KOF #3: Kacey Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow” (2013)

by Florence Linteau

In 2013, most of the songs that debuted on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart were about pick-up trucks, beer drinking, or women dressed in tight jeans. As part 2 of the final instalment of Marching for Women Series blog addressed, men dominated the charts and the only women getting airtime were found dancing on the hoods of their trucks in music videos. It was during the height of this “bro-country” moment that Kacey Musgraves broke into the country music scene with her third single “Follow Your Arrow” – a song that combines a traditional twang and bold lyrical choices. One of the youngest trailblazers of the country music scene today, Musgraves has been shaking up the traditional conception of the genre since her debut album.

“Follow Your Arrow” was originally inspired by a poem Musgraves wrote to a friend (as reported by GAC). An ode to living your life as you please, Musgraves encourages her listeners not to worry about what anyone else thinks. The song was written by Musgraves, Brandy Clark, and Shane McAnally – two openly gay songwriters on the Nashville scene. Although the song clearly takes a stance in favour of same-sex marriage, McAnally states that this was not a gay anthem, rather, the song is dedicated to anyone that has ever felt like the underdog or the outcast.

“Whether radio or the industry wants to admit it, I think [country] music’s ready for it. There’s enough free-thinking, open-minded young people who would support that song.’ – Shane McAnally

In the song’s first verse, Kacey sings of social hypocrisy. She encourages her listeners to be true to themselves, regardless of socio-cultural expectations, pointing out that it’s impossible to please everyone and our life decisions are always at risk of being criticized by someone.

If you save yourself for marriage you’re a bore
If you don’t save yourself for marriage, you’re a horrible person
If you won’t have a drink, then you’re a prude
But they’ll call you a drunk as soon as you down the first one

But Musgraves doesn’t stop with simple messages about abstinence. The chorus joyfully supports same-sex romance: “Make lots of noise / Kiss lots of boys / Or kiss lots of girls, if that’s what you’re into.” Although country music has the reputation of addressing  a “white working-class images of masculinity,” co-writer McAnally admitted that Nashville was ready for a change. “Look, Nashville is a boys’ club of redneck conservative ideas,” he told Jody Rosen from the New York Times in a 2013 interview. “But they’re ready to embrace gay people. I never felt for one second that someone was judging me [for being a gay singer-songwriter].”

By encouraging listeners to do as they please, to roll-up a joint, to love who they love, and to dismiss the  judgement of others, Musgraves took a risk. When asked if she was scared to record such a potentially controversial single, the singer-songwriter told The Guardian, “Whether radio or the industry wants to admit it, I think [country] music’s ready for it. There’s enough free-thinking, open-minded young people who would support that song.” Despite her confidence in country fans, Musgraves’ label was reluctant to the idea of releasing “Follow Your Arrow” as a single and she had to convince them to throw their support behind it. . Although songs about same-sex marriage and marijuana-use remain controversial topics in country music, Musgraves doesn’t see herself as a “rebel”: “I’ve heard the word ‘outlaw’ and stuff. I’m just me. I naturally go against the grain of what’s been out there previously. That’s the only word that they want to throw at it or something,” she told The Boot.

Sadly, although not surprisingly, “Follow Your Arrow” did not get much radio airplay and peaked at just #43 on the Country Airplay chart. The song debuted on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart on November 23, 2013. Thanks to the new methodology in place at the time (which blended radio airplay, streaming, and digital sales), the song peaked at #10 on the chart four years ago today – February 15, 2014, and was on chart for just 20 weeks.

Shortly after releasing the song, Musgraves was invited to perform “Follow Your Arrow” at the 2013 Country Music Association awards show. The honour was well-deserved. But during her performance, the references to marijuana were “beeped” – a sign that her song was too progressive for the genre’s conservative censors.

“Our genre was built on simple, good songs about real life and that’s what this was.’ – Kacey Musgraves, acceptance speech at 2014 CMAs for Song of the Year

The following year, “Follow Your Arrow” won the coveted Song of The Year award at the 2014 CMAs. When accepting the award, Musgraves cheekily said to the audience, “Do you guys know what this means for country music?!” She had won the bet against anyone who thought the genre wouldn’t be ready for such a liberal song. By doing so, she positioned herself as one of the new Nashville talents, ready to change the Country music scene. She also pushed open the door for other young female singer-songwriters in Nashville.

Kacey Musgraves is often criticized for not being “country enough” by some traditionalist listeners. Yet “Follow Your Arrow” follows in the greatest country narrative tradition of singing about what she referred to in her CMA acceptance speech as “simple, good songs about real life”, and of love and acceptance. Musgraves opens this narrative up to a much broader audience. Three chords and the truth about the lives of a, hopefully, more diverse and accepting country music audience.