On paper, the 47th Annual Country Music Association Awards show looks predictable.
By TIMOTHY FINN
The Kansas City Star
The list of nominees includes plenty of familiar names and faces: George Strait, Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Tim McGraw, Keith Urban, Miranda Lambert, Eric Church, the Zac Brown Band, Lady Antebellum.
But there is a name that appears as many times as any other that signifies the country music industry is willing to at least consider a change in how it rewards songwriting and, consequently, how it is programmed on country radio.
Kacey Musgraves turned 25 in August, five months after she released “Same Trailer, Different Park,” her fourth full-length album but first on a major label. (The other three were released independently.)
Musgraves co-wrote the 12 songs on “Same Trailer” with several other Nashville songwriters, primarily the team of Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne. The album earned her five CMA nominations: female vocalist of the year; new artist of the year; album of the year; single of the year; and song of the year for writing “Merry Go Round. Add in Musgrave’s writing nomination for “Mama’s Broken Heart,” which Miranda Lambert recorded, and she has six, as many as Taylor Swift.
“Same Trailer” is a compilation of country-pop tunes that address familiar country themes. Musically, much of it sounds like Lambert’s debut album or what the Dixie Chicks were doing more than 10 years ago. What it doesn’t sound like is another fusillade of Southern rock and hard rock with fiddles and mandolins — the kind that fills country radio these days.
Its lyrics include some platitudes and aphorisms we’ve heard before, like “If you’re ever gonna find a silver lining / It’s gotta be a cloudy day” and “If you wanna find the honey / You can’t be scared of the bees,” from “Silver Lining,” the chin-up inspirational that opens the album.
The song for which Musgrave is nominated, “Merry Go Round,” is a jaunty tune that rides a bubbly banjo riff and slow peals of pedal steel guitar. Unlike so many other songs on country radio that herald the life in a small town, this one describes it unfiltered: “We get bored, so we get married / Just like dust, we settle in this town.” It even looks at religion cynically: “And it don’t matter if you don’t believe / Come Sunday morning, you best be there in the front row, like you’re supposed to.”
“Same Trailer” addresses other more contemporary themes in lyrics that aim to catch listeners closer to Musgraves’ age, like “It Is What It Is”: “Maybe I love you, maybe I’m just kind of bored / It is what it is till it ain’t anymore.” It’s a song about settling for someone you like until someone better comes long, about friends with benefits. In other words, not the kind of puppy-love sentiments Swift has become famous for and the kind country radio embraces.
The song that stands out on “Same Trailer,” however, is “Follow Your Arrow,” a country shuffle that issues a litany of be-who-you-are and do-what-floats-your-boat proclamations.
It opens with some wordplay. “If you save yourself for marriage / You’re a bore,” she sings. Then: “If you don’t save yourself for marriage / You’re a horrible person,” but she lingers on “horr” for two beats, feigning “whore,” before proceeding to a kicker: “Follow your arrow / Wherever it points,” even if it leads you to smoking weed to ease the stress and tedium: “When the straight and narrow gets a little too straight / Roll up a joint or don’t / Just follow your arrow, wherever it points.”
Country songs about weed aren’t all that revolutionary — Toby Keith sings “Weed With Willie” at every show — but “Arrow” also delves into sexuality: “So make lots of noise / Kiss lots of boys / Or kiss lots of girls / If that’s something you’re into.” Then, “Say what you think / Love who you love.” It’s not clear whether the song was written only to girls, but its intent is clear: It’s her way of being judged for taking an honest stand.
In a story about Musgraves that appeared in the New York Times in March, writer Carl O. Rotella quotes her from a performance at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
“Musgraves leaned in to the microphone and said, ‘I’m kind of a big believer in people doing whatever the hell they want to do, since I feel like society is probably going to have an opinion either way.’”
Later, she told him: “A label’s typical plan would be to put something out that’s safer and get fans, and then push buttons. But my idea is to push buttons first, scare off the people who are gonna be scared off, and then the right people will like you for who you really are, and stay with you.”
She’s not the first accomplished songwriter to try to push back at Nashville, either from within or outside the establishment, which has been notoriously unkind or indifferent to those who don’t follow its trends. And that’s what makes Musgraves’ six CMA nominations so significant.
“The people who nominated her are the rank-and-file membership of the CMA,” said David Cantwell, music critic and author of “The Running Kind,” a critical analysis of the music of Merle Haggard, which was published in September.
“These are musicians, producers, engineers, people working in promotions. This is radio people. Her getting six nominations is a sign that there is a significant body of people who want something different. These aren’t people who hate what is going on. They’re probably doing very well with what’s happening on radio right now. But they probably just want a little more breathing room and elbow room with more subject matter and different sounds.”
Musgrave co-wrote “Arrow” with McAnally, one of the more decorated and in-demand songwriters in Nashville, and Brandy Clark, who is getting plenty of accolades for her debut album, “12 Songs.” Both are Nashville veterans and both are openly gay. But they aren’t interested in a country-music revolt from the outside, Cantwell said. Rather, they try to impart change from within, abiding by some of the rules but rewriting others.
“This group of songwriters is smart,” Cantwell said. “They aren’t about rejecting Nashville. They’re about saying we want more options. So ‘Follow Your Arrow’ is controversially about smoking pot and it’s pro-gay, but within the context of being about individual liberty, which is as country as it comes.
“Look at that first verse of ‘Merry Go Round.’ All those things we’ve heard about but only positively — family, marriage, religion — they’re the bedrocks you can’t question. And in ‘Merry Go Round,’ she knocks all three in the first verse. But she gets them all in.”
That’s the song she is most likely to sing when she performs Wednesday night. “Arrow” at this point is not likely to become a single off the record, much less the showcase song performed on a prime-time TV awards show.
As Rotella wrote: “You can certainly sing about getting high and having sex in mainstream country music, but only within clearly defined limits: the acceptable intoxicant is alcohol, and it helps if you travel to an illicit tryst by pickup truck on a dirt road while giving thanks for the blessing of freedom. ‘Follow Your Arrow’ probably fell outside those limits.”
Yet Cantwell wondered: “What if she performs that song? I’d be really interested to see what people in the arena would do. Will they applaud politely or get on their feet? And if they did, how would radio respond?”
The success of “Merry Go Round,” however, is significant enough. It raises the possibility of some change at country radio, the engine that drives the industry.
“The fact that it made the top 10 country-airplay chart in Billboard is really impressive,” Cantwell said. “Is it pivotal? It could be. The next step will be to see if the CMA membership will vote for those kinds of records. And if they do, will it translate into change at country radio?”
To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.