When the South Drove Me Away, Kacey Musgraves’ Music Offered Me a Home
I’m a queer, northeast girl with southern roots, and no one has captured that duality quite like Kacey Musgraves.
The Vagina Monologues
However, because I had no language to describe my seat at this intersection, I decided to pick a side. I chose to conceptualize myself as a more evolved, fully-realized version of my former self, like a snake shedding its old skin. With every northern move, I believed I’d become more enlightened. I had gotten out. My southern upbringing was no longer a part of me.
That is, until I rediscovered country music. Specifically, Kacey Musgraves.
Sometime during the four years I lived in New York, I found her on my Spotify Discover Weekly playlist during a subway commute. The song was “Late to the Party,” a cute love song about running late with your partner—relatable to me as a chronically unpunctual person. The catchy song hooked me enough to play her discography from the beginning. That’s when her music resonated on a deeper level. Listening to all of Same Trailer Different Park and Pageant Material, I was struck by the way Kacey both claims and critiques her Texas roots. I’d never seen this before in country music. I assumed every singer, especially female artists, got a good warning from the Chicks’ public critique of George Bush in 2003 and subsequent exile from the country music community. After that, I thought if you have something mean to say about where you’re from, it’s best to “shut up and sing.” But amid catchy banjo tunes and clever plays on words, Kacey is extraordinarily bold. She perfectly captures the inner duality of the southern girl who’s left the South. The same duality that I had shoved away for simplicity’s sake, to be more palatable to my new environment.
On one hand, Kacey perfectly encapsulates the sense of community and support that I remembered growing up. On “This Town,” she sings, “This town’s too small to be mean,” because “around here we all look out for each other.” She also highlights the close-knit nature of southern families, claiming “Family is family, in church or in prison . . . they might smoke like chimneys but give you their kidneys.”
These songs reminded me of the parts of my own upbringing that I appreciated. I think of my theater friends who spent weekends playing Just Dance in our parents’ basements, eating cookie cake at cast parties, and lying on trampolines looking at stars. I think of visiting my cousins in Muscle Shoals, running around gravel-paved roads adjacent to cow pastures. I think of the Wednesday-night dinners at church, eating chicken sandwiches with my friends. Kacey’s pro-country anthems conjure memories of a community whose closeness wraps around you like a blanket.
But under the surface, there’s an undercurrent of judgment and exclusivity. On “High Horse,” “Good Ol’ Boys Club,” “Step Off,” and “Biscuits,” Kacey unashamedly calls out those who “think they’re cooler than everybody else.” I remember one mom who named all her kids after their grandfather, a famous football coach, to remind everyone of their association. I think of peers who whispered behind closed doors about those rumored to be atheist and to have had premarital sex—both cardinal sins. Or perhaps worst of all: to be queer.
Kacey’s message for these folks is clear: “Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy.” But perhaps the song that hit me the most was “Merry Go ’Round.” She begins by laying down the expectations of her hometown: “If you ain’t got two kids by twenty-one, you’re probably gonna die alone” and “come Sunday morning you best be there in the front row like you’re supposed to.” She sings about the distractions we all use to cope with the “same hurt in every heart.” I personally felt what it was like to be on what she describes as a broken merry-go-round. A system that silences autonomy and shames desire in the name of tradition. This song specifically gave me the language to describe the stuck-ness I felt as a high schooler. I felt numb visualizing my predetermined future of having children, no full-time career, and little choice in the matter. My stomach used to churn with anxiety as I prayed that the rapture wouldn’t happen until I’d gotten married so I wouldn’t go to heaven as a virgin. Like Kacey, I’ve also never been “pageant material.” (I vomited from drinking too much at my own debutante ball). But maybe it wasn’t me who was broken—maybe it was the merry-go-round.
The way that Kacey speaks, as both an insider and a critical observer, has offered me a nuanced perspective of my own upbringing. But beyond this reconciliation of her dichotomous identities, Kacey actually gave me a solution for how to cope. In what is arguably her most famous song, “Follow Your Arrow,” she concludes that in a community where your truest self is misaligned with the rigid expectations of your environment, it’s impossible to please everyone. She sings, “If you save yourself for marriage, you’re a bore . . . if you don’t save yourself for marriage, you’re a horrible person . . . so you might as well just do whatever you want.”
I can’t be the perfect southern girl. For one thing, I left it.
She goes on to encourage listeners to “Make lots of noise, kiss lots of boys, or kiss lots of girls if that’s what you’re into.” This one hit me hard. I can’t be the perfect southern girl. For one thing, I left it. I write about my sex life online. I date women and have a career instead of working until being married to a man who earns more money. But I’ll also never fit perfectly here either. I talk to too many strangers. I say y’all too much. I unironically love Waffle House. I feel inadequate compared to folks who graduated from northeastern colleges, like I have to prove myself. But now, Kacey reminds me that I “can’t be everybody’s cup of tea.” I’m sure a therapist has told me this once or twice, but backed with guitars, it actually stuck.
In part because of Kacey’s music, I began to wonder whether I was the only one who was searching for a way to reconcile two parts of myself. So, for the first time in a while, I trepidatiouslystepped foot into a church in Boston on Easter last year. I was comforted by the familiar choral sounds, but my heart immediately constructed a fortress to protect me from any impending hurt. It softened a little when I read in the program under the head pastor’s bio: “He lives in the Boston area with his partner.” And the walls came down a little more when I looked up to see a stained glass depiction of Brown Jesus instead of the false white one. On the bus on the way home after this healing experience, I began playing Kacey Musgraves through my earphones. I sank into the comforting country sounds, but this time with a fresh message from Kacey: “I’m still the girl from Golden, had to get away so I could grow.”
As the residential homes of my Boston suburb sped by outside my window, I got a text from my mom that read, “Wish you were here with us.” Normally, I would’ve felt guilty about not being home for a holiday like my mom wanted—that same feeling of having betrayed my hometown by leaving it. But I sat on the bus and just replied “Me too.” I took a deep breath.
Country music, and everything it means, is still a part of me. But so is my life now. I’m a northeast girl with southern roots, and they swirl like blended, concentric circles of a tie-dyed T-shirt. And I’ll keep following my arrow—wherever it points.