The ‘little song that could’: How Kacey Musgraves’s LGBTQ+ anthem beat the odds with historic CMAs win

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Nashville has come under fire in recent years due to lack of female artists receiving high-rotation airplay at country radio, but this Wednesday’s Country Music Association Awards ceremony looks to be dominated by women. Female acts make up two to five contenders in nearly every category, and Miranda Lambert, who leads with seven nominations including Top Entertainer of the Year, is expected to be the big winner.

Seven-time CMA winner Kacey Musgraves is also up for Female Vocalist of the Year, and as the ceremony looms, her longtime co-writer Shane McAnally reflects on a Musgraves CMAs victory that not only kicked open doors for female artists, but for LBGTQ+ artists as well: “Follow Your Arrow.” The gay anthem beat all the odds to win the 2014 Song of the Year award over Lambert’s “Automatic,” Eric Church’s "Give Me Back My Hometown,” Lee Brice’s ‘I Don't Dance,” and Dierks Bentley’s “I Hold On,” but it almost wasn’t released at all.

“We were shocked when it got nominated — and then to win? I'm sure in retrospect now with all the years of people knowing that song, it seems like, ‘Of course that was Song of the Year.’ But we could have been knocked over with a feather. We were just like, ‘This has to be a mistake,’” McAnally admits to Yahoo Entertainment.

The groundbreaking single — which Musgraves wrote with two openly gay hitmakers, McAnally and Brandy Clark, and featured the then-controversial line, “Kiss lots of girls, if that's something you're into” — was in fact the lowest-charting single to ever be nominated in the CMAs’ Song of the Year category. And executives at Musgraves’s record label, Mercury Nashville, hadn’t even wanted it to be on her debut album, Same Trailer Different Park.

McAnally, who is one of the most successful country songwriters of all time and is currently a judge on NBC’s Songland, recalls that Musgraves, whose first single ‘Merry Go Round’ was already getting some attention at country radio, was “so dead-set” on including “Follow Your Arrow” as a last-minute addition to Same Trailer Different Park. “When we wrote that, she was like, ‘We have to go back in and cut this. It has to be on my record.’ I always thought we were writing for the next record,” he says. “She was like, ‘No, I can't put my first record out without this on it, because I just don't want to wait. I want this to be a part of it.’ It was a real shock to us when she played it for the label and they said no.”

But Musgraves wouldn’t budge, so she made a deal with Mercury. “The compromise was, ‘If I go in and cut it and use the remaining budget I have, and it doesn't cost anything, can I add it to the record if I put it at the end of the record? Then we can just not worry about it being a single,’” says McAnally. “They let that happen, and then as she started playing shows and the song started getting out there, her crowd started sort of demanding it. When it came time for the third single, she said, ‘I can't put out another song without putting that out. I will look like a coward.’”

Kacey Musgraves accepts the award for Song of the Year during the 48th annual CMA awards at the Bridgestone Arena on Nov. 5, 2014 in Nashville. (Photo: Terry Wyatt/FilmMagic)
Kacey Musgraves accepts the award for Song of the Year during the 48th annual CMA awards at the Bridgestone Arena on Nov. 5, 2014 in Nashville. (Photo: Terry Wyatt/FilmMagic)

McAnally points out that “Follow Your Arrow” wasn’t intended to be a gay anthem at first, nor did he, Clark, or Musgraves think that there was anything too scandalous or polarizing about its lyrics. “We actually felt kind of proud of ourselves that it hit that many buttons, because it was completely the funnest song to write,” he says. “We were just having a blast, like, ‘Oh, let's say if you don't go to church you'll go to hell, but if you sit in the front row, everybody's going to dog you for being too pious.’ We just thought that was all funny. … We didn't even know it was going to be controversial until the label had said, ‘No, you can't do it. You can't put it first on a record.’ That was when we were like, ‘Wait, what? What is it even saying? It's saying be yourself!’”

But Musgraves’s steadfast belief in “Follow Your Arrow” obviously paid off. “What happened was she did sort of force the hand of it being a single. And it didn't even go top 40 at country radio. It didn't have the support of the label. And so the ‘little song that could’ went on to be the CMA Song of the Year, and has obviously meant way more to her career than songs that did go on to be radio hits,” McAnally says proudly. “Kacey's acceptance speech was: ‘Do you have any idea what this means for country music?’ It really was telling that the community was saying, ‘We want people to be who they are. It doesn't really matter if the powers-that-be don't believe it.’”

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