Why Kacey Musgraves Is The Artist Who’ll Convert You To Country Music
Her new album 'Golden Hour' is being hailed as one of the year's best.
To get a sense of how different Kacey Musgraves is to the country music scene that raised her, you need to look back at the furore that surrounded her 2013 breakout single ‘Follow Your Arrow’.
The song — as the quintessentially country title suggests — follows a plucky ‘follow your heart’ theme. The problem, according to conservative country critics, was that some of the ways Musgraves suggested listeners live their truth included rolling up joints, having sex before marriage, and locking lips with people of the same sex. “Make lots of noise/Kiss lots of boys/Or kiss lots of girls if that’s something you’re into,” she sang.
That “if that’s something you’re into” line didn’t sit well with the country music establishment, and a number of radio stations openly refused to play the song.
Musgraves took the controversy in her stride: “At first, I was like, ‘There’s going to be backlash,’” Musgraves told country site The Boot as the saga unfolded. “I know a lot of people don’t really agree with those things, especially in the South.”
As it turned out, it didn’t really matter whether country radio played it or not: ‘Follow Your Arrow’ crossed into the mainstream to become of the year’s biggest hits, and the album it came from — Same Trailer Different Park — ended up selling over half a million copies in the US alone.
At the 2014 Grammys, Same Trailer Different Park beat out Taylor Swift’s Red to take home Best Country Album. A new — very different — queen of country music was born.
She’s Dragging Country Music Into The 21st Century
Almost exactly a decade before Musgraves was making waves with ‘Follow Your Arrow’, Dixie Chicks’ singer Natalie Maines was receiving death threats for daring to criticise President George W. Bush.
While onstage in London in March 2003, Maines publicly condemned the growing military escalation by the US in Iraq, telling the crowd that the band “didn’t want this war”. To hammer the point home, she added: “Just so you know…we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas”.
The comment saw the Texan band banned from country radio across America. Protestors turned up at their shows, the group received death threats on a near-daily basis, and well-known radio commentators said on air that the three women needed to be “slapped around“.
Absurd though it was, the Dixie Chicks saga was a perfect example of just how conservative and rigid country music can be in America. It’s a scene where the smallest deviation from the status quo can mean exile. And it’s this world that Kacey Musgraves — a self-professed pot smoker and staunch LGBTIQ+ activist — has decided to make her home.
Only a couple of months before Musgraves released her second album, 2015’s Pageant Material, country music was embroiled in a sexist saga hilariously known as “Tomatogate“. A top radio consultant called Keith Hill had advised country programmers that they should treat female artists like “tomatoes” — that their music was used sparingly like tomatoes in a salad. “If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out,” Hill said.
Coincidentally, one of Pageant Material’s best tracks came in the form of ‘Good Ol Boys Club’, which skewered the blokey “handshakes and cigars” of the Nashville scene and country music record labels. She even slyly namechecked one of those labels: “[Being] another gear in a big machine don’t sound like fun to me.”
Big Machine Records is the label home to none other than Taylor Swift — but Musgraves insists the line wasn’t a dig, but rather a “wink” to Swift.
Meanwhile, in the years since ‘Follow Your Arrow’, Musgraves has played numerous LGBTQ+ events across the US, been interviewed by Pride websites, has written love letters to the queer community, and is apparently keen on collaborating with Rupaul’s Drag Race All Stars winner Trixie Mattel.
Golden Hour Is One Of The Best Records Of The Year
Musgraves is country through-and-through, but that doesn’t mean she’s averse to pushing the genre’s boundaries.
On her excellent new record Golden Hour, she stealthily introduces strings, synths and vocoders, and — on the excellent ‘High Horse’ — a classic funk bassline. The brash experimentation wouldn’t work for most country artists, but with Musgraves’ skilled songwriting and her twangy vocal gluing it all together, it makes perfect sense.
Her songwriting is painfully sharp, and also filled with wide-eyed lines that would be utterly corny in the hands of anyone else. Like this, from ‘Space Cowboy’: “Sunsets fade/And love does too”. She’s definitely not the first to make the comparison, but she’s probably the only one that pulls it off. Musgraves knows there’s power in simplicity.
There’s drug references, too. The mid-album track ‘Mother’ was entirely written while Musgraves was sitting on a couch with her husband tripping balls. Even if you didn’t know that before going into the song, the first verse probably would have clued you in:
Bursting with empathy, I’m feeling everything
The weight of the world on my shoulders
Hope my tears don’t freak you out
They’re just kinda coming out
It’s the music in me and all of the colours
The LSD reference didn’t please some of her fans, but Musgraves (as usual) refused to apologise for it:
There are also quietly beautiful missives on love (‘Love Is A Wild Thing’ and ‘Oh What A World’), as well as songs that explore the opposite end of the emotional spectrum (‘Happy & Sad’.) These are stories about everyday life and the quiet moments that happen thousands of times a day. In Musgraves’ hands, the mundane becomes extraordinary.
Golden Hour could have been Musgraves’ 1989 — a concerted move into the pop world. But instead of chasing Top 40 success, she dug her heels in and explored country music in her own way.
The mainstream will come to Kacey, not the other way around.
Jules LeFevre is Junkee’s Music Writer. She is on Twitter.