When Texas-raised singer/songwriter Kacey Musgraves released her debut single in 2013, country music was a man’s man’s man’s world. “Cruise” by Florida Georgia Line was the major hit the year before, bringing a wave of bro-country copy-cats along with it. All of country music radio was a cliché: trucks, boots, girls, beer, anything kind of stereotype you can associate with country music had become fully embraces by both the business of country music and its fans. These kind of songs were going No.1, winning awards and being pushed as the representation of the genre to the rest of the music world. This was also the time I began to fall head over heels in love with country music. But I never took to bro-country; my path to country music was led by the Dixie Chicks, Dolly Parton and Miranda Lambert and their feminist version of country music. That was MY country music, but everyone else’s country music consisted of songs that portrayed women as nothing more than arm candy. But then came Kacey Musgraves, marching in with her fringe, boots and cacti. In a sea of thinly-veiled sexist songs and bros with cowboy hats and baseball caps emerged Musgraves, a millennial who both wrote about topics people her age could connect to but still sounded like a traditional country artist.
“If you ain’t got two kids by 21 / you’re probably gonna die alone / at least that’s what tradition told you,” is the first line that country music listeners ever heard from Musgraves, as this is how her debut single “Merry Go Round” begins. Right off the bat, this isn’t a bro-country record. This isn’t even a record by a woman trying to fit in with the bro-country culture. This is a record that tells real stories of real people, something that country music has always prided itself on doing, but wasn’t doing very well at this time in 2013. Unless everyone in the world spends their typical day drinking on a tailgate, but I sure as hell don’t spend every day like that. “Merry Go Round” tells the story of a small town where people have trouble breaking tradition and getting out of the town. “Just like dust we settle in this town,” she sings, creating a beautiful image of the stagnant quality of this town. She throws in a little word-play in the chorus with the various versions and meanings of “mary/marry/merry.” When this song came out, there were very few writers doing anything very interesting with the songs they were writing. This song turned heads because you can see the effort put into crafting this song. It feels purposeful, unlike some of the songs on country radio that brilliantly rhymed “you” with “to,” or God forbid, “you” with “you.” This song also sets the scene of the record. This is the kind of town Musgraves comes from and that many people who listen to country music come from. But the rest of the record elaborates on this town and encourages people to find more than this stagnant, mundane lifestyle. It’s a record about a small town, but she doesn’t celebrate and embrace the small-town life like many of her peers. Other standouts on the record include “Blowin’ Smoke” and “My House.” “Blowin’ Smoke” was another single off the record and it stays with the small-town theme of “Merry Go Round,” but in a much more blunt and light-hearted way. “My House” doesn’t have the same lyrical depth of many of the tracks on the record, but it’s a little country romp that breaks up the heavier tracks.
“Follow Your Arrow” began the interesting phenomenon of Musgraves’s success. The songs became viral hits, hits on streaming services, critically acclaimed, but they never achieve real success on radio. Even her most recent single “Rainbow,” which she performed on the Grammy stage the night she won Album of the Year, didn’t crack the Top 20 on country radio. The first question is, how does this make any sense? Isn’t radio supposed to play what people want to hear? Obviously, Musgraves is an artist that people love and want to hear, but she’s not getting played on the radio. “Follow Your Arrow” explains this bizarre phenomenon. The song itself sounds like a country song. Maybe the chorus is a little pop-influenced, but no fan of traditional country can take a look at this song and accuse it of not being country. But the lyrical content of this song does not fit the kind of middle-of-the-road lyrics that country singers want to spit out. Musgraves encourages people to be out of line and follow their own arrow. It’s a type of “fuck establishment” song that no country station wants to be caught dead playing. Country music’s traditional audience of conservative, rural people is not the “fuck establishment” type. While country music has produced a lot of interesting music throughout its history, it’s not a genre known for breaking the norm and creating something brand new. But this is exactly what Musgraves tries to do. She is trying to take traditional country but modernize it. She wants this kind of music to preach acceptance, whether that be in terms of culture, religion, or sexual orientation. That’s not what country music does. So even though this record was one of the most country records released in 2013, it was never a country music hit.
While “Follow Your Arrow” brought the mainstream audiences, the record itself introduced many of those mainstream listeners to the beauty of classic country music. The record closes with “It Is What It Is,” a song that sounds like it a deep cut on an eighties country record. Other songs like “Dandelion,” “Keep It To Yourself” and “I Miss You” stick closely to the country music tradition. Musgraves was able to do what most artists cannot: she gained a mainstream audience without sacrificing the tradition of her own genre for pop sounds. These days, she did give up a little tradition in favor of mainstream sounds on songs like “High Horse.” But this record is a reminder that Musgraves doesn’t need to do that. She appeals to mainstream audiences, whether she keeps the banjo or not.