It seems impossible to imagine Kacey Musgraves' breakout debut album, "Same Trailer Different Park," without "Follow Your Arrow," a button-pushing song about having a good time in one's own skin. But the track barely made the album, stemming from a last-minute writing session in January.
"The record was basically done, and I was getting a lot of pressure because there were already a lot of great songs in the batch," says 25-year-old Musgraves. "But [co-writers] Brandy [Clark], Shane [McAnally] and I had these ideas and they just really encapsulated where my head was at. I knew exactly what I wanted to do sonically, and I said, 'This isn't a complete record without them.'"
Upon the release of "Same Trailer Different Park" in March, "Follow Your Arrow" became a tempest in a teapot for critics who broke out think pieces on the song's social commentary, deemed unusual in a Nashville currently defined by guys singing about cold beer, big trucks and hot women. But in spite of lyrics suggesting listeners "roll up a joint (or don't)" and "Make lots of noise/Kiss lots of boys/Or kiss lots of girls/If that's something you're into," Musgraves (who is straight) and the team around her (including gay co-writers McAnally and Clark) insist they've yet to experience anything but overwhelming support.
"It's been much more embraced by the media and radio than even we were expecting," says Sandbox Entertainment president/CEO Jason Owen, Musgraves' manager since 2011. "It's just the first time in a long time that someone's lyrically said the things Kacey says."
McAnally adds, "It's not a gay song. We were just trying to list people that might have felt like underdogs at some point in their lives. Sure, gay people have felt that way, but also fat people, or people who get outcasted at their churches for teenage pregnancy, or people who might smoke weed. Also, Brandy and I quickly realized the only word we could rhyme with 'point' was 'joint.'"
Nevertheless, "Follow Your Arrow" and equally frank single "Merry Go Round" ("If you ain't got two kids by 21/You're probably gonna die alone" are the opening lines) are Musgraves' sweetly biting commentary on growing up in small-town Texas. They were also welcome entry points for a singer who cited Michelle Branch as an influence alongside Dolly Parton when she competed on USA's "Nashville Star" in 2007. Like fellow alum Miranda Lambert, Musgraves lost (she placed seventh) but found fame on her own terms years later-coincidentally, she co-wrote Lambert's hit "Mama's Broken Heart" alongside Clark and McAnally this year as well.
Now No. 36 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart, "Follow Your Arrow" got a boost after Musgraves performed it at the Country Music Assn. Awards on Nov. 6, the night she also took home the best new artist honor. And she'll likely play to her biggest audience yet in January at the Grammy Awards, as Musgraves has just collected four nominations for best new artist, best country album and two for best country song (for "Merry Go Round," which hit No. 14 on Hot Country Songs, and "Mama's Broken Heart").
She was onstage at a show in Milwaukee when she heard the Grammy news on Dec. 6. "After the second time my crew told me in the talkback mic that I was nominated, I thought they were joking," she says. "I raised a glass to the crowd and my people. I can't think of a cooler and more monumental way to tie up a beautiful year."
Musgraves' skill at making small-town observations so universal has made her a big hit on the coasts, as well as made her first year of touring behind "Same Trailer Different Park" so noteworthy. She opened for Kenny Chesney's sold-out stadium tour in the summer, playing to packed crowds at Bonnaroo and Farm Aid, and winning over new fans with her hits as well as covers of Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds," Weezer's "Island in the Sun" and George Strait's "I Just Want to Dance With You."
She found perhaps her biggest fan in Katy Perry, who invited Musgraves to perform at her We Can Survive benefit in October alongside Sara Bareilles, Tegan & Sara, Ellie Goulding and Bonnie McKee at the Hollywood Bowl.
The fandom even led to a songwriting session between Musgraves and Perry, though it's not clear where the result may end up. "Writing with Katy was a fun joining of worlds and a good song came out of it," Musgraves says. "I love when brains come together with different colors and influences to throw into the mix. We're fans of each other so it works and was an awesome experience."
Early 2014 brings an opening slot on Lady Antebellum's arena tour, followed by stops in Europe and Asia. The summer holds what Owen calls "really big opportunities both inside and outside of [the country] genre."
But Same Trailer Different Park co-producer Luke Laird hopes that Musgraves' greatest breakthrough in the new year will be her music's impact on Nashville. "I've seen it in writing sessions already, where if a writer has a 'red truck' song or whatever, they've taken a step back in the last few months and said, 'Let's try something different,'" he says. "A lot of people have just said, 'Write what you know,' and there's an authentic air to that. That's what's great about Kacey and what we were trying to do with this album. We were all trying to raise the bar and write stuff we were proud of."