Brow Beat

In Praise of Kacey Musgraves’ Children’s Music for Grown-Ups

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Kacey Musgrave performs onstage during the Grammy Awards in 2014.  

There’s a tangy childhood story that Kacey Musgraves has been telling on her current tour, the Country & Western Rhinestone Revue. It harks from the dawn of her career as a performer, with the Cowtown Opry Buckaroo Club in Fort Worth, Texas.

“I was 11 or 12, and I was about to go onstage,” she said to a sold-out crowd at the Apollo Theater on Saturday night. “I had my cowboy hat on, and I was feeling pretty damn good about myself, as much as you can when you’re 12. And then this other girl’s mom seriously came over to me, right before I went onstage to sing.” Taking issue with the way that young Kacey wore her hat, the woman made a withering remark: “It just makes you look like some dime-store cowgirl.”

This, naturally, was a preface to “Dime Store Cowgirl,” the irresistible latest single from Musgraves’ second album, Pageant Material. The tune delivers two classic country messages: Look How Far I’ve Come, and I’ll Never Forget Where I Came From. As Musgraves set it up, I trained my eyes on the seat next to mine, where my daughter sat at a forward tilt, completely rapt.

My daughter is small—she’ll turn 5 next week—but she’s the biggest Kacey Musgraves fan I know, and “Dime Store Cowgirl” is her favorite song. So when the band started into its twinkly boom-chick vamp, she went bug-eyed and slack-jawed, instantly bouncing to the beat. She was too overwhelmed to sing along (or possibly it was too far past her bedtime), but the grown-ups around us boisterously picked up the slack. As I watched her feverish excitement, I returned to a theory I’ve been forming about Musgraves. I think her hummable, message-delivering songs often make the most sense as children’s music for adults.

That sounds patronizing, I know; it potentially puts me in the same unflattering position as that story’s awful stage mom. (“Wonder where that bitch is now?” was Musgraves’ kicker. I laughed like everybody else. To my mild relief, the line seemed to sail over my daughter’s head.)

Let me hasten to note that like many music critics, I fell quickly for Musgraves’ first poignant, finely observed single, “Merry Go ’Round.” And I loved much of her 2013 debut, Same Trailer Different Park. I’m an honest admirer of her artistry, as a songwriter, a singer, and a progressive voice in country music. But I’ve also come to believe she has a single-mindedness of purpose and delivery that rings willfully of childish things. The show at the Apollo—which featured her band in light-bedazzled pink western suits, and at one point had her lead guitarist, Kyle Ryan, double as a juggling act—didn’t disabuse me of this notion.

Perhaps you’ve heard her version of “A Spoonful of Sugar,” from We Love Disney, a compilation that will be released on Friday. It’s the best track on the album by a country mile, and one reason might be that its message so neatly mirrors her approach. Musgraves didn’t perform “A Spoonful of Sugar” at the Apollo, but she doled out plenty of sweetened medicine—in “Biscuits,” one of her Do Unto Others songs; “Step Off,” one of her Sticks and Stones songs; and “Die Fun,” which begins with the line “Do we really have to grow up?” Of course the whole theater sang along with “Follow Your Arrow,” which for all its talk of joint-smoking and boy- and girl-kissing presents the Ur-message of nearly all children’s entertainment: Be True to Who You Are.

Does this mean that Musgraves’ music is somehow less crafted or serious than other pop or country songs? No—I think she’s made a sly and potent artistic decision in framing her social critiques with the stark moral clarity of kids’ tales. (Even “Merry Go ’Round,” probably her bleakest song, riffs on a couple of nursery rhymes.) The simplicity is wickedly effective: These issues really aren’t all that complicated, she seems to be implying. Even a kid could figure them out, so why can’t you?

And though the majority of her fans are adults, the songs really work on kids, as I can happily attest. Right and wrong, kind and unkind: Like most parents, I’m trying my damnedest to get my daughter to know the difference. And if she grows up taking certain things for granted, things that once required struggle, coaxing and cajoling—well then, life will be gravy, as somebody once said in a song.