Is Kacey Musgraves Ready For the Country?

Kacey Musgraves crosses from country to pop star, according to The Grammy Awards committees. Maybe it’s time to leave genres to the historians. The marketplace has already moved on without them.

by Marshall Bowden

Can we talk about Kacey Musgraves for a minute? Musgraves has been a problem for country music at almost every step in her career thus far. Her debut, Same Trailer, Different Park upset some with subject matter that included adultery and drug use in a small town. Her follow-up, Pageant Material, was her most clearly country sounding record, but again she came at it with a skewed (read: female) perspective that alienated what might naturally have been her core audience.

Musgraves pivoted mightily for her next record, Golden Hour, which was fueled by her career takeoff, marriage, and an LSD trip or two. That record won her both Country Album of the Year and Album of the Year at the 61st Grammy Awards. Two songs, “Butterflies” and “Space Cowboy” won Best Country Solo Performance and Best Country Song, respectively. The American Country Music Association also awarded Golden Hour Album of the Year. 

It didn’t take a genius to recognize that Musgraves and her production team of Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian made a modern pop music record, defined as such because that is the category that is left when a record is not country, hip hop, rock, and nowadays it is where a lot of records end up because they are genre-bending exercises. One of the results of the democratization of musical creativity by technology has been that genre is increasingly a topic for academics and historians, rendered useless and ineffective in the marketplace. 

That point was made clearly when the Grammys announced that Kacey Musgraves’ 2021 record, star-crossed, will not be considered for Country Music Album of the Year. Instead it will be place in the pop music category.

Twitter and other social media venues exploded with outrage. After all, if Golden Hour was a country record, why not star-crossed? It was precisely the same songwriting and production team that made both records. Musgraves and her record label have complained to the Recording Academy and asked them to reconsider. 

I understand both points of view. On the other hand, I would never consider star-crossed to be a country album. It’s like saying that Highway 61 Revisited is a folk album. If you sat Kacey down with a guitar and had her perform some of these songs for you it’s likely that their roots would indeed evoke country music, but as recorded and released, with its swirls of dance and disco, psychedelic, eighties synth pop, and other genres and eras, they do not. 

On the other hand, there is no real difference between the way that Golden Hour and star-crossed sound. It opened with ‘Slow Burn’, a record that sounds country at first due to its acoustic guitar/vocal intro, but after the first verse/chorus, there are touches of spacey electronica. One reason I got drawn into Golden Hour was the way this reminded me of the seductive mix of acoustic and techno on Beth Orton’s Trailer Park, a record I dearly love. I mean, “Oh What A World” starts off with a vocoder intro that immediately evokes a Krautrock record from 1978 or maybe Daft Punk, depending on your age. Not very country.

But I think maybe I do know what made the difference in the Academy’s committee that reviews country albums for what I can only describe as ‘country-ness’. A number of tracks on Golden Hour, even those (like “Oh, What a World” above) with production drawn from other genres, feature the banjo. Five, by the recording credits. And though it isn’t used in a bluegrass sense, it provides a definite sound that most listeners will associate with country music.

Back in 1999 Sony Music asked singer/songwriter Sophie B. Hawkins to remove a banjo from her single “Lose Your Way” precisely because it took the track into a folksy/country vibe that clashed with the sophisticated urban veneer the label wanted her to have. The dispute caused Hawkins to leave the label and re-release the album, Timbre, independently. 

So while it might seem capricious for me to cite a lack of banjos on star-crossed as a reason it doesn’t sound country enough for the Grammy category, consider the fact that Kacey Musgraves’ new release credits banjo on only one track, “easier said,” and there it is part of a swirly studio effect that also incorporates steel guitar, another instrument that is included much less on this album than on Golden Hour (two tracks vs. six). These are aural signposts that signify a connection to country music, but on Musgraves’ new record they are increasingly relegated to the background or used for a novel sound, the way producers once used a sitar. That makes for great pop music records, but don’t think the gatekeepers of country music aren’t going to notice. 

Musgraves closes star-crossed with a one-two punch of diversity precisely when she is delivering the message at the other end of her contemplation of her divorce and the turmoil of her life in the last couple of years. “there is a light” moves from an electro beat to an all-out disco rave complete with a jazzy flute solo by Jim Hoke. “gracias a la vida” by Violetta Parra was considered by its composer to be a ‘humanist hymn’ and it has a rich musical and social history in Chile as well as having been popularized in the States by Joan Baez in the 1970s. 

But the song has a somber side: Parra committed suicide the year after she wrote “Gracias a la Vida,” and the ambiguous lyrics can be read as both a romantic embrace of life and a message of farewell. Musgraves and her team apply a lot of studio effects to the piece, including the vocoder again. 

I guess in the end I have to wonder why Kacey Musgraves cares so much about getting awards from the country side of things. If she were happy being a country artist she would have made far different records. I’m not arguing against the records she has made, in fact I would suggest that we need these records a lot more than the records that Nashville would like for her to make. I just think she needs to accept that she’s bigger than country music and move on.

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