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Can Country Music and ‘Message Songs’ Get Along? Kacey Musgraves, Luke Bryan and Others Make Their Case

A sense of inclusion in Nashville occasionally manifests in a socially conscious single. This is nothing new for country music, which has a long history of “message songs,” some forward leaning (Loretta Lynn’s feminist “The Pill”), some arguably not so much (Merle Haggard’s “Fightin’ Side of Me”). In the 2010s, a song like Kacey Musgraves’ openly pro-LGBT “Follow Your Arrow” can move the genre’s needle in a significant way even without becoming a radio hit, while a more vaguely worded statement from a major artist, like Luke Bryan’s “Most People Are Good,” hits No. 1 — an indication that, as Variety further explores in this week’s issue, Nashville has a growing thirst for diversity, on and off the record.

“Whenever somebody tries to force something down someone else’s throat, it’s always ill-received,” says radio personality Blair Garner. “The ones that really excite me are the ones like ‘Humble and Kind’ from Tim McGraw — that’s a song that will affect change, for which there is no argument against. And I think songs like Keith Urban’s ‘Female’ can be sprinkled into the mainstream, and those messages will be better received that way, as a garnish rather than the main meal.”

As a gay man in country music, Garner is particularly excited about Bryan’s current chart-topper, even if its allusion to LGBT acceptance is fleeting. “It has the line that says ‘I believe you have the right to love who you love,’ and the first time I heard that, I texted Luke right away, and I said, ‘On behalf of myself and my family, I just want to thank you for recording that song and that line. It means more than you can know.’ And he texted me back and said, ‘The perfect lyric, perfectly written, proud to sing it.’ And that’s one of our A-level stars. They don’t get bigger than Luke right now.”

Hit songwriter/producer Shane McAnally, one of the forces behind Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow,” thinks Bryan’s new song isn’t necessarily less impactful for its subtlety. “With the line that says ‘I believe you should love who you love / Ain’t nothing you should ever be ashamed of,’ it’s certainly not the first time that’s been done (in country), and neither was ‘Follow Your Arrow,’ although ours was one of the places where it was more blatant. But with someone like Luke Bryan, whose following is considered to be a lot more conservative and traditional, that line means more to me because he’s singing it. I feel like things are shifting, because I do think Luke singing that line just shows: Look, it’s about everyone. We’re all in this together. It’s not who’s the country-est or who’s the most conservative. The world is changing, and we want to be on the right side of history.”

McAnally is also a fan of McGraw’s pro-gentility “Humble and Kind,” acknowledging that it’s “an outlier. What a beautiful, perfect statement. It’s funny to me that anyone thinks it counts as political. I know it wasn’t written that way (by songwriter Lori McKenna). It’s just that because our nation is so confused and divided, and we have this mouthpiece that’s so mean, when you hear a song like ‘Humble and Kind,’ you wonder if he’s singing to the president!”

Recently, McAnally co-wrote Urban’s “Female.” “That was a polarizing song,” he concedes, “and not a huge record for Keith, although it is nominated for song of the year at the ACMs, which is an amazing tip of the hat. I don’t usually write something that is happening in the world, but that was a statement song in that we started it because all the stuff about Harvey Weinstein came out, and we just were having a discussion about how all of this bigotry and sexism that’s gone on in the workplace is so shocking and has been kept quiet for so long. What I loved about it was that a man sang it, even though we weren’t sure whether it would be more effective if it were coming from a woman or a man.”

McAnally’s place in country statement-song history is assured, anyway, because of Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow.” “It was the lowest-charting single in history to be nominated for song of the year at the CMAs,” he laughs. “The fact that it had no commercial impact and yet went on to win that award says so much about this industry. I can’t even believe the number of people that ask me about that song, because obviously I had more commercial success with most everything else I’ve ever done.”

McAnally is one of the most prominent gay creatives in Nashville, but there was no agenda behind “Follow Your Arrow” — except the agenda of amusing themselves; he thinks that helps account for why the song became such a milestone.

“I love its place in history even though it wasn’t written to make history,” McAnally says. “When you talk about statement songs, the best of them are the ones that were just something personal in the moment, not trying to change the world with it. As songwriters we all want to have a legacy that also tells our story, and the fact that I am a gay country songwriter and that I have a song like that that’s sort of a tentpost…. it’s like having a career record that really wouldn’t be your standard career record. Because of what it represents and the reflection of my own life, where life does imitate art or vice versa, it makes me really proud.”

“But,” McAnally adds, “we laughed through most of that write, because we thought it was so funny that we said things like, ‘If you don’t save yourself for marriage, you’re a whorrrrrre-ible person.’ We just thought we were so clever!” The lines “Kiss lots of boys / Or kiss lots of girls, if that’s something you’re into” may have doomed its chances with conservative programmers, but “Roll up a joint” probably didn’t help (even though the Zac Brown Band and others have had hits in recent years with marijuana references). “Radio couldn’t get on board because of the gay innuendos or the drug references,” he says. “It was so funny because when it was first coming out as a single, they were talking about bleeping some things or changing some lyrics, and I thought: We will have to change 80% of the lines in the song.”

Needless to say, the social commentary in country songs usually tends to skew more subtle. When Little Big Town released “Happy People” as a single in 2017, it engendered some of the same response as “Humble and Kind”: Is its basic, simple pro-tolerance message count as a political statement, in a way that it probably wouldn’t in a genre whose fan base didn’t have such a notorious right-wing flank?

“These are safe things to say because they’re kind of ambiguous, and it’s not going to get you into any trouble,” says Brian Philips, the former president of CMT. “I don’t know that we’re going to see a face-off again in our lifetimes like the Dixie Chicks and Toby Keith,” he adds, referring back to 2003, when the Chicks’ anti-war-themed “Travelin’ Soldier” and Keith’s anti-Taliban, pro-boot-in-your-ass “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” represented opposite factions, even before Natalie Maines quipped her way into trouble with many fans. “That was like a battle royale, remember? Now everybody’s a little more fraternal: Can’t we all get along? And that’s fine, too. I don’t wish for CMT or the CMA or for country music to take a polarizing position on everything. If they write good songs about the human condition, and some of that emotion finds its way into a song, that’s good. We’re not looking for stunt songs that encourage more polarity in America, I don’t think.”

Still, Philips feels a nostalgia for braver days of yore in country when “one of those songs would come out, and somebody else would take the counterpoint — or, in a Haggard song like ‘Fightin’ Side of Me’ or ‘Okie From Muskogee,’ there was enough clever ambiguity in the song to satisfy everybody. There’s really no place, for better or worse, for political discourse in country music right now. It’s like the third rail; it’s the thing that everybody wants to stay clear of for fear of being pulled into the mud pit. It’s a relatively innocuous time, and maybe somebody will break that pattern again someday.”

If that happens, it probably won’t be with an overtly pro-gun song any time soon, from any of Nashville’s more conservative artists. When Justin Moore released “Guns” in 2011, it caused only a minor stir, with lyrics like “We’re letting them terrorists watch cable TV / And walk out of Guantanamo Bay… / I’m gonna tell you once and listen son / As long as I’m alive and breathing / You wont take my guns.” That seems more like a lifetime ago than it does just seven years ago.

As for more overtly liberal sentiments being put on record, they’re more likely to be found among alternative country artists who don’t have radio to answer to — like Margo Price, who took a slightly more political turn on her recent second album, “All American Made,” which took a somewhat jaundiced view of the lack of change in U.S. society in the title track and espoused feminism at the most basic paycheck level in “Pay Gap.”

Garth Brooks hasn’t followed up his controversial 1993 song “We Shall Be Free” with any further LGBT-affirming singles. But in the days before the student-led March for Our Lives, he did use his live Facebook show to debut an unreleased song he co-wrote, dedicating it to student organizer Emma Gonzalez (or, as he called her in his gentlemanly Southern fashion, “Miss Emma”). “Try to remember this — in the blink of an eye, you’re walking for your children you haven’t had yet,” Brooks said, wiping away a tear. “Because this is something new. Your generation is the generation for the school shootings. Let’s make sure the next generation is not.” Sample lyrics of his song: “Those without are those with plenty and the meekest are the strong / All are one among the many marching on the road from here to gone.”

Brooks’ tune will probably never come out as a single, and might never even be heard again outside the confines of that Facebook broadcast. But in the world of country, where the slightest hint of a political thought in song causes a ripple, Brooks’ stand-up message did not go unheard.

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