Musgraves showcases unexpected talent in Golden Hour
Alicia Keys’ surprise announcement of Golden Hour as Album of the Year at the 61st Annual Grammy Awards caught most of us off guard. Between Musgraves’ own immediate astonishment and many viewers’ “Wait, who is she?” moment, it’s easy to wonder how an album yet to certify gold and virtually unheard of on radio managed to rack up four Grammys in one night.
Perhaps even more intriguing are the likely reasons for its radio silence and critical success: unparalleled genre challenges, inventive lyricism with artistic risk, and the fact that so many simply connected with it.
Kacey Musgraves has never been traditional country. In fact, it’s probably easier to argue over what traditional country is than for anyone to actually fit inside it—Musgraves has consistently shown contention over Nashville’s obsession with an “I’m more traditional country than you” attitude. Her breakout record, 2013’s “Merry Go Round,” was an honest, slow-country story song that introduced her unique brand of subversive lyricism to the world.
That soon evolved to the LGBT-affirming lyrics of “Follow Your Arrow,” a positive hook-heavy anthem that was promptly shut down by country radio at large. When a queer fan described the feeling of country music as being “a big party that I wasn’t invited to,” Musgraves shot back with an “Oh my god, you’re invited to my party. It’s crazy that a certain kind of a person could feel excluded from a genre that’s so real—or supposed to be so real. That has always really pissed me off.” Her irritation must have mended as her diverse audience only grew; her performance of “Rainbow,” an angelic serenade for any struggling person under the rainbow, was the perfect culmination of her progression mere minutes before her big win.
Thankfully, she built on the solid and disruptive bedrock of her 2013 debut, Same Trailer Different Park, crafting a forward-thinking first studio album that echoes country songwriting while simultaneously bending its DNA and riding it into the future.
“Born in a hurry, always late / Haven’t been early since ’88 / Texas is hot, I can be cold / Grandma cried when I pierced my nose,” she sings amid the strums of album opener “Slow Burn.” One thing Musgraves has always had in common with Nashville is a particular lyrical precision. Before Hour, Musgraves was known for lines playfully sharp, plentiful in wordplay and detailed description. Although the lyrics on Hour are often grounded, production tends to drift into the galactic. “Space Cowboy,” fresh off a Grammy win, is forlorn and steadfast as Musgraves’ crystal voice echoes majestically into what sounds like deep space. “You can have your space cowboy / I ain’t gonna fence you in,” she croons alongside string plucks before repeating lyrics through a vocoder that sounds as if her signature twang is being abducted by aliens.
Although her brand of music has been genre-shamed before, Golden Hour stands on its own as a solid, clear step forward into uncharted territory. It’s her most cohesive work while simultaneously holding the title of most adventurous. Instead of playing within the pastures of expected country, Musgraves focuses on reinventing genre tropes and ushering in new experimental sounds. She even managed to compliment country croons with disco beats on “High Horse” with remarkable cohesion. Her personal life is illustrated with newfound liberation, focusing as much on everyday beauty as big-picture gratefulness and introspection. It’s almost as if she’s experiencing everything anew with childlike wonder, then making paradoxically metaphoric observations of them.
There’s no one like Musgraves, in or apart from country music. Golden Hour is a masterstroke in genre-bending experimentation, illuminating the respectful and intrepid progression of an artist as well as a genre as a whole. It’s Kacey Musgraves’ golden hour, and she just might have daringly ushered us into an undefined golden age.