The Country Music Association could have paired anyone with Loretta Lynn for a duet of the legend’s “You’re Lookin’ at Country” at last night’s annual awards ceremony, but they chose Kacey Musgraves. She’s arguably Nashville’s most progressive voice, at least in her music, and to use her as an embodiment of country seemed to be a subtle statement about where the CMA may think the genre should be headed. Of course, they said as much in explicit terms just minutes before Musgraves’ duet: they awarded her Song of the Year for “Follow Your Arrow,” a gay ally/pro-weed anthem that received less radio airplay than its competition — songs from Dierks Bentley, Eric Church, Miranda Lambert, and Lee Brice — in the year since its release as a single.
“Do you guys realize what this means for country music?” Musgraves said from the stage, but she didn’t exactly need to elaborate. Nearly every interview she’s done since the March 2013 release of her Grammy-winning major label debut (and fourth album overall), Same Trailer Different Park, has addressed the topics discussed in “Follow Your Arrow.” “Make lots of noise, kiss lots of boys/ Or kiss lots of girls if that’s something you’re into,” Musgraves sings on the track, cowritten by Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark (also a promising forward-thinking country performer). “When the straight and narrow gets a little too straight, roll up a joint — or don’t.” On an album full of lyrics about finding your own way in the world and sussing out personal identity, these words fit right in — but in country music, less so. (As I chronicled last week, ABC’s Nashville is also trying push country culture forward with gay rights conversations.)
“I think I can speak for all of us when I say that this award means so much because our genre was built on simple, good songs about real life. And that’s what this was,” Musgraves continued in her acceptance speech. “And it was because of the fans that connected with it who spread it and took it farther than I ever could.”
“Follow Your Arrow” may have received a modest amount of radio airplay — peaking at No. 43 on Billboard‘s Country Airplay chart — but it fared better on Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart (No. 10), which is determined by streaming and digital sales in addition to airplay. Clearly, these are stories people want to hear, even if commercial radio programmers were hesitant to offer them up. “I wish I could play that song on my station” was a sentiment echoed in various forms by country programming directors in a Billboard story from last year.
Radio’s support be damned, Musgraves’ message reached both country and non-country audiences alike, which made it all that much more powerful. But the support of vanguard country media, as represented by her CMA win, suggests the beginnings of a tide shift that’s been building over the last year. When a nearly 60-year-old institution formally recognizes the importance of Musgraves’ statements, it empowers other mainstream country singers to take risks in the subject matters they tackle. If a relative newcomer can be rewarded for these kinds of statements, why couldn’t CMA darling Miranda Lambert? (Lambert, of course, already sings about body image and female inequality in brilliantly open ways.)
“America’s heartland is changing and support for equality continues to grow across party lines, in our faith institutions, and in country music,” GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis told Flavorwire. “Kacey Musgraves is ushering in a new era in the country music industry, where supporting all loving families is now a core country value. It’s only fitting then that Kacey is to become the first country music artist to perform at the New York GLAAD Media Awards.”
As a genre, country is fiercely proud of its past, which at times can prevent its marquee acts from looking forward. Coupled with its Red State dominance, it’s just common sense that gay-friendly, or even liberal, anthems wouldn’t fare as well as songs about trucks and drinking. Musgraves proves that there are rewards — even institutional ones — in telling people what they need to hear, instead of merely affirming their values.