I can’t say this about every artist I’ve encountered, but I remember the first time I heard Kacey Musgraves. It was August 2012, seven months before she released Same Trailer Different Park, and she was opening for Alison Krauss at a winery in Washington. (Perhaps this is obvious based on context, but I was at the show with my mom.)
Imagine seeing Alison Krauss for the first time and walking away from the concert saying, “Who was that opener again?” Her songs stuck in my head after one fairly disengaged, sauvignon blanc-filtered listen; in particular, I found myself frantically Googling “trailer Kacey Musgraves,” searching for a song with the perfect refrain “Go back to your trailer, you nosy b—” (here, Musgraves self-censored). It was exactly the apocryphal lightning-bolt feeling that record label heads and A&R people perennially use to describe stumbling on talent, but for once, I had it instead of hearing about it.
There wasn’t much to find then, but there would be, as I was far from the only person to receive Musgraves’ songs like a long-lost friend.
Upon its release 10 years ago this Sunday, Same Trailer Different Park instantly made the singer both a country sensation and a cause célèbre. Music writers, who might dabble in country but scoffed at the saminess of much of what made its commercial radio, found someone they were willing to fight for (name the last country artist whose debut was accompanied by a four-page spread in the New York Times Magazine). Nashville execs hemmed and hawed over whether her mild provocations were too much for the airwaves. She received unlikely early co-signs from Katy Perry and Perez Hilton. Perhaps most importantly, the queer community received Musgraves’ casual inclusivity (“Kiss lots of boys, kiss lots of girls if that’s something you’re into,” she sings on “Follow Your Arrow”) as a rallying cry — that single line, after all, shoved country music’s doors open a little wider than any that came before it.
But the crux of it all was the songs themselves, raw not in their production or style but in their lyrics, which were as plain-spoken and cutting as the best of the outsider country titans Musgraves claimed as influences (John Prine, of course, chief among them). Her official greeting to Nashville was, “If you ain’t got two kids by 21, you’re probably gonna die alone,” the opening line to “Merry Go ‘Round,” her debut single and relentlessly grim portrait of small-town life — a far cry from the dirt-road-colored glasses Music City typically wears.
“Don’t make it poetic,” she told the Washington Post in 2013. “It’s the John Prine school of songwriting. Literally just say how it is. And it wins every time. Too many people focus on writing what they think they should write, what should be in a song, what radio would want. [Forget] that, that’s so boring.”
Same Trailer Different Park‘s sound, courtesy of co-producers Luke Laird (already a veteran with several country hits under his belt) and Shane McAnally (who would, in part thanks to his work with Musgraves, become one of the most sought-after collaborators in Nashville), was mellow, stripped-down, straightforward. If not strictly traditional, there was little in the arrangements that amplified Musgraves’ lyrical edge — not that she needed it.
“Merry Go ‘Round” is a singular song, and undoubtedly one of the album’s highlights; its thematic twin, the more rock-inflected “Blowin’ Smoke,” is nearly as pointed, bringing listeners right into the rundown roadside diner where waitresses scoop up 50-cent tips while dreaming about being anywhere else (a feat aided by some ambient Waffle House sounds recorded by Laird). Both defiantly honest tracks remain outliers in the last decade of radio-oriented country music, where you’re as likely to find Musgraves-style gallows humor as you are an atheist hymn. “My House,” a harmonica-tinged paean to a pre-Instagram #vanlife, is one of the album’s cheeriest songs; lovesick melancholy gets its due on “I Miss You” and “Dandelion,” both of which anticipate some of the vibey sounds of Musgraves’ mainstream breakout Golden Hour.
“Step Off,” a screed against some unnamed naysayer (a favorite Musgraves theme: see “Biscuits” and “High Horse,” among others), has some of the groovy bounce the singer would seek out in her pop turn. “Follow Your Arrow” offers a more positive take on Musgraves’ favored “mind your own business” messaging — one that is more timely than ever. “Say what you think, love who you love,” Musgraves sings, stating what should have always been obvious but somehow still isn’t.
Possibly the album’s best song, “It Is What It Is” slices to the core of any friends-with-benefits relationship with arresting line after arresting line. “My grandma calls this ‘The Slut Song,'” was her go-to quip — slutty or not, every word of it rings deeply true. (“Not to be rude, but she’s not my demographic,” Musgraves added to the New York Times Magazine.)
Musgraves came at Nashville with an adversarial attitude befitting her Texas bonafides. Lamenting the Nashville powers-that-be to anyone who would listen, she pushed quite publicly to have “Merry Go ‘Round” as her first single and, once that had reached #10 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart, “Follow Your Arrow” — the one that says it’s OK to be gay and also to smoke pot, if you’re into that — as her second. The latter effort was less successful, marking the beginning of a now-decadelong stalemate with country radio that may well have pushed Musgraves out of the genre for good. The pastures, after all, have been much greener for her just about everywhere besides Music Row.
“A label’s typical plan would be to put something out that’s safer and get fans, and then push buttons,” Musgraves told the New York Times Magazine, “but my idea is to push buttons first, scare off the people who are gonna be scared off, and then the right people will like you for who you really are, and stay with you.”
Her method certainly worked, but what’s been lost in the battle is much of that biting songcraft, leaving fans to cherish not just Same Trailer Different Park, but a litany of off-album cuts from the same era — like “The Trailer Song,” the one I remember trying to Google, and “Burn One With John Prine,” and “Undermine,” and “There’s A Person There,” all stylistic galaxies away from the music that Musgraves is making now.
Nashville has no one to blame but itself for refusing to accept Musgraves’ demand for a “new normal,” for pushing her and her stellar songwriting away by demanding adherence to a corporate model that has consistently made succeeding even as a white woman (much less a woman or man of color) nearly impossible. “Her potential is enormous,” Universal Music senior VP of marketing Cindy Mabe told Billboard in 2013. “She’s only 24 years old and she knows exactly who she is and what she’s about. That is so rare. She’s not going to change who she is to please anyone.”
Musgraves won New Artist Of The Year over a “Cruise”-era Florida Georgia Line at the 2013 CMAs, and performed “Follow Your Arrow” on the telecast. She would return to the show several times over the years, to accept the trophies Nashville would give her in place of playing her songs on the radio, but even in those early days Musgraves already knew where her bread was buttered. “I can’t even begin to put into words how much I appreciate the love from not only country music, but every other genre,” she said in her acceptance speech.
Corporate country music couldn’t contain her (and thank goodness for that). So listeners are left with Same Trailer Different Park as a beautiful momento of the time Musgraves and her fans were still naïve enough to think she might change it for the better, as if anything ever could.