There’s a certain poetic justice about Kacey Musgraves winning Album of the Year at Sunday’s Grammy awards — seven years ago this month, the then unknown artist from Texas made her debut at Country Radio Seminar (CRS) as part of Universal Music Group’s annual luncheon at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. The goal, as with every CRS, was to introduce a new artist to country radio’s gatekeepers.
With her grandparents sitting in the pews, Musgraves made quite the impression, stunning the audience with her song “Merry Go ‘Round.” She made them laugh, cry and talk for weeks about her lyrics that so honestly captured the stifling pull of small-town life. Those in the room that day often remember it as one of those unforgettable, star-making moments — Ally walking onstage to sing “Shallow,” except with a Lone Star twang and an upright bass player.
But “Merry Go ‘Round” never exploded on Billboard‘s Country Airplay chart. Instead, it peaked at Number 10, while songs like Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” Dierks Bentley’s “5-1-5-0” and Luke Bryan’s “Drunk on You” topped that particular chart that year. Still, Musgraves kept pushing songs from her 2013 debut album, Same Trailer Different Park, to radio: first, “Blowin’ Smoke” (which peaked at Number 23 on Country Airplay); then “Follow Your Arrow” (Number 43), which some conservative stations blocked for its LGBTQ-inclusive lyricism; and a final single, “Keep It to Yourself,” which died in the Thirties.
On Music Row, that’s considered consecutive failures. But in the critical world, Same Trailer Different Park became a country classic, and won Best Country Album at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards that year. If Musgraves had stopped pushing her material to country radio then and there, no one could blame her. They weren’t playing her songs and, as she eventually spoke to Reese Witherspoon about in the actress’s series Shine on With Reese, it wasn’t a fair playing field. “One thing I’ve experienced as a woman on this path,” Musgraves told Witherspoon, “is I can be meeting the same radio station people or people in the industry as a male artist, but there’s an extra pressure on me to be accommodating or nice.”
Even so, Musgraves soldiered on. To support 2015’s Pageant Material, she returned to CRS to play “Biscuits,” the album’s first single. It barely did better than “Follow Your Arrow,” never charting higher than 41 on Country Airplay. “Dime Store Cowgirl” saw a similar end at 44. But Pageant Material, a pitch-perfect work of stoned Countrypolitan, found itself nominated for a Grammy and a CMA Award. Radio, however, wasn’t biting.
So when it came time to promote Golden Hour, Musgraves was faced with a decision: whether or not to devote more promotional budget and time into pushing radio singles. It’s not that Musgraves and her label offered nothing to the airwaves — “Space Cowboy” and “Butterflies” were delivered for rotation, with the latter peaking at Number 56. But it quickly became clear that radio wasn’t going to play ball, or at least Musgraves’ type of country music. And thus, she moved on.
We all know how the story ended: Musgraves won Album of the Year at the Grammys and Sunday’s ceremonies were seen as a triumph for country and Americana in general, but especially for women in those genres. Brandi Carlile, after winning three awards, blew the world away with her performance of “The Joke” and instantly saw the song and her LP By the Way, I Forgive You among the top entries on iTunes. The mainly women tribute to Dolly Parton, including nominee Maren Morris, was a performance highlight, and Best New Artist nominee Margo Price had her profile boosted. In fact, female artists dominated the broadcast overall, from Best New Artist winner Dua Lipa to the Grammys’ wry host Alicia Keys.
Just prior to Musgraves’ Grammy performance of her soothing ballad “Rainbow,” the singer’s label MCA unveiled a music video for the track — and also delivered the song to country radio as a single. The move gives country radio another opportunity to stay on pace with both critical acclaim and public consumption: “Rainbow,” from the Album of the Year Golden Hour, is currently Number Five on iTunes’ top songs, with the album itself at Number One. MCA is putting muscle behind the song too, including reportedly hiring an independent promoter to work it to smaller markets. So far, it’s received 37 adds at country radio, right behind Mitchell Tenpenny’s “Alcohol You Later” and Dan + Shay’s “All By Myself.”
But this is where it gets tough for Musgraves, and for women in general, when it comes to radio. To enter the “testing” phase — meaning the make-it-or-break-it stage that ultimately determines a song’s fate — a song usually needs to crack the Top 30. If it tests well, it moves further up the chart. But for a female artist’s song to test well, it helps for the artist to be familiar to listeners. To be familiar, she has to first be played. It’s the classic catch-22 scenario.
And even Grammy recognition isn’t guaranteed to move the needle at country radio. Musgraves may have newfound familiarity, but that hasn’t traditionally translated to airplay. See Sturgill Simpson, Vince Gill, Dixie Chicks and Loretta Lynn, all winners with no corresponding hits to match.
On Wednesday, the 2019 edition of CRS kicks off in Nashville, and Musgraves’ “Rainbow” is at radio. Two women will make their debut at the same Universal luncheon where Musgraves appeared seven years ago: the songwriters Kassi Ashton and Caylee Hammack. Like Musgraves, it’s possible that they’ll wow the room and embark on their own highly promoted song launches, which country radio can either deem a hit or ignore. Sadly, the odds aren’t in their favor.
But it’s not Ashton, Hammack or even Musgraves’ job to fix that problem. All they expect is the fair chance to compete. As Musgraves sings in “Rainbow,” “It’s hard to breathe when all you know is the struggle of stayin’ above the rising water line.”