Breaking into the music business is a difficult task for anyone who aspires to share their talents with the world, but for women, it is much harder. Even in this progressive era, women are still viewed as subordinate to men and must endure unrelenting criticism and pressure from society in order to capture a quarter of the success men receive. Country music is no different. In the past twenty years, only three women have snagged the coveted Entertainer of the Year trophy at the CMA Awards. Men dominate stadium tours and sales numbers, with women trailing in the race by thousands of dollars. Young male artists come on to the scene with ample support from record labels and fans, while most women must think far out of the box in order to garner even the slightest bit of attention. While this trajectory has changed in recent years, there is no denying that women in country are handed the shorter end of the stick.
As of late, there are three women who are leading the female movement in Nashville: the gun-slinging-ass-kicking Miranda Lambert; the queen of writing songs about her feelings (and arguably the Queen of Music in general), Taylor Swift, and the all-American vocal powerhouse, Carrie Underwood. Despite Swift’s rapid and seemingly permanent transition into the pop world, all three women are successfully bringing their A-game to the genre, representing country music with a strong mix of soft rock, subtle pop, and bluegrass twang in this neo-traditionalist era. Veteran artists Martina McBride and Faith Hill continue to produce original music, but are past their heyday and viewed as slot-fillers in award show vocalist categories due to the unfortunate stigma that surrounds female musicians in their forties (a concept I consider ignorant; a person’s voice doesn’t change at any age- just because someone is younger doesn’t necessarily make them better). Newcomers Jana Kramer and Kristen Kelly have had moderately successful singles and opportunistic audience exposure upon Brad Paisley’s Virtual Reality Tour, but are struggling to create that post-initial luck momentum. Which leaves Kacey Musgraves.
Musgraves is not unfamiliar within the country music realm. The now twenty-four-year-old Texan placed seventh on USA’s Nashville Star in 2007, the same show where fellow Texan and former songwriting partner Lambert got her start. In 2008, Musgraves left Texas for Nashville, pursuing a full-time career as a songwriter and singing on other artists’ demos. After years of waiting and struggling, Musgraves eventually found chemistry with two of Music Row’s finest: Luke Laird and Shane McAnally, and the threesome proceeded to co-write the songs that would eventually comprise Musgraves’ debut effort, Same Trailer, Different Park. Much hype is surrounding Musgraves’ assimilation into country mainstream, catalyzed by the release of her first single, “Merry Go ‘Round”. Impressed with her first single and influenced by the buzz encompassing her, I went out and purchased her CD the day it came out. I was pleased to discover that Musgraves lives up to her expectation, if only because the only expectations she has are the ones she sets for herself. The entire album is true country, filled with stories that are open and real. Musgraves has a commendable knack of connecting mundane words and making them sound poetic without utilizing hackneyed clichés in her work. Her blunt honesty is refreshing, giving listeners just enough insight into her world without giving away every sordid detail. The organic sound enhances Musgraves simple, but pretty, voice, lending her compositions a very raw and stripped-down tone.
What draws me to Musgraves and her music the most is her progressive attitude. Most country artists today sing about their old-fashioned past, bonfires, patriotism, and drinking in small-town bars, all acceptable topics for a genre that continues to boast a conservative atmosphere. Musgraves, however, targets the here and now. “My House” focuses on the pride she has living in a mobile home, a house that allows her to freely explore the country while suburban settlers are stuck with their unmoving house on a hill. “Step Off” addresses gossiping busybodies and the frenemies that are consistently trying to bring you down- Musgraves quickly shuts them up by confronting instead of wallowing. “It Is What It Is” discusses the complication of sleeping with someone you aren’t in love with, a tune Musgraves once quipped her grandmother calls, “The Slut Song”. And “Follow Your Arrow”, my favorite track, sees Musgraves as a moderate advisor, cheekily encouraging listeners to make lots of noise/kiss lots of boys/or kiss lots of girls/if that’s something you’re into and screw what all the critics preach. Musgraves represents not only the gradual open-mindedness of members of the Nashville community, but also the contemporary direction of the country as a whole.
I may be wrong, but it seems that Musgraves will follow the same trajectory Miranda Lambert took on her path to stardom: overall critical acclaim but slow commercial success. She may wait in the wings while more marketable artists step up to the plate and accumulate her much-deserved awards. I, however, believe that this will not faze Musgraves, and until it is her time to step into the spotlight, she will patiently follow her arrow wherever it points. And I can guarantee that listeners will follow her, too.