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Gojo Café is a charmingly dingy Ethiopian restaurant on a strip of dingier Nashville road filled with chain shops and taco trucks, in an orange building that looks like a cross between a miniature brick warehouse and an adult video store. It’s 5:30 p.m., and Kacey Musgraves and I are the only customers there, save for the staff shuffling about in white. In a leather jacket, tight black leggings and heels, Musgraves looks a bit like a giraffe on a sheep farm. When the tables around us finally start to fill up, most patrons can’t keep themselves from stealing glances our way: it might be because they recognize her, but, a month before the release of her album Same Trailer, Different Park, it’s more likely because she just looks like someone who should be someone.
“I haven’t seen you in a while,” our waiter says to Musgraves, 24, who likes to come here a lot with her friends, sharing big sampler plates or hitting the lunch buffet. “How have you been?”
“Busy!” she replies. This is not a lie. The past year has been one long, steady launch for the native Texan since she first introduced her hit song “Merry Go ‘Round” to the world via a showcase at the Ryman Auditorium during Country Radio Seminar week, an industry affair where artists court the all-essential bigwigs of country radio. Alongside Lionel Richie, Scotty McCreery, Luke Bryan and George Strait, it’s hard to imagine that the talk of the day would be about an unknown singer-songwriter in a dress, playing a low-tempo tune about the traps and foibles of small town life – traps that many people in the audience, or at least their listeners – have likely fallen into. But in the hallowed hall filled with both country music greats and its new, American Idol incarnations, Musgraves and Strait got the only two standing ovations.
“It was my first label event, and it was basically this huge room of people with their arms crossed waiting for you to impress them,” Musgraves recalls. “And I had been lobbying for “Merry Go ‘Round” to be my first single, because it was something I really believed in.” The record company wasn’t quite as keen.
“I think they initially wanted something … upbeat,” she says carefully, but she stood her ground. “That was kind of the tipping point. Because it got a positive reaction, it made it much easier from there on out.” Much easier, she thinks, to keep pushing buttons. Two weeks after our dinner, she took the CRS stage once again, and chose the song “Follow Your Arrow,” a sing-songy ode with a chanting chorus demanding us to “kiss lots of boys, or kiss lots of girls, if that’s what you’re into.” This time the Ryman was filled with as many gasps as handclaps, but it’s all part of a carefully-culled plan of attack.
“I want to push buttons early on because I feel like it’ll weed out people who want to be my fans for the wrong reason,” she says. “Labels would say, ‘Appeal to everyone first and then push buttons later.’ That’s fucked up because it will give people the wrong idea of who I am.”
The waiter arrives, wanting to take our order. I put Musgraves in charge, a role which she eagerly accepts. “I think number three is what we usually get,” she says. “Is there cabbage on there? Okay, good.” She adds a few more things; some lamb, vegetables, salad. “The cabbage is so good,” she tells me. “And I don’t even like cabbage!”
You might not think that a girl from small-town East Texas would somehow develop a penchant for cuisine from the Horn of Africa that’s sopped up with sour, spongy bread, but Musgraves is a girl who takes more from the rebel ghosts of her home state than its pop idols or former presidents. Though it wasn’t in a trailer park, per se, her parents did take baby Kacey home to a doublewide, which she recalls had things like a faux fireplace. They upgraded to a real house (a family property) when her younger sister was born, still within the tiny town of Golden where the population is counted in the hundreds. It was around age eight when Musgraves started singing publically, frequenting local opry houses.
“I think because my mom wanted me to sing age-appropriate material, I started with super-traditional Western Swing – Roy Rodgers, fringe-and-hat country yodeling,” she says. She’d perform around neighboring towns on weekends, juggling it with normal childhood pursuits (“I was literally on the ‘C’ team for volleyball at one point”) at her school in nearby Mineola. And she grew into the trappings of a regular teenager in some ways, too, papering her wall with ‘N Sync and Spice Girls posters, but not in others: her first instrument was a mandolin.
“I would have these little tracks that we had made to sing to,” she says, now picking at the food that arrived a minute ago. Her Ingera bread is ripped into tiny little pieces on her plate, which she uses to delicately scoop up food from the piles of lentils and meat on a big shared silver platter between us. “Some of the places wouldn’t have a sound system, so I thought maybe it would be cool if I could back myself up and not have to rely on that.” She asked a kid from a local family – “one of those that has a slew of children and they each play five instruments” – to teach her the awkward, tinny lute. It carried her through her twelfth birthday, when she got a Stargazer guitar for Christmas.
It was then when she also started taking lessons from a guitar teacher, John DeFoore, whom she still credits with being an influential force in her career (they keep in touch on Facebook), who gave his lessons in a “creepy art deco room” and instantly recognized Musgraves’ strengths and weaknesses. “I’m not a technical person or player,” she says, “and he saw that I wasn’t going to be shredding scales. He taught me a lot of basics as far as chords and strumming patterns go, but he saw that I dabbled in writing a bit and really pushed me to work on that. So instead of technical stuff, my assignment was to go home and try to write a song. I fell in love with it.”
DeFoore, who looks a little bit like he could be a brother of David Crosby (or Santa for that matter) and also has taught Miranda Lambert (for whom Musgraves would later write “Mama’s Broken Heart”), put her through a routine that would feel very familiar once she landed in a publishing deal: write a song a week, bring it back, make a work tape, repeat. After a stint in Austin after high school where she was a contestant on Nashville Star (coming in fifth), she moved to Music City, working for a year on her craft before getting snatched up by Warner Chapel Publishing and supplementing her income with a part-time job dressing up for children’s birthday parties.
“For one, I had to be Hannah Montana and sing one of her songs,” she says. “The next one was, ‘We need you to dress up as a French maid and deliver balloons to an industry birthday party at the Palm.’ I’m glad I said no because it ended up being for Blake Shelton, and because if I did that I would have never lived it down.” It was a good call indeed, one Musgraves trusted her gut for: a recurring theme in our conversation, and in her life. When I ask her later what’s the one thing she feels most confident about, it’s those instincts.