Following her arrow
I’ve always loved Lurleen Lumpkin’s country music, so I was happily surprised to hear her voice come out of my speakers with a whole new batch of mobile home songs. What, you say that’s not Lurleen; that it’s some gal named Kacey whose main claim to fame was coming in number seven on television’s Nashville Star? Oh well, same trailer, different park. Actually, it literally is the album entitled Same Trailer Different Park. You can take the woman out of the camper but you can’t make her leave her low-rent roots.
And you wouldn’t want to. Musgraves takes the mundane details of small town existence to show that the superficially pleasant place is filled with hypocrisy and broken dreams. She’s keen enough to know that life doesn’t always turn out like you want it to, pride can be an excuse for ignorance, and sometimes the people you love are the same ones that hold you back. Her response is to follow her own path, or as she puts it, “Follow Your Arrow”.
Musgrave co-wrote all of the 12 songs on her first major label release. The opening lines to “Follow Your Arrow” reveal Musgraves’ insightful sense of humor about living the rural life and the costs:
If you save yourself for marriage
You’re a bore
If you don’t save yourself for marriage
You’re a hor-
Musgraves accents the first syllable of “horrible” to show she means “whore” and is not going to mince words. Her list of “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” items goes on to include everything from church attendance to drinking to being fat. But she doesn’t leave it like that—she tells her female listeners to kiss lots of boys, or if they are lesbians, to kiss lots of girls, and if life gets too “straight” to go ahead and smoke a joint.
Lurleen may have wanted to “bunk” with the married Homer, but she never took things this far. It’s unfair to compare Musgraves with the comic character because as charming as Lurleen was at incorporating mobile home stereotypes into the tropes of her songs (written by the actress who voiced her, Beverly D’Angelo, who also played Patsy Cline in Coal Miner’s Daughter), she never took the pathos to suggest anything more than funniness. Musgraves uses humor to suggest the darker side of simple living.
This can be seen in the album’s big hit single, “Merry Go Round”, in which Musgraves sings, “Mama’s hooked on Mary Kay. / Brother’s hooked on Mary Jane. / Daddy’s hooked on Mary two doors down.” Yes, the alliterative comparison is witty, but it is more than that. Life is boring, so people do what they have to do in order to distract themselves from the meaningless of it all or they end up like John Berryman and kill themselves. Musgraves isn’t willing to give it all up yet and urges us to think about our limited time on Earth.
In other words, Musgrave is no “Redneck Woman” who celebrates ignorance and bad taste in the guise of country living. Instead Musgraves just sees things, without judging. On the evocative “Blowin’ Smoke”, she describes the waitresses at a small town café who smoke cigarettes and overeat to fill the void in their lives. She doesn’t put them down or romanticize their loneliness. Musgrave just paints a picture of their shared solitude, and she lets us see our absurd selves in the lives of others.
That’s the template Musgrave uses on all of her material. She knows we live at the corner of Is that Right Avenue and Strange Days Boulevard. It’s funny until it ain’t, but it sure makes for some great music.