This year on a blistering hot Friday in the middle of June, two big ol’ parties took place in East Tennessee. In Nashville, LP Field boasted a sold-out crowd that featured country music’s top-selling talents, complete with a star-studded audience and masterful special effects. But meanwhile, 60 miles Southeast on a farm in Manchester, country music held its own, too, as a 26-year-old singer from Texas gave a performance for a modest audience that looked a little dirtier.
“They just pulled this one off the fuckin’ radio,” bantered country singer Kacey Musgraves to a devoted crowd at Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival as the closing notes of her latest single, “Biscuits,” cleared the air. “Whatever that means. Maybe they don’t like biscuits.”
The rebellious label that gets stuck on Musgraves makes some sense within the framework of popular country music today—if you’re listening to radio—but if you consider Musgraves for the mid-20s career-minded young person that she is, none of what she’s writing about is particularly earth-shattering.
“I never set out to push any buttons just for the sake of pushing buttons,” she says, unwinding in her trailer after the show. “I just wanted to write about the things that were inspiring me and the things that were around me.”
“I see why people pull out the rebel card all the time with me,” adds the singer, whose track “Follow Your Arrow” boasted lighthearted lyrics about girl-on-girl kissing. “It isn’t talked about a lot in country music—there’s probably five or six subject matters you can pull from, but [those select topics] are not what the roots of country music are about.”
It’s not like talking about the everyday taboo is new in music, and it’s definitely not new for country. After all, eyebrows were raised when Loretta Lynn sang about “The Pill” in 1975, but much like Musgraves’ top-selling “Follow Your Arrow,” the record catapulted Lynn outside of the country audience and became one of her most talked-about singles, despite never receiving love from the radio.
“If you look at the way the laws are changing, the way the world is moving? In 10 or 15 years, none of these things that people try to pick out of my songs and make into wild issues are going to be issues anymore,” Musgraves says. She isn’t reliant on shock value or progressive politics, and for every 10-word lyric with a not-even-really-that-touchy topic, there are 10 great songs that stun for their humor or wit rather than their pushing of boundaries.
“As a songwriter I’m influenced by just literally living life: making mistakes, having conversations or arguments, my best friend in high school coming out to me and not telling anybody else, things that really make an impression on me,” she says. “One of the things I’ve always loved about country music is that it’s for the everyday person. It’s for people going through all kinds of things—sometimes dark things, humorous things.”
She name-drops Roger Miller, George Jones and Willie Nelson as songwriters who have set the pace on writing about “real life,” and while Nelson’s influence is one Musgraves has cited for years, it’s not a tough parallel to make. The modest amount of radio airplay she’s received in comparison to critical acclaim and award nominations in her short career have given her a unique kind of fame: a tight, devoted following that doesn’t need the mainstream media to find her newest numbers.
“It’s about the songs with him, and that’s what I appreciate,” Musgraves says of Nelson, who sings with her on the freshly released album Pageant Material. “In the end, it’s really just about the songs. If they’re not there, really nothing else is.”
Kacey’s country extends beyond the steel guitar and the drawl-soaked lyrics: She’s cultivated an on-stage aesthetic that might be as eyebrow-raising to contemporary pop fans as her lyrics might be to the staunch conservative set, from big hair and nudie suits to puppets and light-up boots.
“I love the aesthetic of the whole thing: Porter Wagoner and the nudie suits, Dolly and Loretta and big hair,”says Musgraves, whose kitschy, all-out fashion has become a highlight in her appearances. “I really draw a lot of inspiration from the roots of country music and what I grew up singing—the stuff that, when I was 12 and 13 singing, I thought was so dorky.” Growing up in Golden, Texas, (a “tiny-ass town,” to hear her tell it), she spent weekends singing on the road, self-releasing music and dressing to the nines, country-western style, to do it.
“Now, that’s—to me—one of the coolest things you can do in country music,” she says of the costume-like aesthetic and the big to-dos. “Everybody’s so concerned with being cool that they don’t bring any country-ness to the situation.”
If you haven’t caught a glimpse of Musgraves in her big-haired, petticoat-clad glory, look no further than the music video for “Biscuits,” the lead single from Pageant Material and a hoe-down of a number.
“Whenever I’m writing a song and recording it, I can see the video happening,” she says. “I’m a really visual person, and with ‘Biscuits’ being so square-dancey, I knew it was going to be an explosion of rhinestones and puppets.”
Puppets may to be confined to the on-camera exploits, but Musgraves has gradually upped the rhinestones and the glitter in her live show—at Bonnaroo, she joked with the crowd about how long it took her to glue the jewels to her face, and almost every performance features her band decked-out in suits with more lights than a Christmas tree.
“The songs are important, but so is the world that you create,” she says. “You can translate that into what you do on-stage, too.”
Creating a world with country music dress-up and down-home props isn’t limited to the stage or the set—it was a big part of Musgraves’ foray into the studio for Pageant Material. Recording at Nashville’s legendary RCA Studio A, she decked out the studio with neon cacti, dressing up everybody in plastic crowns and (naturally) catering in biscuits, too.
“It was just a really festive, fun time,” she says, and if you’ve ever seen Musgraves perform with her band, it’s not hard to imagine that the whole thing would turn into a party. On stage, she takes several opportunities to draw attention to the stylings of those backing her up—including boyfriend and band leader Misa Arriaga—and there’s a palpable friendliness that seems to extend into an ease musically.
“This time around I definitely considered my live show,” says Musgraves of the writing and recording process for Pageant Material, particularly of the decision to work with her touring band in the studio. “It’s been two years in the making—We’ve built this thing, and I have relationships with all of these people. We all bring different things to the table.”
While Musgraves’ major label Same Trailer was “pieced together” with overdubs, Pageant Material took shape with mostly live takes—another decision inspired by decades-old recordings.
“I’m really inspired by all this traditional, wonderful country music: Mid-to-late ‘60s, early ‘70s country—Glen Campbell, Marty Robbins, Charlie Pride, Loretta Lynn,” she says. “It was just kind of this unique, whimsical period in country music and all their albums set this concise, even tone throughout.” With a ceaseless touring schedule behind her and another one up ahead, it makes perfect sense that for Pageant Material Musgraves’ band and live performance dynamic would be a focal point.“I really wanted that light spirit to come across.”
For all the differences in the studio between Same Trailer and Pageant Material, two of the constants—co-producers Shane McAnally and Luke Laird—were mainstays in the writing process, too.
“There’s no ego ever involved with those two,” Musgraves says. “One thing that I really love about them is that they’re not afraid to challenge my ideas, but they also really trust my vision.”
Part of that vision includes standing firm on the sillier line items that might take a single off the air. “Biscuits” was rumored to be a tough sell thanks to the innocuous line “Pissin’ in my yard ain’t gonna make yours any greener,” and while Musgraves could have given it a quick fix for a radio edit, those kinds of tweaks just aren’t for her.
“I’ve never created anything based on any format; I’m not ever going to do that,” she says. “I think it would be ridiculous for anyone in a creative position to manipulate their art based on what someone else wants. It just waters down the integrity of what you’re about. In the end, what are you? You’re chasing some flash-in-the-pan moment, whatever people are gonna like right now. I think that’s really dangerous. I refuse to do it.”
At a time when country’s top-selling singles are beer-guzzling party anthems, Pageant Material is a lesson in caring less about appearances. From “Biscuits” telling you to mind your own business to “Late to the Party” a number about a couple of tardy lovebirds who can’t be bothered by a social engagement, the collection of songs all fall in line with the title track when it comes to taking yourself less seriously.
“The only Crowne is in my glass
They won’t be handin’ me a sash
I’d rather lose for what I am
Than win for what I ain’t.”
Pageant Material will surely be a win in many circles, as Musgraves has long been the critics’ choice for smart country music. As for the rest of the market, it seems like she is following her own advice: she’s not interested in being everybody’s favorite.
“The people that are going to like me are going to like me. This isn’t a tele-marketing campaign, this isn’t McDonald’s,” she says. “We don’t have to have ev-ery-one be a fan. People are either probably going to love it or hate it, and that’s fine! Fame is not something that I’m like reaching for. It’s respectable music; good songs. I want a long-lasting career, and fame is just a side-effect of that—I want to maintain a sane life as well.”