They say when you can't find the right words to deliver your message, you sing. Judging by the tunes of country music's newest crop of stars, they have some crucial messages to deliver.
While the genre and its tunes are known to reflect classic and somewhat conservative American themes, the latest slate of singers have used their newfound fame and talent to champion controversial causes and push the boundaries of their musical predecessors.
Take Kacey Musgraves, a guitar-toting Texas native who launched her first studio album, Same Trailer Different Park, in 2013 to major commercial and critical acclaim. While the record garnered the Grammy Award for Best Country Album and the ACM Award for Album of the Year, the album's song "Follow Your Arrow" was hardly representative of the tune the industry was known to croon. Instead, it tipped country's traditional values on their head.
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In the CMA Award "Song of the Year," Musgraves points out the paradoxes of society with lines like, "If you save yourself for marriage, you're a bore. If you don't save yourself for marriage, you're a whore-able person. If you won't have a drink, then you're a prude, but they'll call you a drunk as soon as you down the first one."
The single stood out even more with its controversial chorus, which began with "So make lots of noise, kiss lots of boys or kiss lots of girls if that's something you're into" and ended with her push to "follow your arrow," even if that means—as Musgraves sang—rolling up a joint.
While Rolling Stone hailed the artist and her anthem as "one of the loudest symbols of young country musicians embracing progressive values" and put the song on its list of "100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time," she didn't think it would even ever get played.
"Well, I didn't expect—sorry, I'm eating popcorn—country radio to play it. They're not gonna," she told PrideSource in 2013, just three months after the album was first released. "That's OK, though. I think the song can be bigger than country radio. They wouldn't know what to do with it, anyway!"
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She was wrong. Within its first week, the album topped at number two on the Billboard 200 chart. Despite the track's controversial message—the joint line was even censored during her performance at the 2013 Country Music Awards—it ultimately became a top ten single on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and was ultimately certified gold, proving that while country might not have known what to do with it, they certainly wanted to hear it.
"When I sing it live people really like it and they really listen to the lyrics. Even older people that I wouldn't think would be into it get a laugh out of it," she told the site. "I think even if you don't agree with everything I'm saying, as a human, hopefully you can just recognize that people should be able to do what they want to do and love who they want to love."
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While there are endless country songs about men and women happily or hopelessly in love, they rarely addressed the dangerous downsides of ill-fated relationships.
When Sam Hunt released "Take Your Time" off his debut studio album in 2014, listeners initially thought it was a sweet song about a man pining for the attention of a woman he was admiring from afar.
However, when the accompanying music video dropped a few months later, it was clear Hunt wasn't crooning about a glossy crush.
Instead, the clip depicted Hunt observing the relationship between a man, woman and their child. As the video progressed, viewers realize the man is abusing his partner. When she tries to flee with her child, the man attacks her. Fortunately, Hunt is coincidentally walking nearby and fights him until she can get away. Unlike the lighter stories of earlier country songs, there was no blossoming romance or fun night out at a bar, but a gritty reflection of domestic abuse as it affects everyone in its web.
"I just didn't want to do the typical thing with me being in the video talking to a girl at a bar," he said in an interview with 107.7 WGNA. "I wanted the girl to be the unlikely character in the video…the girl who has been broken, who has her guard up."
Two other women dropped their guards when they came up with "Girl in a Country Song" in 2014. Madison Marlow and Taylor Dye of country music duo Maddie and Tae launched their musical careers with the track, which doubled as a plea to the industry to take women seriously instead of treating them solely like shiny accessories in the passenger seat of a truck. The women faced the music head on and called out the industry for spiraling into "bro-country" misogyny.
As the song's chorus finishes, "We used to get a little respect. Now we're lucky if we even get to climb up in your truck, keep our mouth shut and ride along and be the girl in a country song."
"We wanted to go at it from a girl's perspective, and we wanted to put ourselves in the shoes of this girl," Dye told Rolling Stone. "You know, how does she feel wearing these cut-off shorts, sitting on the tailgate?"
As the genre's new guard, artists like Musgraves, Hunt and Maddie and Tae are asking the questions the industry has long avoided and embracing new kinds of fans in the process.
Now, that's a melody we will always sing along to.