Kacey Musgraves has a nose ring and sings about smoking joints, casual sex and kissing girls. These aren’t traditional qualifications for a new queen of country music, yet that’s what the 25-year-old Texan is shaping up to be. Surprisingly, her barbed tales of smalltown life and escape have been supported by the conservative Nashville establishment, which has just nominated her for six Country Music Association awards — jointly the highest number with Taylor Swift and a huge deal for anyone in cowboy boots.
“I can’t wrap my brain around that. They tell me that no debut female has ever had that many nominations,” she tells me. “I think people must be ready for unabashed, relatable songs.”
She’s the singer to get into when you’re growing out of Taylor Swift, her pure voice and acoustic guitar providing a deceptively lovely canvas for lyrics so sharp and witty, it’s a shame I can’t use up this page just quoting them. On her first major release, Same Trailer Different Park (on Decca), she can be heard skewering the traditions of obligatory churchgoing and young marriage, advocating personal freedom and rejecting love.
“I like to keep things really stark. I don’t like music that’s fancied up or has someone preaching to me. I’d rather be recognised for being real than having a pretty voice or a pretty face,” she says.
She’s not the first to add some grit to Nashville’s rhinestone-studded glossiness, of course. Loretta Lynn released The Pill in 1975, while Dolly Parton was singing about an unmarried pregnant girl on Down from Dover in 1970. Both women are inspirations, Lynn in particular, says their descendant.
But country singers still need to be careful. Look at the Dixie Chicks, whose career imploded in the US after they dared to criticise George W Bush on stage. Musgraves sticks to personal issues but is finding that her themes are universal. “What I’m singing about is a mindset. I get people in places like Glasgow coming up to me saying, ‘That’s my life!’”
And any controversy that surrounds her is relative. In the mainstream pop world, she looks positively demure in hotpants on her album cover compared with Miley Cyrus naked licking a hammer. Her song It Is What it Is, about sleeping with someone because you’re bored (which her grandmother refers to as “The Slut Song”), is pretty tame beside Rihanna bashing on about S&M. But she isn’t trying to shock, she’s trying to be real, and in this she succeeds. “I’m just being a songwriter and implementing these things that make up my life. To me these things aren’t controversial.”
Of the recent Cyrus spat with Sinéad O’Connor (in which the older singer wrote to advise the twerking clothes-remover: “This is a dangerous world. We don’t encourage our daughters to walk around naked in it because it makes them prey for animals”) she falls tentatively on O’Connor’s side. “Maybe it [the music industry] is by nature more of a man’s world. But I think there are women who can definitely hold their own out there and make us look good. There could be more.”
She admits that looks help. “There’s a balance. You don’t want to be sexy and have no brain or be all brain and have no sex appeal. The people who’ve figured out how to have both are the ones I really appreciate.”
It’s taken her a long time to get to this position of power. Three earlier self-released albums, which she hopes remain lost, feature her in cowboy hats and fringed jackets singing smiley tunes with titles including Sweet Prairie Muffin. After getting a guitar for her 12th birthday, she started playing on the opry circuit — weekend shows in local theatres doing classic covers alongside other singers of all ages.
At 18 she moved to Austin, a music city that was still reasonably close to her family home in the small town of Golden, Texas. But she was already working regularly in Nashville, recording demos for other artists and playing “writers’ rounds”, where several songwriters try out new songs together in front of an audience. So 18 months later, she moved there permanently.
“I wanted to immerse myself in this songwriting community. You could close your eyes and throw a rock and hit a hit songwriter. It’s inspiring, because you have no room for not being as good as you can be.”
Working with various co-writers, she came up with the songs on Same Trailer Different Park and also had some notable compositions cut by others. Mama’s Broken Heart was a rocky hit for Miranda Lambert. Undermine was a key song in the hit TV drama Nashville, sung by the actress Hayden Panettiere. Then, earlier this year, her own album went to No 2 on the main US chart and No 1 in the country hit parade.
Now, unlike so much country music, her songs are starting to translate beyond the American South. “My concert sold out in Oslo before I’d ever been there. That’s just weird,” she says.
Katy Perry is a big fan. They’ve been in the studio together, making music that has yet to be released. Perry also asked her to perform alongside her and fellow pop acts Ellie Goulding and Tegan and Sara at a breast cancer charity concert at the Hollywood Bowl later this month. It’s clear that you can enjoy her songs even if you don’t own a pick-up truck. “I love it any time somebody comes up to me and says, ‘I hate country music but I love your music’.”
Hers is now a crossover appeal so powerful that even her catchiest and cheekiest song, Follow Your Arrow (the one that goes, “Make lots of noise, kiss lots of boys/Kiss lots of girls if that’s something you’re into”) is gaining traction as a future single. It is 2013 after all, and the year is Kacey Musgraves’s for the taking.