AT THE END OF 2011, KACEY MUSGRAVES holed up at a borrowed ranch house in Strawn, Texas, with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne to write some songs for the album that would win her the Country Music Association’s New Artist of the Year Award two years later. The drought-fed wildfires that had swept through the area that summer had stopped just short of the house, close enough that the heat busted out some windows. When the three writers climbed to a nearby ridge, they saw nothing but charred trees and cacti poking up through a carpet of ash.
Back inside the house, the three writers recovered from the desolation by talking about the small towns they grew up in — Musgraves and McAnally in Texas and Osborne in Michigan. McAnally recounted that his mother once dismissed a neighbor by saying, “Oh, she’s so Mary Kay.” That prompted laughter and some riffing on similar words: “married,” “Mary Jane” and “merry go ‘round.” That led in turn to some more sober observations about the secret lives of every small town’s upstanding citizens.
In less than two hours the trio had finished “Merry Go ’Round,” which became a top-15 country single in 2012 and set up the 2013 release of Musgraves’ first nationally distributed album, Same Trailer Different Park, which topped the country album charts and rose to No. 2 on the pop charts. As impressive as the chart success was the nearly unanimous critical praise for the tasteful understatement of the production and the courageous intelligence of the lyrics — two qualities that have been in short supply on the country charts in recent years. Courageous? Well, when the three writers finished the chorus for “Merry Go ‘Round,” it came out like this: “Mama’s hooked on Mary Kay / Brother’s hooked on Mary Jane / And daddy’s hooked on Mary two doors down / Mary, Mary quite contrary / We get bored, so we get married / And just like dust we settle in this town.” Such descriptions of casual drug use and bored spouses are not typical of country music songs, but Musgraves insisted on keeping them in. She wanted to paint a realistic portrait of small towns, because she grew up in one.
“There are so many songs out there that make small towns seem like a pristine wonderland,” Musgraves says. “A small part of that may be true, but like anywhere else these towns are full of human beings with flaws. There’s a way to be honest about that and still maintain a real appreciation for the way I grew up and that pace of life. I don’t see black and white; I like having a more multifaceted view. My favorite songs are those that make me think, like the songs of Willie Nelson and John Prine.”