Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was — the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period — with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
Had Kacey Musgraves’ friend Natalie Osborne (sister to the Brothers Osborne’s TJ and John) never gone on a European trip, the world may have never heard “Follow Your Arrow.”
As Osborne prepared to leave on her journey, Musgraves wrote her a note suggesting she kiss lots of boys and smoke lots of joints. No word on whether Osborne followed her advice, but the words became the cornerstone of the singer-songwriter’s exuberant ode to living life on one’s own terms — a tune so infectious Billboard critics placed it at No. 2 on our list of the 20 Best Songs of 2013.
Furthermore, had Katy Perry felt the song was a fit for her — which she didn’t when Kacey took a rough version into a writing session with the pop star — Musgraves may have simply been credited as a co-writer on the song that became one of her signature anthems.
Instead, she took her song to esteemed Nashville songwriters Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, with whom she’d co-written Miranda Lambert’s 2013 hit “Mama’s Broken Heart.” “It didn’t hit me right away,” McAnally admits. “‘Follow Your Arrow’ sounds like something from a bumper sticker, not a song. But Kacey has a way when she starts singing something; you’re like ‘OK, that makes sense to me now.”
The trio beefed up the clever wordplay, which also took Musgraves’ advice to Osborne and added a twist: “Make lots of noise/ And kiss lots of boys/ Or kiss lots of girls/ If that’s something you’re into.”
Though the Musgraves’ label, Mercury Nashville, felt the song could wait for Musgraves’ second album, the singer did not. “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,” Musgraves told Billboard in 2013. “But Brandy, 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.’”
“Follow Your Arrow” became the third single from Musgraves’ major label debut, Same Trailer Different Park, after “Merry Go ‘Round,” Musgraves’ only Top 10 on the Country Airplay charts, and “Blowin’ Smoke,” which peaked at No. 23. But standing in stark contrast to the bro-country songs dominating country airwaves, “Follow Your Arrow” couldn’t find a foothold, peaking at No. 43 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart.
“When it came time to pick a single after ‘Blowin’ Smoke, ‘ she had kind of hit a wall at radio and she said, ‘If radio is not gonna play me any way, I want to put this song out. It’s become my staple song at my shows and my crowd is calling for it,'” McAnally recalls. “[The label] was like, ‘It’s suicide at radio. Radio will not play this and may never believe you again after.’ And she said, ‘It’s a risk worth taking for me because I just feel like if I don’t put this out, people are going to wonder if I was scared.’”
However, if radio didn’t embrace the song, Musgraves’ country music peers did: “Follow Your Arrow” snagged song of the year at the 2014 CMA Awards, following the album’s Grammy win for best country album earlier in the year.
A highlight of Musgraves’ live show, “Follow Your Arrow” helped break down barriers in country music even if radio rejected it: Four years later when Luke Bryan declared “I believe you love who you love/ Ain’t nothing you should ever be ashamed of” in “Most People Are Good,” and showed same-sex couples in the video, the song went straight to the top of Billboard’s Country Airplay chart without a blink of the eye.
Six years later, McAnally understands why the song didn’t break through at country radio, and celebrates that Musgraves has gone on to win album of the year at the 2019 Grammys with her latest album Golden Hour and expand her audience far beyond country’s unadventurous borders.
“My Lord, it went against everything [at radio], it was a female singing, [musically] it was super traditional. It mentioned same-sex relationships. It mentioned smoking weed,” McAnally says. “It did not check any of the boxes with radio. The only thing it had going for it was that it was the truth.”