The Maturation of Kacey Musgraves

To read the proclamations of the politically-charged entertainment media, the major expression of Kacey Musgraves’ career so far has been the song “Follow Your Arrow” with its pro-pot and pro-gay stances, which we’re told are incredibly evolved and forward-thinking for the stuffy and ultra-Conservative country music environment. Of course this glosses over the fact that country artists like Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson were singing about getting stoned 50 years ago, and an artist like K.D. Lang was charting singles and winning multiple Grammys in country starting in the late 80’s.

But that doesn’t fit the prevailing media narrative for Kacey Musgraves, which is one of a groundbreaking political activist in the country genre. Nor does the fact that the song “Follow Your Arrow” was released some 7 years and 4 albums ago, and is not really relevant to Kacey’s career at the moment, and neither is the inconvenient truth that Kacey’s current album Golden Hour doesn’t really take any political, liberal, or activist stances at all. In fact Kacey Musgraves herself went out of the way to purposely make Golden Hour politically inert, despite the portrayal of much of the media and many fans.

Speaking with Holly Gleason for HITS Daily Double, Musgraves said about her approach to Golden Hour:

“People expect [social commentary] from me, I know. And part of my creative persona is that. But three years later, it’s gotten so extreme and convoluted. There are so many issues; everyone’s on a soapbox and has an opinion. It’s just loud and churning people up in not always great ways. I wanted to focus on the beauty in the world. There are these parts of life we’re all missing because we’re getting hit over the head by the ‘fake news’ 24 hours a day. They’re—whatever side you’re on—keeping you churned up, and we’re missing all this good in our world.”

Nothing against Kacey’s “Follow Your Arrow” specifically. It is a mild song lyrically and sonically, but it probably did push some thematic boundaries forward that were important to help loosen the collar of country music’s sometimes too buttoned-up nature, though the net result was probably more mindless Florida Georgia Line songs about getting high on a beach as opposed to some more generally open-minded approach to the country mainstream taking shape.

But for those who were actually following Kacey Musgraves in country music in 2013 when her debut record Same Trailer, Different Park came out, the much more important song from the album was her debut single, “Merry Go ‘Round.” In some ways, the song was probably even more subversive to country music’s traditional values than “Follow Your Arrow,” but it was also more poetic, foreboding, and was actually well-written and composed. It was the dour, cloudy, disillusionment with small town life. Even if you didn’t like the song, it was easy to like the fact that the song did so well. It was something different, especially in the era when Bro-Country was on the meteoric rise.

It was “Merry Go ‘Round” that made it to the Top 10 on country radio, and stayed there as a charting single for an incredibly long time during it’s run (“Follow Your Arrow” didn’t make it past #43). It was the success of “Merry Go ‘Round” that allowed Kacey’s debut album Same Trailer, Different Park to get a street date from Mercury Nashville, and for a song like “Follow Your Arrow” to even see the light of day. It’s “Merry Go ‘Round” whose lyrics comprise the title of the album Same Trailer, Different Park. And “Merry Go ‘Round” is also Kacey’s best-selling song to date, with some 300,000+ more sales and streaming equivalents than “Follow Your Arrow” at last count.

“Merry Go ‘Round” also happened to win Kacey Musgraves the 2014 Grammy for Best Country Song, and anchored Same Trailer, Different Park on its was to winning the Grammy for Best Country Album. “This song has changed my life,” Kacey said, accepting her Best Country Song award during the 2014 Grammy Awards pre-telecast. “I’ll never get tired of playing that song. It’s so special to me.” It was also “Merry Go ‘Round” playing when Musgraves walked up to accept her Best Country Album Grammy, not “Follow Your Arrow.”

Yet it’s “Follow Your Arrow” that is always cited as Kacey’s signature song, including by media outlets that love to portray Musgraves as country music’s gay icon, even though she’s not gay, and artists such as Brandy Clark, Brandi Carlile, and others are, and are much more worthy and fitting of that crown. Meanwhile the impact and success of “Merry Go ‘Round” goes completely ignored, even though this is truly the moment Musgraves arrived. 

Kacey Musgraves is up for three country awards at the 2019 Grammys this Sunday (2-10), including for Best Country Song for “Space Cowboy,” Best Country Solo Performance for “Butterflies,” and Best Country Album for Golden Hour—which won the same award at the 2018 CMAs in November. Golden Hour is also up for the all genre Album of the Year—the Grammy’s top prize. If Kacey wins, one of the primary reasons will be due to Grammy voters supporting what they believe to be a political album, because that’s how the media inside and outside of country music have falsely portrayed Golden Hour, even though it’s in direct conflict with Kacey’s wishes, and an accurate and objective assessment of the Golden Hour effort.

But instead of political expressions, the underlying theme of Golden Hour is much more about the maturation of Kacey Musgraves herself. “Merry Go ‘Round” was a foreboding ode about the boring cycles of life, about the ills of getting married, having kids, never leaving your hometown, and never experiencing life. It was a song written within the mindset many Americans feel as they exit the angst of teenage years, and enter the idealism of young adulthood. This epoch also commonly coincides with political expressiveness, which Musgraves most certainly exhibited in “Merry Go ‘Round,” “Follow Your Arrow,” and other early songs. Kacey Musgraves was rebelling against the restrictive small town life she was raised in.

But Golden Hour hits on a completely different note. The ‘Golden’ in the title is for Kacey’s hometown of Golden, TX, (pop. 200). One of the most stunning tracks on the record is the intimate piano tune, “Mother,” which reminisces on missing one’s mom, and how our mothers probably miss their own mothers too—tying the song to the cycles of life as opposed to denouncing them like “Merry Go ‘Round.” Golden Hour was written and recorded in the wake of dating and eventually marrying fellow songwriter and performer Ruston Kelly—a fate the “Merry Go ‘Round” version of Kacey Musgraves would never succumb to. The final song on Golden Hour is the sad sounding, but incredibly hope-filled “Rainbow,” which is probably fair to portray as the antithesis of a song like “Merry Go ‘Round.”

It’s not that Kacey Musgraves was wrong in 2013 when she wrote and recorded “Merry Go ‘Round,” “Follow Your Arrow,” and Same Trailer, Different Park. It’s that we often believe when we’re young that the regular cycles of life are like a web that we must avoid, and we shield ourselves from their ensnarement. But as we get older, a search for meaning ensues, and often that meaning is found in those same things we spend young adulthood trying to avoid, which is settling down, allowing ourselves to love and be loved, and God forbid, maybe even having children or finding ourselves back in our hometown.

The reason that Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves has resonated so deeply is not because it’s politically relevant to our time. It’s because it’s timeless in how it canonizes the everyday cycles of life. It’s a record that carries universal themes that can unite people, as opposed to politically-charged themes that can pull people apart. Ultimately, Kacey Musgraves took her own advice. She “followed her arrow.” And like with so many, it led her to marriage, to settling down, to finally understanding where true happiness dwells, and to not see the mundanity in the cycles of life, but to see the inherent and eternal beauty in them.

In other words, she let go of her umbrella.