Pick of the Week: Kacey Musgraves “Cardinal”

A graphic of a white circle with a red cardinal on a tree branch within the circle. The background outside the circle is green with text that says "Kacey Musgraves, Cardinal, WERS 88.9 FM Pick of the Week"
Graphics by Sarah Tarlin

By Claire Dunham, Music Coordinator

On her stunningly fresh sixth album, Kacey Musgraves rekindles her connection with the natural world. Deeper Well intertwines themes of loss, beauty and balance with lush, acoustic instrumentation and sugary sweet vocals. Its lyrics glow with a unique clarity and resonance, on par with songwriting legends Dolly Parton and John Prine. “Cardinal,” the record’s opening song, transports listeners to a world of mystical signs and uninhibited grief. 



Prefaced by a heavenly guitar riff, the instrumentation of “Cardinal” paints a rich dreamscape of sound. This sonic utopia — with its overlapping acoustic guitars (including a luxurious-sounding 12-string) and steady rhythm section — aids Musgraves’s lyrical storytelling. 

Throughout the song, she dips into a spiritual realm. Musgraves’s magical descriptions are mirrored by haunting harmonies, intersecting vocalizations and an ever-present acoustic guitar. Specifically, the song’s bridge oozes with this fantastical energy— the musical accompaniment slows and recedes as Musgraves softly warbles out the lyrics. She sings, “Are you just watchin’ and waitin’ for spring? Do you have some kind of magic to bring?” Eventually, the musician builds off these questions with nonsensical musings about a “pretty bird.” Stepping into the role of a spellcaster, Musgraves entrances listeners with her luminous, flowing melody. 

However, despite its whimsical qualities, “Cardinal” remains grounded in the natural reality. Melodically, this is represented by its consistent percussion and rich, blooming bassline. Standard drums are supplemented by the distinct, woodsy sound of claves, and a traditional bass guitar dances alongside a resounding double bass. 



“Cardinal” not only embodies the mastery songwriting techniques of a classic John Prine ballad, but it was also inspired by the musician’s passing. In the Deeper Well zine, which Musgraves released with the album, she describes seeing cardinal birds following Prine’s death in 2020. 

The two musicians were friends and frequent collaborators who occasionally performed duets together. Musgraves’s admiration for the late musician also inspired “(Burn One With) John Prine,” an unreleased song from 2015 that she wrote shortly after moving to Nashville. 

In some cultures, cardinals are seen as signs from the afterlife, and Musgraves described Prine’s particular fascination with the birds in her Deeper Well zine. Utilizing the cardinal as a symbolic reference, Musgraves expertly articulates her own personal experience with grief, while also creating a narrative that is both poignantly universal. “Cardinal” vibrates with an insatiable longing that will resonate deeply with anyone who has lost a loved one. 

Despite the melancholy pain Musgraves details in the song, an undercurrent of peace runs throughout the track. The cardinal serves as a reminder of Prine’s death, yes, but it also symbolizes the heartfelt connection the two musicians once shared— a connection so strong that it surpasses death. 



The Deeper Well World Tour kicks off in Ireland next month. Joined by singer-songwriter Madi Diaz and ‘ERS favorites Father John Misty and Nickel Creek as her opening acts, Musgraves is bringing new songs like “Cardinal” to eager audiences around the world. 

On September 6th, Musgraves will play at Boston’s very own TD Garden. Tickets are available now.

Every Monday, our music staff brings you a new Pick of The Week, detailing some of our favorite songs. Check out our previous Picks of the Week here, and make sure to tune in to WERS 88.9FM!

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