Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe, Caitlin Rose take country by storm
She’s only 24, but Kacey Musgraves has been around long enough to know that Nashville moves in cycles. The rising country star, whose “Merry Go ‘Round” has spent much of the last few months inside the top 20, remembers when LeAnn Rimes set off a search for “another young girl with a big voice.”
“Now they’re all looking for the next Taylor Swift,” Musgraves said recently. “Then someone else is gonna come along and create a new normal, when in reality they should probably be looking for something different altogether.”
Nashville may have found it in Musgraves, as well as two more young singer-songwriters, Ashley Monroe and Caitlin Rose, all with new albums out this month. The up-and-comers, who seem equally indebted style-wise to Alison Krauss and Katy Perry, are walking through doors Swift and Miranda Lambert helped open.
Those superstars brightened up country’s sound over the past half-decade with their pop savvy; they aged down its vernacular too with talky, lifelike lyrics. Now performers like Musgrave are working in an industry that’s come to respect young women who write their own songs.
But like Monroe and Rose, Musgrave goes beyond the twentysomething vérité of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” to present fresh ideas about how women relate — or not — to core country-music concerns such as marriage, motherhood and religion.
On her album “Same Trailer Different Park,” to be released March 19, Musgraves casts a skeptical eye on the small-town experience enshrined in countless country songs. “If you ain’t got two kids by 21 you’re probably gonna die alone,” she sings in “Merry Go ‘Round,” “At least that’s what tradition told you.”
Monroe similarly upends expectations on “Like a Rose,” this 26-year-old artist’s first solo effort since breaking out as a member of Lambert’s Pistol Annies. Over a hard-driving honky-tonk groove in “Weed Instead of Roses,” Monroe urges her man, “Go call your no-good brother, we both know what he’s been growing / I’ll be waiting with the whipped cream, and baby let’s get going.”
And then there’s Rose, who in “Pink Champagne” — from her sophomore album, “The Stand-In” — punctures the bubble around an impulsive Las Vegas wedding: “Seeing how we both said yes,” the 25-year-old sings against the mournful whine of a pedal steel, “I guess we’ll follow through.”
“It’s so refreshing to hear somebody like them,” said Lisa Lee, an executive at the Academy of Country Music, which next month will hand out its annual ACM Awards in Las Vegas. (Musgraves is up for several, including female vocalist of the year.) “They’re so funny, but they’re also saying things in their songs that a lot of women wouldn’t be able to say.”
Added Vince Gill, who produced Monroe’s album and performed with her last month at a concert in New York: “Ashley’s not afraid to tell the truth, and the truth is always more compelling than anything else. Dolly Parton got that. So did Loretta Lynn.”
The impact of those country legends resounds in the younger singers’ music — in Monroe’s “Two Weeks Late,” which recalls Lynn’s controversial “The Pill,” and in “My House” by Musgraves, whose wry account of life in a double-wide (“Water and electric / And a place to drain the septic”) channels the dignified humility of Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors.”
But you also hear the unique perspectives of these three women, none of whom is enjoying her first rodeo. Rose is the daughter of the Nashville songwriter Liz Rose, who’s co-written a number of hits with Swift, yet she’s come up largely outside the country-music mainstream, touring and recording like an indie act. (She plays the Bootleg Bar in Echo Park on May 2.) “I get my gossip from ‘Nashville’ on ABC,” Rose said, referring to the soapy prime-time drama starring Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere.
Musgraves competed on Season 5 of “Nashville Star,” the country-music “American Idol,” before moving to town from Texas and working as a songwriter and demo singer. (One of her tunes, “Undermine,” ended up in the second episode of “Nashville.”) And Monroe made what was supposed to be her major-label debut in 2007 but saw the album fall prey to a record-label merger; she then toiled behind the scenes, writing songs for other artists, until Lambert drafted her for the Pistol Annies, whose 2011 disc, “Hell on Heels,” entered Billboard’s country chart at No. 1. (A second Pistol Annies album is expected in May.) “I’ve been at it awhile, so it’s kind of funny to be called a new artist,” said Monroe, who’s scheduled to appear Monday on “The Tonight Show.” “But I’ll take it.”
That stockpile of experience accounts for much of the way these women have honed their points of view. “I feel like every song has been written a million times,” Musgraves said from Huntsville, Ala., where she was opening a concert for Little Big Town. (She’ll hit Angel Stadium in July with Kenny Chesney.) “There’s only so many chords and only so many things to write about. My goal is to put my own twist on it.” It’s an approach Chesney described as Musgraves’ determination to “show you the world as it is, not just the easy, obvious stuff.”
“People like Kacey and Ashley and Eric Church, they have this conviction,” said Luke Laird, who co-produced “Same Trailer Different Park” and has written songs for Carrie Underwood and Jason Aldean, among many others. “They’ve got a vision, and they know exactly what they want to do.”
Up-and-down industry dealings probably explain too some of the world-weariness in songs like “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Keep It to Yourself,” in which Musgraves flips Lady Antebellum’s 2009 smash “Need You Now” and tells a drunk-dialing ex to “put [his feelings] on a shelf.” Yet the singers’ suspicions about romance and family values never harden into outright disdain. “‘Merry Go ‘Round’ has such a gentle tone — it belies what Kacey’s singing about,” said Lee of the ACM. “So when you really listen to what she’s saying” — “Mama’s hooked on Mary Kay / Brother’s hooked on mary jane / And Daddy’s hooked on Mary two doors down” — “it knocks you upside the head like a shovel.”
These albums reflect a similarly complex relationship with Nashville musical tradition: As much as each woman is remaking country in her own image, she’s pledging allegiance to an age-old legacy of storytelling and wordplay, one that stretches from Parton’s “Jolene” to Brad Paisley’s “I’m Still a Guy” to a perfectly crafted song on Monroe’s album called “She’s Driving Me Out of Your Mind.”
Gill recalled the moment Monroe approached him about overseeing “Like a Rose.” “I warned her, ‘The way I hear you might be country-er than how you hear yourself,’” he said. Monroe’s response?
“That’s what I want: a stone-cold country record,” she said. “When you strip away everything and go right back to who I am, that’s what I know best. And I just need to be me.”
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