After winning Grammys for best country album and song, earning five Academy of Country Music nominations and sweeping the Nashville Scene’s nationwide critics poll for the best in country music in 2013, Kacey Musgraves discovered the new normal last weekend.
First, there was a cake covered with glitter and a Grammy logo presented by country superstars Lady Antebellum, whom Musgraves just rejoined as opening act on tour. Then there were rehearsals for a new cover song that Lady A wants to play with her in concert. And there’s the newfound excitement when audiences hear “Follow Your Arrow,” the tune she performed on the Grammy show two weeks ago.
“There was a huge reaction to ‘Arrow’ so I guess a lot of people must have watched,” she said last weekend from Boston.
Like Taylor Swift, Musgraves tries to keep it real — except she comments more on society than on ex-boyfriends. The 25-year-old newcomer refuses to sugarcoat her lyrics for country radio. If she wants to sing about pot smoking, same-sex love or people who have two kids by the time they’re 21 — all referenced in “Follow Your Arrow” — she does.
The song’s genesis was a note Musgraves wrote to a pal.
“I had a friend who was moving to Paris for like five months and she was leaving everything she was comfortable with behind — even the language,” she said. “I gave her a little arrow necklace and on the card I wrote a dumb little poem. It said something about following your arrow and kissing lots of boys and having fun. But I saved the idea because I thought it would make a really great song.”
Already known for penning such hits as “Mama’s Broken Heart” for Miranda Lambert, she began writing “Follow Your Arrow” with Katy Perry for the pop supernova’s most recent album.
“When I played the idea, Katy said, ‘That sounds like something you’d really be great at. I think you should keep it for yourself.’ I’m really glad I did.”
Musgraves finished writing the tune with Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark, two Nashville songwriting aces who are gay.
Noted critic Geoffrey Himes, writing in the Nashville Scene about its best-of-2013 winners, praised Musgraves and Clark for relying on “vigorous realism rather than lazy clichés.” While they talk with a drawl and their guitars are twangy, “they aren’t playing by the same old rules. There’s a fearlessness in their writing that puts the iconoclasm of most indie rockers to shame. Musgraves and Clark seem to believe that if they write honestly and evocatively about American small-town life, the people who live there will respond.”
“Kacey’s bold. That’s what we love about her,” said Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley. “She’s got a great voice. She’s confident up there.”
Just don’t call Musgraves a rebel.
“I get frustrated when people throw the rebel and outlaw card out there. The things I’m singing about aren’t controversial, especially not to me. They’re things I’ve encountered in my life that have really made an impression on me.”
If what she sings seems too permissive for music lovers in red states, “that’s never concerned me,” she said with her soft, sweet speaking voice. “The people who are going to like it, are going to like it, and the people who aren’t, aren’t. (‘Follow Your Arrow’) encourages people of all kinds to do whatever makes them happy. Of course, there’s some sarcasm and tongue-in-cheekness in that message.”
She just wants to reflect real life. That’s what she did with her debut single, “Merry Go Round,” which went to only No. 14 on Billboard’s country chart but garnered plenty of industry attention.
The song was sparked by a joke by co-writer McAnally’s mom, who observed lots of comings and goings at a neighbor lady’s house. “I don’t know if she’s selling Mary Kay (cosmetics) or Mary Jane,” slang for marijuana.
“We played on words with ‘Mary’ and then the circle theme presented itself,” Musgraves recalled. “It’s not just something about small towns; it’s a life thing. I feel like no matter where you come from, you follow in your parents’ footsteps because it’s familiar. But along the way you have to figure out where to put your own dreams and goals. Some people go forth and some don’t.”
Musgraves grew up in Golden, Texas, a town of 500, loving language, playing with it and writing poems and short stories.
After high school, she moved to Austin, Texas, and eventually Nashville, releasing three independent albums and placing seventh on USA Network’s “Nashville Star” talent contest in 2007. She’s written tunes for ABC’s night-time soap “Nashville” and for such stars as Martina McBride and Gretchen Wilson. In 2012, she signed her own recording deal with Mercury Records and released “Same Trailer Different Park” in spring 2013.
The buzz was so big that the album debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s country and No. 2 on the pop charts. It led to the Country Music Association Award for best new artist in November.
Yes, Musgraves has lived in a trailer park.
“The first house that my parents brought me home to was a little yellow trailer out in the middle of nowhere, outside of Mineola, Texas. So I’m allowed to poke fun at it a little bit.”
The other big question that her Grammy performance prompted: Where did she get those cowgirl boots decorated with the Christmas lights?
“The boots were something my stylist and I kind of designed together and then a woman made for me out of a pair of old boots by just putting some lights in ‘em. They were the coolest things I’ve ever seen.”
With all the buzz from the Grammys, “Follow Your Arrow” — which is more mainstream pop than twangy country — could cross over to the pop charts.
“Wherever the song wants to go, I’m happy for it to,” Musgraves said. “I want it to live and touch as many people as it can. I don’t want it to be constrained by boxes or genres, though I definitely think it’s a country song.”
She just follows her instincts. That means she’ll be opening for Perry on tour later this year.
“I’ve always been a really big Katy Perry fan,” she said. “She’s managed to blend huge pop star-ness with lyrics that actually say something. I love the idea of what she does and I do coming together. I think somewhere in the middle it’ll make sense.
“We both have lyrically driven music. When it’s good music, I don’t think genres really matter.”
Indeed, following her arrow — even if it isn’t exactly straight.