It would have been hard to imagine Kacey Musgraves becoming a crossover country star based on the sharp, understated songs she came on the scene with in 2012. But it was that Music Row outsider’s sensibility – combined with an undeniable ear for melody – that wound up helping Musgraves make such a splash both inside and outside country music.
Numerous Grammys later, including Album of the Year for 2018’s Golden Hour, the Texan singer and songwriter has amassed a rich catalog of songs that range from club fodder to envelope-pushing inclusivity anthems to incisive, traditional country tunes.
The Small Town Sass Songs
Blowin’ Smoke; High Time; The Trailer Song; Step Off; My House
One of Kacey Musgraves’ greatest strengths as a songwriter – what made her stand out in the crowded field of often interchangeable Nashville up-and-comers – is her keen eye for detail. Especially in her earliest singles, she focused on the nuances of small-town life, blending humor and seemingly hard-won cynicism in a slew of dark but fun songs that reflect a part of American life that’s increasingly hard to find in mainstream country music.
“Blowin’ Smoke,” an early single off Musgraves’ 2013 debut Same Trailer, Different Park, tells the story of a collection of resigned diner waitresses (complete with the sizzle of the grill in the background) via tightly-written metaphor that makes it relatable to anyone who’s ever worked a dead-end job. A different kind of smoke permeates the winking “High Time,” off her sophomore album, which finds her embracing her place in the storied lineage of country stoners. The song’s shimmering, glossy Western feel elevates it beyond novelty, though.
Another Kacey specialty is the “mind your own business” anthem, sometimes laced with specifics that tie them to the uniquely interconnected lives of small-town denizens. 2014’s “The Trailer Song” might be the prototypical example, digging into the cliche of nosy neighbors as set in the intimate setting of a trailer park. It begins, “You say that you’re watching/Birds out the window/Well, I’ve got a bird you can watch” and only gets spicier from there. In contrast, when Musgraves sang, “Screwed everybody over in this town” on the similarly-oriented rebuke “Step Off,” it seems likely that the town in question was Music City. Prominently placed banjo, though, keeps the tone staunchly folksy.
More upbeat is the proto-”#VanLife” anthem “My House,” which tells a love story enabled by a mobile home. One wouldn’t imagine “Water and electric, and a place to drain the septic” could ever sound so charming, yet the straightforward, acoustic song is one of Musgraves’ best.
The Dance Jams
High Horse; Neon Moon; Velvet Elvis; Oh, What A World 2.0
Kacey Musgraves launched a neo-country disco fervor with “High Horse,” the Bee Gees-inspired single off her third album, 2018’s Album of the Year Grammy-winning Golden Hour – and the reaction was understandable, given how unexpectedly groovy that song is. It also became her first single to crossover to pop radio, reaching no. 39 on Billboard’s Adult Pop Songs chart.
But she’d already experimented with putting four on the floor in a smart, dancefloor-ready remake of the Brooks and Dunn hit “Neon Moon” alongside Kix and Ronnie themselves, hinting at the country disco to come with an understated, yet undeniably country beat. Golden Hour also included “Velvet Elvis,” a more downtempo take on retro romance. Only the lyrics are really nostalgic though – the song’s sound is fresh and a little funky.
Musgraves gave another one of Golden Hour’s tracks a newly danceable feel in early 2020, when she released “Oh, What A World 2.0” on Earth Day as a benefit for the World Wildlife Fund. The revamped version has almost a ‘90s club vibe, airy and New Age while retaining some of the country-style finger-picked guitar.
Butterflies; Happy and Sad; I Miss You; Are You Sure; Space Cowboy; It Is What It Is
Even Kacey Musgraves’ most effusive love songs tend to be imbued with an air of melancholy. “Butterflies,” which Musgraves wrote about meeting her now ex-husband Ruston Kelly, describes new flirtation as a meaningful process of self-discovery – hardly the bubblegum fodder that might be suggested by its whimsical title. But it’s one of her best songs, again drawing out an extended metaphor, but this time comparing “getting butterflies” to a sort of personal rebirth. “Happy and Sad,” another love song off Golden Hour, draws out the parallel thrill and anxiety of relationships; instead of erasing that ambiguity and fear with a standard-issue up-tempo backing, Musgraves highlights it with a sound that’s a little slower and sadder to great effect.
Similarly, “I Miss You,” a loping, almost 60s-style lament spotlights the juxtaposition between good and bad rather than choosing one: the narrator has everything she could want – except her ex. “Are You Sure,” Musgraves’ duet with the legendary Willie Nelson off Pageant Material, is another brooding, retro track, where both singers question the value of persistently chasing the neon rainbow against stripped-down instrumentation.
The lead single off Golden Hour was “Space Cowboy,” on which Musgraves manages to make its titular pun downright moody – a break-up song set at the moment things are over, with all its instrumentation shrouded in fittingly spacey reverb. Her best moody love song, though, came on her debut album: “It Is What It Is” describes the prototypical situationship, no strings attached except the guitar and banjo accompanying Musgraves’ plaintive, resigned singing.
The YOLO Anthems
Die Fun; Slow Burn
Two of the best songs in Kacey Musgraves’ catalog tackle nearly the same theme: life, and how to make the most of it. Though it isn’t typically the easiest topic to take on, Musgraves’ maxims carry more than the usual amount of weight. “Die Fun” is the pragmatist’s argument for hedonism: “We can’t do it over/They say it’s now or never/and all we’re ever getting is older” packs a punch, especially delivered in Musgraves’ usual understated tone.
“Slow Burn” is a little less morose but no less deeply felt tribute to moving at your own pace. Fittingly, the song moves at an easy, even tempo, allowing for listeners who might want to take a drag and have time to exhale.
The Crossover Hits
Rainbow; Follow Your Arrow; Merry Go ‘Round
Somewhat ironically, Kacey Musgraves’ biggest songs have centered on challenging the status quo – or offering reassurance to those who do. “Rainbow,” off Golden Hour, is a soothing lullaby addressed to anyone facing adversity, especially those in the LGBTQ community. “Follow Your Arrow,” the 2013 single that wound up becoming the biggest hit of Musgraves’ career, was also embraced by the LGBTQ community thanks to its chorus: “Kiss lots of boys/or kiss lots of girls if that’s something you’re into.” The acceptance anthem made Musgraves stand out in the often conservative and homogenous world of country music, and caused plenty of people outside of Nashville to start paying attention to the budding star.
Musgraves’ breakout single, “Merry Go ‘Round,” though, had already set her apart, and not just because it won the Grammy for Best Country Song. Devoid of country cliches, it offered startling perspective on the challenges of small-town life in clear, plainspoken language, making it obvious that Musgraves was a songwriter to be reckoned with. Ever since, she’s lived up to its promise over and over – with hopefully many more outside-the-box country anthems to come.
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