring with Katy Perry this summer. Should that give us a clue as to where you might be headed next?
KM: I’ve seen comments where people are like, “Don’t sell out to pop.” That’s ridiculous. I love country music and will continue to make it. But I’m also not going to let that limit me if something comes along that I’m super into. This summer sums up my musical taste really well. In June we’ll be out with Alison Krauss and Willie Nelson. That’s a dream come true. Katy is a different planet. It’s cool to me that there’s a common thread through that; it’s just music. If you think about it too hard, maybe it doesn’t make sense. But it kind of does too.