TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Kacey Musgraves is a singer-songwriter in her mid-20s who's just released a new album called "Same Trailer, Different Park," that has reached number one on the Billboard country album chart. Musgraves has had success in Nashville as a songwriter. She's co-written hits for Miranda Lambert and Kenny Chesney, and another of her songs, "Undermine," has been featured prominently on the country music TV drama "Nashville." Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of Musgraves' new collection.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SILVER LININGS")
KACEY MUSGRAVES: (Singing) Woke up on the wrong side of rock bottom. You're all out of pennies and the well, it done run dry. You'd light 'em up and smoke 'em if you had 'em but you just ain't got 'em. Yeah, ain't we always looking for a bluer sky? But if you're ever going to find a silver lining...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Kacey Musgraves is something of an anomaly. A Texas native in her mid-20s, her music slots 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 she 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOLLOW YOUR ARROW")
MUSGRAVES: (Singing) If you save yourself for marriage you're a bore. You don't save yourself for marriage, you're a horr-ible person. If you won't have a drink then you're a prude. But they'll call you a drunk as soon as you down the first one. You can't lose the weight, then you're just fat. But if you lose too much then you're on crack. Damned if you do and you're damned if you don't so you might as well just do whatever you want. So make lots of noise. Hey. Kiss lots of boys. Yeah. Kiss lots of girls if that's something you're into. When the straight and narrow gets a little too straight roll up a joint. Or don't. Just follow your arrow wherever it points. Yeah, follow your arrow wherever it points.
TUCKER: That's "Follow Your Arrow," a song about going your own way. Its recitation of the small-mindedness of small town life is 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 nine-to-fives, Musgraves brings some poetry to cigarette breaks, double shifts, and fading dreams.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLOWING SMOKE")
MUSGRAVES: (Singing) Between the lunch and dinner rush Kelly caught that outbound bus for Vegas. And we're all out here talking trash, making bets, lips wrapped 'round our cigarettes. She always she thought she was too good to be a waitress. We all say that we'll quit someday when our ship comes in. We'll just sail away-ay-ay. We're just blowing smoke.
TUCKER: That's "Blowing Smoke," co-written, as many songs on her new album are, by Musgraves and her co-producers Shane McAnally and Luke Laird. So far, Kacey Musgraves' biggest hit is a song called "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, addictions - that keep people from ever escaping the hemmed-in small town lives they lead.
MUSGRAVES: 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, "Same Trailer, Different Park," well, this song was built to be played on the radio in about 1985.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MERRY GO 'ROUND")
MUSGRAVES: (Singing) If you ain't got two kids by 21 you're probably gonna die alone. At least that's what tradition told you. And it don't matter if you don't believe, come Sunday morning you'd best be there in the front row like you're supposed to. Same hurt in every heart. Same trailer, different park. Mama's hooked on Mary Kay, brother's hooked on Mary Jane, and Daddy's hooked on Mary two doors down.
(Singing) Mary, Mary quite contrary, we get bored so we get married. Just like dust, we settle in this town on this broken merry go round and round and round we go. Where it stops nobody knows. And it ain't slowing down, this merry go round.
TUCKER: 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.
GROSS: Ken Tucker reviews Kacey Musgraves' new hit album, "Same Trailer, Different Park." You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org and you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.