When Kacey Musgraves attended the Country Music Association Awards in November, she decided to wear the pants: black Versace ones, to be exact, with gold beaded fringe. “I wanted to show up in a suit,” she says, calling from her tour bus in Oklahoma. “When I found out Versace was interested in making me one, I was like, ‘Shit, that’s what I’m going to fucking do.’ ” Musgraves didn’t get to hit the CMA after-party circuit with particular gusto, though — she had a show the next day in the Sooner state and bus call was at midnight.
The suit was classic and modern all at once, with a glistening, cosmic-cowgirl sheen — not unlike Musgraves’ third album, Golden Hour, which placed second on Rolling Stone’s list of the best of 2018. The LP was inspired in part by her marriage to singer Ruston Kelly, and it explores the glory of true love, the ambiguity of death and the wonder in things as simple as neon fish. (Musgraves dropped acid while writing, which may have helped.) Golden Hour debuted at Number Four on the charts and gave the native Texan a broader fan base far beyond the country community, making her a fitting tourmate for Harry Styles last spring. (“It’s impossible to listen to [Musgraves] too much,” Styles tweeted.) Golden Hour also garnered her four Grammy nominations, including a nod for Album of the Year.
The past year also saw Musgraves continue to grow into a full-scale international star: not only did she traverse Europe, she hit the Global Citizens Festival in South Africa, headlined the U.K.’s massive C2C festival and brought Golden Hour to Japan, where she has rabid fans in love with her glittery maximalism. On a trip to Tokyo this summer she was even fitted with her own kimono, complete with shimmery peonies. While country music has certainly seen a growing market abroad, few Nashville acts have been able to craft the kind of career that feels truly, flexibly global. Musgraves, with music that respects the boundaries of the genre while feeling fully empowered to push and pull them at her will — and a belief system based more around equal rights and environmental reverence than Music Row’s traditional conservatism — is one of those few.
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So when Musgraves finally landed back in Nashville “after a whole month of being super balls to the wall in Europe and the U.K.,” taking home Album of the Year at the CMAs meant more than just any old trophy: it was a blinking neon sign that Nashville artists don’t need to stick to genre norms or have significant radio play to make music that resonates. And that, every once in a while, Chris Stapleton can actually lose something. “I’ve now learned that you don’t want to be nominated in any category with Stapleton,” says Musgraves, who was up against his LP, From A Room: Volume 2. “He’ll fucking win.”
This time, however, he didn’t. Despite its sonic risks and very little of that prized airplay, the country music community embraced Golden Hour (it’s a fair bet the album will do well at the Grammys in February, too). From the yee-haw disco of “High Horse” to the futuristic “Oh What a World,” it’s a seamless journey more worried about pace, tone and flow than spiking in a bunch of bangers for posterity’s sake. Still, in the studio alongside co-producers Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, Musgraves worried from time to time about whether or not it was a little too “sleepy.” But not for long. “Bon Iver is not sitting there worried about tempo,” she says, citing the songwriter known for his atmospheric, dreamy beats. Musgraves wasn’t concerned with genre rules either, incorporating vocoder alongside plenty of trippy-meets-traditional steel guitar.
When Golden Hour came out in March, it set itself apart from the very beginning. Instead of the customary Music City schmooze-fest, Musgraves launched the LP with a party at a planetarium (for Pageant Material, she hosted a similar shindig at a drag show). “Nashville is the worst for listening parties, because no one ever listens,” she says. “I wondered, ‘How can we make it so it’s not just people in bar, not listening to what you have to say?’ It made me want to go on a planetarium tour, to different planetariums around America.”
That setting is appropriate, too, as Golden Hour is the type of record that can make you ponder existence at the same time as finding a sense of peace in everything we don’t know or cannot possibly understand. It’s a look-up-at-the-sky kind of collection, particularly potent if you are docked next to someone you love. But it doesn’t provide concrete answers so much as offer a new way to view the unfathomable — even making the possibility of external non-existence pretty damn palatable.
“I think it’s pretty rad that no one knows what happens after we die,” she says, her bus chugging through a spotty service zone somewhere in Oklahoma — eternally on the road, she’s not even sure where she is at the moment. “It’s life’s ultimate mystery. We live in a time when everyone thinks they have a million reasons why they’re right. It’s nice there’s some mystery left. And, in a way, as uncertain and scary as [death] is, it’s really such a uniting factor. No matter what side of the coin you are on, it puts us all on the same playing field.”
“There is so much suffering and it’s a crazy, chaotic time. I wanted to give people a little bit of a hiding place.”
Musgraves is a fan of the idea of reincarnation, something she ponders on “Oh What a World,” both a note to slow down and take in the beauty around us and a reminder that none of it — not us, not the flowers, not the ground below — is permanent. Love, however, is the most reliable salve we have. “Are we here just once, or a billion times?” she sings, her voice drifting through like the scenery from a car window. “Well I wish I knew, but it doesn’t matter/ cause you’re here right now, and I know what I feel.”
She likes manifestations, too — and how songs can snuggle up inside people’s brains and change their mood, their outlook and beyond. In the Trump era (Musgraves doesn’t tend to talk about which political figures or parties she supports, but “you can probably figure it out”), that’s something she thought people needed more than ever, particularly when it came to infusing positivity. “I really believe hardcore in manifestation,” Musgraves explains. “I know there is so much suffering and it’s a crazy, chaotic time. I just wanted to give people a little bit of positive manifestation and beauty. A little bit of a hiding place.”
And it is. Golden Hour would have worked as well in 2008 as it did in 2018, but the context of this tumultuous year only made the songs that more potent. It also made moments like the exquisite album closer, “Rainbow,” written as a love letter to the LGBTQ community, mean even more than a rousing, burn-it-all-down protest song. “It’s hard to breathe when all you know is the struggle of staying above the rising water line,” she sings to a tender piano riff. Musgraves, too, has endured plenty of that furious need to tread water.
So when she played “Slow Burn” on stage at the CMAs, it was the perfect moment of reflection: it was 10 years to the day that Musgraves moved to Nashville from Golden, Texas (yes, that’s part of the “gold” in Golden Hour, and the warm comforts of home). “Slow Burn,” appropriately, is a pristine meditation on going slow in love and life, as well as in a career rife with personal details. “It’s a storytelling song,” she says. “Nothing is more country than that.”
Though she’ll be headed to L.A. for the Grammy Awards in February, she’s going to take a bit of that holiday downtime. Musgraves, lover of all things that glitter and glow, is particularly keen on Christmas, even though, as she sings on A Very Kacey Christmas, it can make her melancholy sometimes (her “Christmas Makes Me Cry” is a precursor of sorts to Golden Hour‘s “Happy and Sad,” proving that Musgraves has always been tuned into life’s most cruel riddle that all good things must come to an end).
It’s why when everyone else is kissing and toasting on New Year’s Eve, as the ball begins to drop, she’s the one tearing up. “I always cry during the countdown for some reason,” she says. “The sheer fact of leaving something behind, even though I am excited to step forward. I always get really melancholy.”
— K A C E Y M U S G R A V E S (@KaceyMusgraves) December 19, 2018
There’s a lot to step forward to in 2019. Musgraves is hitting the road on her Oh What a World Tour, with openers Natalie Prass, Soccer Mommy, Liza Anne and Sinclair — a mixed bag of styles, though each of the artists “write kickass songs.” “She’s going out of her way to take cool young artists on the road, even ones with different sounds from hers,” says Soccer Mommy, a.k.a Sophie Allison, “and that’s really important.” Musgraves will also appear Friday night as a guest judge on VH1’s RuPaul’s Drag Race in the most extra western-wear ever created. And, of course, there’s that Grammy ceremony.
“It was really important for me to bring my version of country music to a different group of people,” she says. “I didn’t want to leave country behind. I just wanted to look at it a different way.”