Kacey Musgraves on 'Going Against the Grain,' Country Radio and Why She's Not Exactly 'Miss Congenial'

Kacey Musgraves is perched on a coffee shop stool in Nashville, scrolling through images on her phone for photographic evidence of her brief -- and unsuccessful -- pageant career. “This was me,” says the 26-year-old, arriving at a shot of her sole run at the Little Miss Tater Tot title in her native Golden, Texas. She’s pointing to a mischievous-looking three-year-old, dappled in freckles and clutching a doll to her side. 

“Clearly I didn’t win,” Musgraves says. 

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She seems almost pleased that she’s not cut out for flashing Vaseline-smeared beauty queen smiles. After all, that sentiment is a theme on the country singer-songwriter’s sophomore album, Pageant Material (out June 23 on Mercury Nashville) “I’m not exactly Miss Congenial,” Musgraves sings archly on the title track. As playful as the song is, it’s also one of the reasons Musgraves matters so much. While other artists in country and pop dutifully travel well-worn roads to stardom, straining for likability and attention, Musgraves goes her own way. She’s irreverently low-key about how she presents her music and herself -- and that takes nerve, considering how often female stars are still held to pageant-like standards. “I hear a lot in the industry, ‘This is the way it’s done, so you have to follow suit,” she says. “Why can’t we look at other options?’”

Musgraves got her earliest stage experience as a child singer doing throwback western swing on the Texas opry circuit, with help from her parents’ small print shop, which supplied both glossy headshots and inspiration for her independent spirit. “I never knew anything but my parents creating their own hours,” she says. “I never imagined having a boss. Isn’t that weird?”

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She made it onto the reality show competition Nashville Star in 2007 and later worked as a songwriter at Warner/Chappell, where she landed credits with Martina McBride and Miranda Lambert, before signing to Mercury in 2012. She released her major label debut, Same Trailer, Different Park the next year and turned heads across the country landscape and beyond. The album, which has sold 503,000 copies to date according to Nielsen Music, won her awards (best country album and song Grammys, CMA song of the year), an invitation to be the GLAAD Awards' first country performer, praise from the hippest, most highbrow -- and least country-friendly -- press outlets and touring slots with acts as disparate as Willie Nelson and Katy Perry. What made her achievements even more exciting was that she was confronting entrenched notions of what contemporary mainstream country could sound like or say. “Merry Go ‘Round” pokes at parochialism, and has been interpreted as being anti-small-town; “Follow Your Arrow” is a toast to conformity-bucking, pot-smoking and same-sex affection. It hit No. 10 on Hot Country Songs despite being mostly shut out by country radio, where programmers have lately been hesitant to take risks on singles by female artists (all the more so when a single voices a libertarian perspective set to a folky, whimsically understated arrangement).

When she accepted her CMA Award last year for the song, Musgraves oozed optimism. “Do you guys realize what this means for country music?” she asked, flanked by co-writers Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, both of whom are openly gay. Today, she reflects, “Even if I was just sitting on my couch as a bystander, that moment would give me hope for new ideas, for country still being about real life -- which is what it’s supposed to be about.”

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On the other hand, over the past couple of years she’s frequently felt compelled to point out to interviewers that it’s not all that radical for a millennial artist to write about coexisting with diversity and difference as nonchalantly as she does. “To me,” she emphasizes, “these things aren’t very progressive issues. I never thought it would get brought up this much. I can see why it is, though -- it’s going against the grain in country music right now.” 

Musgraves arrived at a moment when country radio was dominated by rock-and-rap-influenced party jams sung by rowdy men; when female acts got spins at all, the songs were “were about a guy cheating and you getting revenge, and I couldn’t relate to either,” she says. Musgraves is helping expand the conversation by being so casually, youthfully direct in her songs, chafing against old-fashioned propriety and crafting a sound that lands on the kitschy, light-footed side of country pop.

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“I think that as a storyteller, songwriter and as a woman, we need her,” says Karen Fairchild of the group Little Big Town, Musgraves’s one-time tour mates, who’ve recently fought an uphill battle of their own to get “Girl Crush,” a controversy-stirring expression of feminine sensuality, played on country radio. “She’s waving the banner high for intelligent, beautifully crafted songs.”

Pageant Material folds in bits of confessional gravitas, classic Western textures and string-swathed, studio-pop finesse reminiscent of Glen Campbell or Bobbie Gentry. The down-home affection coursing through songs like “Biscuits” and “Family Is Family” ought to help dispel the notion that Musgraves is dismissive of small-town life. Not to mention the fact that the singer bought her rural childhood home, a century-old, two-bedroom bunkhouse whose yard hosted her sister’s wedding, and whose porch ceiling their mother painted like the Texas flag. “I love that I’m from a small town,” she says. “I grew up with, like, 80 kids in my graduating class, and we knew each other’s first and last names and where we lived. There’s something to being held accountable in a small town. If you’re mean, people are gonna find out about it.”

Musgraves navigates the industry in a similarly candid way. For one, she’s been upfront about dating her guitarist, Misa Arriaga, without letting it become tabloid fodder. “There’s no reason to hide it,” she reasons. “He’s a massive part of my career. But I don’t want it to be something that people fixate on. The less people know, the better your relationships tend to fare -- that’s whether your grandma’s asking you about it, or the National Enquirer.”

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On Pageant Material, there’s a new level of real talk even for Musgraves, on a tongue-in-cheek number titled “Good Ol’ Boys Club.” The song is, in part, about her distaste for stroking egos -- something already clear from her social media dustup last year with syndicated-radio personality Bobby Bones, who said she was “rude” to him in an interview. Her Twitter reply? “I’m human. Not a robot.”

“Ask anyone that knows me,” she says now. “I’m not a person that’s like, ‘Oh my god! Hi!’ I’m not super bubbly. It’s just the way that I am.”

Before a sold-out Texas show in early May, Musgraves’s own mother suggested upping the politeness quotient, just for the night. “I knew that some of my elderly relatives were going to be there,” recounts Karen Musgraves, speaking to Billboard about Kacey’s resolve. “So I said, ‘Hey, keep it toned down. Don’t let the “F word” fly.’ And she just laughed. She says, ‘Mom, I’ve gotta be me.’”

Anything less, her daughter says, would let down her audience. “All these people aren’t coming to see me put on a different show just because family is gonna be here,” explains Kacey with a grin. “Sorry.”

This story appears in the June 13 issue of Billboard.