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 3-year-old, dappled in freckles and clutching a doll to her side.
“Clearly I didn’t win,” says Musgraves.
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 star’s sophomore album, Pageant Material (out June 23 on Mercury Nashville). “I’m not exactly Miss Congenial,” Musgraves sings wryly 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, Musgraves goes her own way. She’s irreverent in 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 first honed her craft as a child singer doing throwback western swing on the Texas Opry circuit, with help from her parents’ print shop, which supplied both headshot glossies and a blueprint 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?”
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, in 2013 and turned heads across the country landscape and beyond. The album, which has sold 503,000 copies, according to Nielsen Music, won her awards (best country album and song Grammys, Country Music Association song of the year), 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 mainstream country could sound like or say today. “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 seemed hesitant to take risks on female artists — and where Musgraves’ mix of forward lyrics and throwback folk-country arrangements stick out.
When she accepted her CMA Award in 2014 for “Follow Your Arrow,” 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.”
On the other hand, during the past couple of years she has frequently felt compelled to point out to interviewers 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 says, “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 time when country radio was dominated by rock- and rap-influenced party jams sung by men; when women got spins at all, the songs were “about a guy cheating and you getting revenge — and I couldn’t relate to either,” she says. Musgraves is helping change the conversation.
“As a storyteller, songwriter and as a woman, we need her,” says Karen Fairchild of the group Little Big Town, Musgraves’ one-time tourmate, which has recently fought an uphill battle of its own to get “Girl Crush,” a sophisticated, 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 going to find out about it.”
Musgraves navigates the industry in a similarly candid way. For one, she has been upfront about dating her guitarist, Misa Arriaga, 29, 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.”
On Pageant Material, there’s a new level of real talk even for Musgraves, especially a tongue-in-cheek number titled “Good Ol’ Boys Club.” It’s partly about her distaste for stroking egos — something she made clear in a social media dustup in 2014 with syndicated-radio star 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 gig in May at the 6,000-capacity Billy Bob’s Texas in Fort Worth, Musgraves’ own mother suggested upping the politeness quotient, just for the night. “Some of my elderly relatives were going to be there,” recounts Karen Musgraves, “so I said, ‘Hey, keep it toned down. Don’t let the f-word fly.’ And she just laughed. ‘Mom, I’ve got to 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 my family is there,” the singer explains with a grin. “Sorry.”