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Kacey Musgraves is something of an anomaly. A Texas native in her mid-20s, she fits most easily into the contemporary "country" category, but the work she co-writes with a variety of collaborators is really a throwback to an earlier era of singer-songwriters — as much influenced by rock and folk as by country. There's a reason why, in a recent New York Times profile, Musgraves expressed her greatest admiration for the work of John Prine, no one's idea of a country star. Like Prine, Musgraves identifies as working-class and rural even though she's comfortable in urban settings. And she makes her money from a Nashville industry leery of the kind of blunt or racy or generally loose-lipped chatter that she hammers into verse.
"Follow Your Arrow," a song about going your own way, examines the small-mindedness of small-town life in a way that's typical of her material. One reason she strikes some folks in Nashville as a fresh voice is that she's here to remind people in the 21st century that a big chunk of the country she knows best hasn't moved on from — or has regressed back to — the moral strictures of the '50s or even further, if you want to thump a Bible. She also makes vivid the kind of lives her subjects lead. Where other country artists fill stadiums by giving their fans reasons to escape from their 9-to-5s, Musgraves brings poetry to cigarette breaks, double shifts and fading dreams.
Her new single, "Blowin' Smoke," is co-written, as many songs on her new album are, by Musgraves and her co-producers Shane McAnally and Luke Laird. So far, Musgraves' biggest hit is "Merry Go 'Round," a complex and sophisticated construct meant to convey directness and simplicity. Over a shuffle beat with just enough banjo to rusticate things, Musgraves sings a litany of the traps — emotional, material, addictive — that keep people from ever escaping the hemmed-in lives they lead. Add Musgraves' small but firm voice delivering the striking image "Just like dust we settle in this town" and working in another one that gives her album its title and, well, this song was built to be played on the radio ... in about 1985.
Many commentators have seized upon Musgraves as a contrast to Taylor Swift. I'm not into pitting one woman against another, so I'll just say that Musgraves is an alternative-world Taylor Swift: an intelligent composer and performer at the start of what I hope is a long career of making both her core audience and other open-minded listeners sit up and take notice when a delicate-voiced performer describes difficult lives without sentimentality or coyness.