In the era of honkey tonks, big green tractors and dirt roads emanating country radio airwaves, it is near impossible to not escape Nashville tropes. As female artists navigate the unfair, unspoken rule book created by country music executives, they face institutional barriers to their success.
For instance, many country radio stations have policies in place that limit radio play for women to a mere 15%. 98 KCQ, a country radio station in Saginaw, Michigan, even tweeted its DJs “cannot play two females back to back.” In a world where Nashville record executives push for the homogenization of the genre, certain types of songs are pushed on new female country artists.
The bro-country tropes are exacerbated by songs like “God Made Girls” by RaeLynn. The song went viral on TikTok this past year for its comically outdated, yet serious, take on a woman’s place in the world. According to the track, women exist solely for the pleasure of men, wearing “pretty skirts” and “to give him a reason to wash that truck.”
Unfortunately, these discoveries are to be expected of an extremely male-dominated business. Because of sexist radio airplay policies and stereotypes that are pushed on female country artists, it is inevitable many talented female country artists are denied the same commercial success as their male peers. One of these female artists is none other than Kacey Musgraves, a six-time Grammy-winning country artist from Golden, Texas.
Musgraves’ impact on the genre is immense, as she has become an outspoken, progressive voice within a carefully crafted conservative echo chamber. Her sharp pen, along with her everlasting desire to continue experimenting musically and lyrically with each album cycle, has helped revolutionize a genre that feels stuck in the past.
Most country artists, especially in their debut albums, often steer away from causing controversies and essentially doing anything that could hinder their abilities at mainstream success. The Chicks received massive backlash in 2003 after a comment criticizing former President George W. Bush for the Iraq War, showing that country artists, especially females, were constantly scared into political and social uniformity. Given this precedent, Musgraves’ first move was particularly unexpected.
After signing to Mercury Nashville in 2012, Musgraves released her debut major-label studio album “Same Trailer Different Park,” which caused quite a controversy in the Nashville country music scene. The third single of the record, “Follow Your Arrow,” was incessantly pulled apart by homophobic country critics for its positive stance on homosexuality and recreational marijuana use.
In the song, Musgraves urges listeners to live with utmost authenticity in every sector of their lives, including their sexual orientation. She sings, “Say what you think / Love who you love / ’Cause you just get so many trips around the sun / … So make lots of noise / Kiss lots of boys / Or kiss lots of girls if that’s what you’re into / … And follow your arrow wherever it points.” These lyrics resulted in the song being completely blacklisted by country radio stations, and Musgraves was seemingly absent from country radio for the rest of her career despite receiving massive critical acclaim.
Following the criticism of Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow,” some would have expected her to issue a long-winded apology letter begging for the mercy of the conservative fans that serve as the commercial backbone of country music. Musgraves, however, did the complete opposite. In a 2013 interview with The Guardian regarding the controversy, she defended her lyrics.
“I just hate that people are scared of it, but I don’t want to be begging. I don’t want to be at the mercy of country radio with it. It’s going to have its own life regardless, so I don’t really want to ask their permission,” Musgraves said.
Musgraves risked fading into irrelevance early in her career, especially without the support of country radio to introduce her work to larger audiences. The opposite happened, however, even though her climb to country stardom was a bit of a slow burn. Her sophomore album, “Pageant Material,” continued to solidify Musgraves as Nashville’s most sharp-witted songstress.
Album-highlight “Biscuits” served as a callout to small-town hypocrisy and regressive values. The track further established Musgraves as a progressive trailblazer in country music and sparked long-overdue dialogue regarding conservative America’s inability to let people live their own truths, even if their truths lie outside of what its beliefs deem acceptable.
Musgraves’ latest studio album, “Golden Hour,” released in 2018, catapulted her to massive critical acclaim and introduced her work to a brand new audience, myself included. The album finds a way to integrate classic country elements while simultaneously shattering the boundaries of the genre. Musgraves’ beautifully authentic lyricism coupled with her captivating storytelling abilities make the album feel timeless. With “Golden Hour,” Musgraves became the first country artist to win album of the year since Taylor Swift’s “Fearless” in 2010.
Her victory was groundbreaking, considering Musgraves was up against massively successful artists like Cardi B, Drake and Post Malone in the same category. The lead singles for the album, “Butterflies” and “Space Cowboy,” have only a combined YouTube view count of 21 million views to this day. Musgraves’ win was a rare occasion in a financially dominated industry; raw talent and artistic authenticity trumped commercial success.
Musgraves’ refusal to bend the knee for Nashville record label executives, coupled with her massive success, proves she is the Nashville big machine’s worst nightmare. She is a female artist who managed to find widespread success in an industry that endlessly tried to muzzle her. A lyric from the titular track of Musgraves’ album “Pageant Material” is a perfect synopsis of her artistry: “I’d rather lose for what I am than win for what I ain’t.”