Kacey Musgraves, who is up for a remarkable four Grammy Awards on Sunday, has been shaking things up not only on the Nashville scene, but also attracting attention on a level rarely achieved so quickly by a new artist. The young Grammy nominee has bewitched music critics not only for her genuine talent, but on an equal level for delivering messages that run on the somewhat counter — for Tennessee, anyway — culture side.
If you're not familiar (where have you been, by the way?), Musgraves's major-label debut release, "Same Trailer Different Park," contains songs that deal with topics such as addiction, sexuality, and individuality in a frank and direct manner. Her single "Follow Your Arrow" combines a bit of all of these themes, urging listeners to kiss whatever gender appeals and "roll up a joint" ("I would," she adds). In addition to this, she penned Miranda Lambert's prickly, irrestistble hit "Mama's Broken Heart," which chronicles a scorned woman's descent into very bad behavior, and itself is nominated for a Grammy this year as well.
All of this, in some eyes, appears to a goalpost of artistic merit in and of itself: "What's most charming about the album and its 25-year-old Texas-bred singer/co-songwriter is how matter-of-factly Musgraves made mainstream country feel artistically fertile again," noted Rolling Stone in its rundown of 2013's best country albums.
What's easy to forget, however, is that country music has always been shooting off whole quivers of arrows over the decades; some of them even more pointed than Musgraves's. And, many of them also recognized by the golden standard of musical awards: The Grammys.
Here's a look at a just a few of country's most notable outsiders, outlaws, and outliers who have scored Grammy Awards in past years!
This list would certainly have to start with likely the most groundbreaking country female singer in terms of controversial topics: None other than Loretta Lynn. The icon's late '60s and '70s odes to various topics women generally stayed mum about at that particular time in history (birth control, loss of virginity, divorce, and war) earned her a considerable amount of trouble, but also won her legions of fans who appreciated her openness. In 1971, she won a Grammy for her duet with Conway Twitty, "After the Fire Is Gone," a song discussing an adulterous relationship.
Tammy Wynette also was singing about things nice girls didn’t touch upon way before Musgraves was even born. In addition to her famous "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" (which requires no explanation), she won a Grammy in 1970 for "I Don’t Wanna Play House" — a remarkably stark commentary regarding a failing marriage and the subsequent toll on the couple’s young daughter.
Jimmy Webb's "MacArthur Park," a lovesick composition dedicated to Linda Ronstadt’s cousin, remains forevermore best known as performed by disco queen Donna Summer. However, outlaw pioneer Waylon Jennings won a Grammy for this odd, rambling song in 1970, which doesn't really contain controversial material... but is a bit, well, weird. While it’s pretty commonplace to find tunes in the Nashville catalog referencing getting high in one way or another, it’s really not too often you hear country stars singing as if they actually are high. Check the lines about melting green icing and striped pants.
Another cornerstone icon from the outlaw movement, Merle Haggard, made an indelible mark on musical counterculture with his much-loved ode to little punks who break their mothers' hearts: 1968's "Mama Tried." The short, to-the-point song, which references his own late '50s incarceration at San Quentin, has been covered by everyone from the squeaky-clean Everly Brothers to the slightly smokier Grateful Dead. The Hag himself won a Grammy Hall of Fame award for the song in 1999.
Ah, those Dixie Chicks. Despite having a catalog that spans the years, the trio will forever be best-known for its infamous commentary on Republican president George W. Bush, which sparked a massive backlash from the conservative country music community. The Chicks — again, infamously — had the last laugh in 2007, when their snarly "Not Ready To Make Nice" non-apology swept the Grammys, winning Song and Record of the Year, as well as Best Performance by a Duo or Group in the country category. They also won album of the year in both the general and country categories for album "Taking the Long Way," beating out such powerhouses as Justin Timberlake and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
And then, there's Taylor Swift. Before anyone groans at the mention of what some might consider the ultimate example of anti-Musgraves, Swift herself has been a rebel pioneer of sorts, doing pretty much exactly what she wishes to do (pop music, Hollywood scene)... all without losing her country base, which despite ongoing chatter about her validity from fans continues to be rock-solid. While this may seem unremarkable, consider the penalties LeAnn Rimes has suffered for stepping out of her "country" origins. Swift can date Harry Styles and Kennedy royalty, put out songs that have not one iota of twang to them, ditch her cowboy boots for bodycon dresses... and still boast a release that is both up for general album of the year and country album of the year. In that respect, she's the biggest rebel of them all.
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