Last week, number 10 on the country billboard charts was “Follow Your Arrow” by one Kacey Musgraves. If you didn’t know it, Kacey had a smash year with her debut solo album Same Trailer, Different Park and also managed to write a couple more of the best songs of late for other artists (see: “Mama’s Broken Heart,” which I somewhat desperately insisted was available on Sunfly Karaoke to a KJ last night – it was not available.) She just did it big at the Grammys and suddenly got the crossover attention she deserves (more than just that one really excitable music critic on NPR.)
I heard the first single off this album, “Merry Go Round,” last March while I was driving to Legal Ethics class. I must have been driving a goddamn Volvo then. I definitely started talking to myself:
“What is this. What IS THIS. WHAT IS THIS.” And squealed. As soon as I heard her name, I repeated it over and over again and ignored the majority of class as I furiously looked up everything about her.
Before we can talk about “Follow Your Arrow,” we need to talk about “Merry Go Round.”
When I heard “Merry Go Round,” it thrilled me. It was so strikingly different from everything else I’d heard on a country radio station in years – in the tone, in the sound quality, the instrumentation, the beat, the subtlety, the voice, the story, the words! And it was played right after a song called “Love Like Crazy” by Lee Brice.
“Crazy” is a classic of the WORST of its kind. It has all the terrible elements of unlistenable tracks (noise, blurry guitar crashing around, bothersome, illegitimate melody, repetitious and boring build-ups), and tells a terrible, moralistic tale of loving your way out of poverty on your knees, with a pair of bootstraps and a wife who won’t stop letting babies erupt from her body.
Here’s a taste:
They called them crazy when they started out
Said, “Seventeen’s too young to know what love’s about”
They’ve been together fifty-eight years now
He brought home sixty-seven bucks a week
Bought a little 2 bedroom house on Maple Street
Where she blessed him with six more mouths to feed
Now that’s crazy
I wasn’t kidding: check that passive construction! It’s told as a joke – “blessing” being how we actually “should” think of children, but it becomes ironic when paired with the struggle inherent in providing food for a growing family on one low income – and as teenagers, no less! The first time I heard this number I remember being instantly struck by that little joky irony – “She gave him six more mouths to feed” – as if she did that of her own regard, as if she did it on her own and chose to do it, as if she bore no understanding of the depth and the teetering frailty of their situation and just kept giving birth for fun, as if she bore no risk, no pain, no work, and no terrible, profound, dangerous life changing procedures in this process. Boy did he have to keep working hard, though. I say this not to discount the undeniable efforts of a low-wage, blue-collar worker or prevent him from telling his valid side of the story, I say this because I find that phrasing to be insulting. But how did he do it, anyway?:
Just ask him how he did it
He’ll say, “Pull up a seat
It’ll only take a minute
To tell you everything”
Be a best friend, tell the truth
And overuse “I love you”
Go to work, do your best
Don’t outsmart your common sense
Never let your prayin’ knees get lazy
And love like crazy
Salt-of-the-earth garbage, basically, with the repeated addendum of, “Do not get off your knees, peasant. You should thank and bless the Lord for letting you live at all – and you complain?”
Ok, if you protest: no, saying “I love you” often, telling the truth and trusting your instincts aren’t “garbage” ideas. But they aren’t the only way you survive, they’re tips for any life, and they certainly don’t propel your exulted, penitent self out of the cycles of poverty, as you’ll see here in a moment.
The song is sanitary and it’s a fantasy and it doesn’t even stick to its own tale of poverty being its own reward. Motherfucker Narrator sells his “two-room computer shop” to Microsoft (what?) who indeed, “Pay like crazy,” and fuck all that other shit – they’re rich now! Problems solved! How did he have a computer shop? When did he get one? Is he Steve Jobs? Did he fucking invent computers? What the hell is going on, I mean, okay, yeah, a lot of the computer creating folks didn’t finish college and managed to get by on the merit that they were engineering visionaries, but is that who we are hoping is the relatable hero of this goddamn little ode?
I really hate this song. So happy you teenagers got knocked up and married and moved into a tiny shitty house with a bunch of screaming infants and then somehow completely independently made the right bet and are now hella rich.
So after that bullshit, after the pause, after the shout out of how we were listening to “99.5 the wolf OwwwooOOOO” – when the soft, rolling strums of a banjo and one tom kicked up bit of dust and started curling out of the speakers and Kacey started singing, I wanted to stop and cry. Maybe I did stop and cry. This is how she begins:
If you ain’t got two kids by 21,
You’re probably gonna die alone.
Least that’s what tradition told you.
And it don’t matter if you don’t believe,
Come Sunday morning, you best be
there in the front row like you’re supposed to.
Jesus fucking Christ. I want to make sure I’m driving the point home hard enough. You read what Lee Brice was just singing about, and I think that establishes the culture of the radio air waves, and is just a stand in for everything you hear, all of the time, but Jesus Christ. She just fucking shattered Lee Brice’s goddamn computer shop. Why did you have kids as a teenager? Because your parents did. Because your sister did and your friends are doing it and they told you to be abstinent in health class – because there’s nowhere to go and nothing to do and you’re scared – you’re scared that there’s no other people out there you can find to love you, because where are you from, where are you from, nowhere? If anyone leaves, do they ever come back? Can they find it, if they leave? Are they dead out there? Are they different?
You’re scared you’re gonna die alone, like every other goddamn human on the earth, and in this world, Kacey says, this is how we cope. We answer a goddamn Shakespearean command with a slew of babies bound to end up dealing meth at the skate park. That is what our tradition is, says Kacey, and I call our tradition’s bluff, and I point out what we all secretly know: our tradition is our fear, and we cling to it through shaking tears.
And that’s only half the first stanza. Suggesting that some people might not believe in Christianity but go to church to live up to an established social doctrine and class rules in order to not be ostracized from society and perhaps die alone – suggesting that – is a fucking balls out move. Jesus Christ. I wouldn’t suggest that to half my extended family: even though they can hear me talk and can see me with their eyes and see what I post on Instagram any other day of the week, it is simply not something that we say.
The chorus of this song is the worst part, it goes on with the “merry” pun and points out how everybody in the family is hooked on something that could basically be interchangeable and is a sedative that helps them “settle in this town” as if “dust.” The timing is too slow and the melody becomes rather thin and monotonous. It’s not terrible, but it’s not as great as it could be. That last part (just like dust we settle in this town) is a cliché, true, but I don’t mind it, because I can feel the dust.
The next, and really final verse, is maybe my favorite:
We think the first time’s good enough.
So, we hold on to high school love.
Sayin’ we won’t end up like our parents.
Tiny little boxes in a row.
Ain’t what you want, it’s what you know.
Just happy in the shoes you’re wearin’.
Same checks we’re always cashin’ to buy a little more distraction.
It barely even bears analysis, it’s so neatly put. Did you start crying? I read the stanza and I start crying. Maybe I’m sort of manic-ly writing an essay in a bar and a little emotional anyway but whatever. You know these people, these everyone, right? I mean if you’re not from certain neighborhoods in Portland or San Francisco or New York, I guess, if you’re from some shit place like all the rest of us, then you know, and you know what it means simply that you left and you are still breathing and you aren’t a ghost, and even if you don’t do shit otherwise, you know that they didn’t want you to leave but you did and that is something, that is something: they didn’t pull you into their bed of terror and pull the blankets up to your chin and keep you warm and stupid, whispering, and you repeat their hisses, saying, “maybe I like this after all, maybe this is just the best thing to do.” Have you ever had a friend in an abusive relationship, have you ever heard your friend talk themselves in circles?
At least I know how he’s going to hurt me, you know, I can predict it – it’s always going to happen right, no matter who I’m with? At least now, now I know what to expect . . .
If I leave him, he’ll just go find somebody else . . . I can take it . . . I can deal with it . . . what if they can’t? I need to protect everybody else in the world from seeing this person standing in their kitchen . . .
If I leave, what will become of this place . . . it might hang itself in my basement, this town might be dead when I come back, where will it keep its beers and its hugs, you can already see the holes it has punched in the walls and the scratches that are dug into the floor and the red circles rubbed into its eyes, what if I’m not here to stop it, what if I’m not here to stop it . . .
Says Kacey. And sure, it half falls on deaf ears, and here come all the folks to tell her she’s encouraging drug use and spreading AIDS. “THIS IS WHAT’S WRONG WITH COUNTRY MUSIC” they shout in YouTube comments.
“SHE CAN KEEP SLUTTING ON, I SUPPOSE, BUT I AND MY DAUGHTERS WON’T BE LISTENING TO THIS SMUT.”
And when they say that, they’re saying this:
You don’t know him. Not like I know him.
You don’t understand. You don’t know what he’s been through.
Kacey isn’t the first girl to do this, of course, but this is the real dirt, the dirt I’m so happy to shove my heels into again. It’s the same kind of dirt Dolly Parton has brought us for the past forty goddamn years, since she premiered her first album “Hello, I’m Dolly” and sang “Dumb Blonde” to Porter Wagoner’s skeptical audience – pointing out, of course, that she is not, and when she then said, “Just Because I’m a Woman” and then, most of all, when she said, concerning her Tennessee mountain home upbringing:
No amount of money could buy from me
The memories that I have of then
No amount of money could pay me
To go back and live through it again
This is the dirt of Appalachia, and of country music, and it’s the sound of women screaming in cabins as they give birth on the floor that is made of dirt, calling for the water, or going along to live in a trailer on the prairie of North goddamn Dakota and work in Williston’s war-zone Walmart while your husband drills for oil, or of taking the bus at five am from the half grown suburb with no sidewalks and no grocery store, the dirt is under their fingernails and ground into the creases on the sides of their eyes and it’s being swept out and off the porch every day, every day, take your boots off. It’s not clean and we don’t thank God for that. We don’t thank god for that, we talk about how there were some of them who survived and some of them who didn’t and we grind our teeth on everything that we are and hope it turns out to be a ladder.
That’s what I’m hoping we’re coming back to, Kacey Musgraves and all us devotees and makers of country music, and I’m hoping that it’s gonna be good.