Kacey Musgraves has released the best album of her career, but you're unlikely to hear any singles from it on country radio. If that begs the question of whether a musician can be a superstar and be ignored by their radio format, you need to catch up on the history of Loretta Lynn. Listeners of the podcast Cocaine & Rhinestones got a history lesson in an episode about Lynn, who had no less than 14 singles banned from radio play. In fact, it became her business model to sell records when she and her team realised that the curiosity of being banned drove as many sales as the radio for her.
It feels relevant to Musgraves' situation, as she's been often compared to Lynn for her progressive lyrics and plainspoken, down-home girl who likes to rock sequins on the stage vibe (not to mention the fact that they're both brunettes, which is, oddly, rare in country music). Oh, and because she's got a new album out, Golden Hour, that has been near universally proclaimed a masterpiece, but nary a single on Billboard's Country Radio chart during its release week. She hasn't been banned, because that rarely happens these days. But she's not begging radio to play her, either.
"Loretta was just doing her job as a songwriter, taking things that affect everyday people and putting them into songs," Musgraves told Refinery29 on a recent phone call. "That's why country music is such an iconic genre. It's songs for the working man, songs for people with broken hearts. I feel like I'm not really doing anything different. I'm just carrying the tradition on. We would never forge ahead in any artistic or creative way if everyone were scared to push boundaries."
But, she said, she doesn't even see the lines that draw a tight map of what is and isn't country (which are always up for debate) as real boundaries. "With songs like 'Follow Your Arrow,' I'm taking things that genuinely affected me and putting them to music," she says. "There [is] always going to be a conservative mindset out there, especially in country music, and that's fine. To each his own."
Those with a conservative mindset probably won’t have a problem with the lyrics on this album, which are mostly about falling in love, but they might not be fans of the music, which has a distinctly feminine bent. The words "disco influence" have been mentioned, but don't think of it as Urban Cowboy for the 21st century. Musgraves describes it as more "futurism meeting traditionalism," where she, as a co-producer on the album, sets bluegrass instruments like the steel guitar and banjo, next to country's '70s aesthetic where the hop over to pop wasn't far at all. She uses vocoder (inspired, she says, by Electric Light Orchestra) and vibraphone, along with some arrangements that mix a slew of influences she names, from Dolly Parton to Neil Young to Daft Punk.
"I didn't want to get so off the rails that people couldn't recognise my spirit and character through these albums, but I wanted them to see me taking country music on a journey — a galactic journey," Musgraves said.
While the music is a ride on a rocket ship, the subject matter is decidedly worldly: love is the drug. There is a bit of sadness, in the form of songs like "Space Cowboy" and "Happy & Sad," but there is a lot of amorousness for love itself and for the wonder that is the world, at least when you're in love. From "Oh, What a World" to the album's first single "Butterflies," Musgraves makes you want to see the world like she does, as a place full of hope and happiness. It's not an easy vibe to pull off, Musgraves will admit. "I've never been the kind of singer that has a super acrobatic voice. I've always shaped my voice to fit whatever the song needs. And I'm usually in a conversational lane because it's more about the lyrics for me. This time, as much as it was about the lyrics, we wanted to have a classic female singer element reminiscent of these big hits from the '70s where there were vocal modulations and more air to coast on, more movement in the arrangements."
If you haven't listened to country radio recently, let me assure you: none of that describes what's at the top of the charts in the format. That's not to say that Musgraves' singles couldn't stand shoulder to shoulder with the songs that are being played. They could, and they'd pass any authenticity tests you could throw at them. What strikes me is how unabashedly Musgraves, and her influences, embrace the feminine, which is practically a political statement in a genre whose mainstream has knowingly eschewed women for the vast majority of its history. While I doubt that's something Musgraves had in mind as an agenda when she made it, I do know that for her it feels damn good to make just the kind of country songs she wants to.
"From day one I've just wanted to be myself, and if that lends itself to having only 10 listeners versus 10,000, I'd rather have [the former], hands down," Musgraves said when asked about not courting radio play on this album. Later she continues, saying, "I love country music; it has my heart. If radio wants to play it, of course, that will make me happy. But getting anyone to like or to play the music will never affect the way that it comes out. It will be what it will be, and I have to have hope that this music will spread by word of mouth because people connect to it. That is more powerful than any radio signal, really."