learning love songs

est. 2008




“If you feel down and you write that down, most of the time it is going to be a country song.” ~Billy Joe Shaver, songwriter

I keep Billy Joe Shaven’s advice in my inbox. I like to look at it when I’m feeling stressed or tired or uninspired, or some combination of those. I like to remember how good it feels to purge whatever I’m feeling into music, even if it is with songs I can never remember on a guitar I can barely play for an audience that, despite their attentive ears, doesn’t have much feedback to offer (because they are felines).

Every time I tell myself that *this* is the weekend I’ll revisit some songs or *this* is the weekend I’ll post a new video, it becomes so much easier to do anything but stay home and practice — meeting up with friends, running, shopping, laundry, pretty much anything is preferable to indulging in my own creativity when, as much as I enjoy the feeling of playing music, it altogether feels like a selfish pursuit. But then I remember this quote, and all the others about how music can save souls and change lives and uplift the darkest of spirits. And then I think that yeah, maybe it is worthwhile to practice a little, even if it’s for 10 minutes, or for 30 minutes, even if it’s the same old songs I’ve always loved to play, or even if it’s whatever nonsense I need to say.


“Let’s put a little more in your glass
Walk around and spend all our cash
Just let me grab my poncho, I don’t care where we go
If we speak the language you know we don’t even have to come back

We can’t do it over
They say it’s now or never and all we’re ever gettin’ is older
Before we get to heaven, baby let’s give ’em hell
We might as well
Cause we don’t know when we’re done
So let’s love hard, live fast, die fun.

~Die Fun,
Kacey Musgraves, Pageant Material 

In what appears to be a few short years Kacey Musgraves has gone from a fresh-on-the-scene country star to one of the most interesting, promising female songwriters of this era — in my estimation, at least. Her latest album “Pageant Material” is one that has steadily grown on me over the past few months – from a few cursory listens to singles that caught my ear, to listening through the album a few times through headphones. What I hear is not the standard country-girl songwriter that Musgraves, at firsts glance, appears to be, but rather a storyteller sharing her perspective of her upbringing, her opportunities, her growth, with as much honesty and wit as one can muster.

She’s legitimately funny, which is something that is so hard to do in lyrics. But in her blunt, quiet way, Musgraves shares a perspective that is patient as much as it is eyes-wide-open, and with that comes a sense of humor. Musically, these aren’t exactly country radio primetime, in the way Maddie and Tae or Kelsey Ballerini have secured for the time being, but I think they’re more elevated than that – there’s quintessential lap steel, more than a few whistling and handclaps for a honky-tonk vibe, and some really beautiful falsetto moments. “Pageant Material” is a collection of songs that are all well-composed individually, but ones that stand together stronger. A chorus as tongue-in-cheek as “Biscuits” rings a little more true and honest followed by the serious wondering about self-doubt and self-love in “Somebody to Love.”

The thoughtfulness behind a call to a life-well-lived “Die Fun” is dualy noted, as is the occasional unfortunate truths that we feel about our loved ones outlined in “Family is Family.” But what strikes me as most unusual, and unique, and worth celebrating about “Pageant Material” is how Musgraves chooses to focus on so many other topics beyond the standard fare romance of a country song. Not that she can’t write a love song – “Late to the Party” was instantly one of my favorite tracks – but she tackles so many other realms of thought and feeling, ones that speak to finding her place in the world as an adult and a woman and a person of many persuasians, rather than as simply a woman who is looking to love and be loved.

Once during a music class in my junior year of high school, a teacher asked us what most music was about. The answer, written on the white board in blue marker, was “Love.” That’s what sells records, Mrs.Hamilton told us. And she wasn’t wrong, that’s what pulls at our soul the most, those are the feelings with struggle with the most….but there is so much more to us than that, and so much there for artists to explore. With “Good Ol’ Boys Club” and the title track, Musgraves stakes her claim as an intelligent writer, an observant citizen of our modern age, and a damn wry lyricist.  But throughout the record, she doesn’t run from matters of love and companionship. Rather, she puts them in context of a life as colorful, adventurous and open-minded as she frames herself to be.

“Been missing my roots
I’m getting rid of the flash
Nobody needs a thousand-dollar suit just to take out the trash
Ain’t gotta be alone to feel lonely
I’m gonna turn off my phone, start catching up with the old me

It’s high time
To slow my roll
Let the grass just grow and lean way back
It’s a fine time
To let it it all go
I’ve been too low, so it’s high time.”

~High Time
Kacey Musgraves, Pageant Material


Somewhere off of 41st Street on this beautiful spring afternoon, walking aimlessly in sunglasses, this song came to mind. My mom used to play it, when she was in a country phase a few years back and would always try to get me to go along with it. The only songs I ever liked were the ballads, like this one, and it’s stunning, stunning harmonies.

I got in my car and found it on YouTube and put in my headphones. Then I cried, and sang, sang, sang til it felt better, and that’s what I’ll be doing most of this afternoon.

“How can I bear to wake up and you’re not there
What will I do when I turn and reach for you
I’ll lay my tears on the windowsill
I’ll only cry till I get over you
But how long will that take me

Won’t you save me, and

Just a little bit longer.
‘Till I’m a little bit stronger to take all this.

Just a little more time till I can find a way
Please stay.

Will I ever smile again
When losing love takes my best friend?

To wonder where, wonder how
Wonder what you’re doing
One more night just before you break me
Hold me safely…

Just a little bit longer.
‘Till I’m a little bit stronger to take all this.
Just a little more time till I can find a way
Please stay.

So I’ll be a big girl, and just close my eyes
As you walk away, don’t say goodbye.
God save me
Please won’t you…

Just a little bit longer 
‘Till I’m a little bit stronger to take all this and
Just a little more time till I can find a way.
Won’t you stay
Just a little bit longer.” 
Little Big Town, The Road to Here


“A heart on the run keeps a hand on the gun you can’t trust anyone
I was so sure what I needed was more tried to shoot out the sun
Days when we raged, we flew off the page such damage was done
But I made it through, cause somebody knew I was meant for someone

Girl, leave your boots by the bed we ain’t leaving this room
Till someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom

It’s cold in this house and I ain’t going out to chop wood
So cover me up and know you’re enough to use me for good

Put your faith to the test when I tore off your dress in Richmond all high
But I sobered up and I swore off that stuff forever, this time
And the old lovers sing ‘I thought it’d be me who helped him get home’
But home was a dream, one I’d never seen till you came along
Girl, hang your dress up to dry we ain’t leaving this room
Till Percy Priest breaks open wide and the river runs through
And carries this house on the stones like a piece of driftwood
Cover me up and know you’re enough to use me for good

Girl, leave your boots by the bed we ain’t leaving this room
Till someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom
It’s cold in this house and I ain’t going out to chop wood
So cover me up and know you’re enough to use me for good
Cover me up and know you’re enough to use me for good.”

~Cover Me Up
Jason Isbell, Southeastern

All I want to do is listen to this record and feel the tears wet my eyes, never falling.

In an age when any kid in a plaid shirt with a banjo (and an iPhone to prove it to the watching world at large) thinks he’s an Americana star waiting to be discovered, it is truly a gift to fans of the genre everywhere when a real talent like Jason Isbell breaks through like did. Already there’s plenty of stories about how this album was borne of his sobriety, and of how his days with the Drive-By Truckers are memories blurred by alcoholism. Now that “Southeastern” is done and given to the world, though, another story is just beginning. Because I think this can be an album that re-inspires folk and country to be better. I think this raises the bar.

Start to finish, every song tells a story. Emotions are laid plain on the table and neither dressed up nor down. Where in pop country you’d hear cliches, with Isbell you hear tales. His use of details is incredibly natural; the rooms and the landscapes he sees are sketched with phrases then painted in with acoustics and fiddle strings. Melodically, these songs were made for singing, and occasional harmonies and keys add some soul.

Some of the most poignant lines are the smallest lines, like a subtle afterthought (“What good does knowing do/with no one to show it to?”). There is love and there is loss, there are heavy hearts and there is hope. And yes, there is some slide guitar.

Isbell is definitely in the Americana/alt country category for me (think Whiskeytown), however if you don’t like folk or country, I do think you’d probably have to get past that to really appreciate these songs. But for songwriting geeks or any one with a penchant for a sad story, they will find what they’re looking for.  I’m sure there are exclusive listeners of pop punk and metal who I share favorite bands wtih who would totally write me off for appreciating this. But I don’t get that exclusivity, not when you’re looking to music to give you the stories and feelings to find yourself in, or appreciate the crafted expression that goes into writing something someone else may find worthwhile.

Jason Isbell is a storyteller, the truest kind American music can ever hope to find.

Lately I’ve been doing my best to leave my mistakes and regrets back where they belong. Major things, minor things, from hurting the ones I loved to spilling a drink on a host’s table and never really apologizing to missing an opportunity that I just wish I’d taken. Sometimes forgetting doesn’t work so well, other times, I see how far I’ve come. Listening to “Southeastern,” I keep coming back to why it’s so important to keep moving forward, because you never what light lies on the other side of the dark.

“Take my hand, baby, we’re over land
I know flying over water makes you cry 
Where’s that liquor cart, maybe we shouldn’t start
But I can’t for the life of me say why did we leave our love behind?”
~Flying Over Water,
Jason Isbell, Southeastern


I’m such a sucker for a good country song. Like seriously, and I don’t care what that does to my pop-punk, rock-n-roll credibility. If it’s not from the heart, it’s not for these ears, and sometimes nothing’s got more heart than a good country tune.

Enter Kacey Musgraves, who is winning over radio waves and critics and iTunes and girls like me, or however you measure music success these days. She’s the one behind this beautiful song, “Merry Go’ Round,” this sad-town tale of the broken young girl. The first time I heard it, on a static-strewn radio station coming back from Lancaster, I knew I had to hear it again.

I could see why someone would put Musgraves in that slightly gimmicky category of a lot of other new female country singers, the kind who make no apologies for their cavalcade of redneck references and get them brandished on merch and tweeted by tweens. In most scenarios and songs, that’s not my cup of tea. But with Musgraves, especially on “Merry Go’ Round,” I hear the sadness in her voice more than I hear any act. I can feel the dust on the roads and the chipped paint on the trailer siding, and I can’t help but sing along to the quite brilliantly crafted chorus. Exploring the rest of her songs, I find them incredibly honest and far more introspective than you’d expect, and the references aren’t there for decoration so much as they’re reflecting her reality.

(Also: Kacey plays not just guitar but banjo, as I saw in this performance. And to the many who’ve picked up the four-stringed step-child of string instruments because of bands like Mumford and Sons, it was definitely a backwoods redneck country thing first, so reconcile that with progressive ways.)

“We think the first time’s good enough.
So, we hold on to high school love.
Sayin’ we won’t end up like our parents.

Tiny little boxes in a row.
Ain’t what you want, it’s what you know.
Just happy in the shoes you’re wearin’.
Same checks we’re always cashin’ to buy a little more distraction.

‘Cause mama’s hooked on Mary Kay.
Brother’s hooked on Mary Jane.
Daddy’s hooked on Mary two doors down.
Mary, Mary, quite contrary.
We get bored, so, we get married.
Just like dust, we settle in this town.
On this broken merry go ’round and ’round and ’round we go
Where it stops nobody knows and it ain’t slowin’ down.

This merry go ’round.

~Merry Go’ Round
Kacey Musgroves, Same Trailer, Different Park

UPDATE:  Sooooo I just learned Kacey co-wrote “Undermine,” the song from the TV series “Nashville” that I was totally obsessed with and completely fell in love with…here is Kacey performing it. I like her even more now; again, honest, and introspective and cuts straight to the heart of the emotion. “Undermine” is a rather inspirational song that doesn’t sacrifice hurt or humanity to show strength. Truly beautiful and fun to sing.

“Sometimes good intentions don’t come across so well 
Got me analyzing everything that ain’t worth thinking about 
Just ’cause I ain’t lived through the same hand that was dealt to you 
Doesn’t make me any less, or make any more of you

I wouldn’t trade my best day 
So you could validate all your fears
And if I’ve only got one shot 
Won’t waste it on a shadowbox, I’ll stand right here

It’s all talk, talk, talk, talkin’ in the wind 
It always slows you down when you start listening
And it’s a whole lot harder to shine 
Than undermine.

First mile is always harder
When you’re leaving what you know
Won’t blame you if you stay here
Waving to me as I go
Always wished the best for you
Thought that you would see me through my wildest dreams
Yeah, the ones you thought I’d never meet

Still, you would trade your best day
Just to have your way
All these years

And if you only had one shot
Maybe all this talk
Would disappear

It’s all talk, talk, talk, talkin’ in the wind 
It always slows you down when you start listening
And it’s a whole lot harder to shine 
Than undermine.
Kacey Musgraves, as performed in February 2013

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