In 2012, a little-known artist made her way up to the upper echelons of the country music airplay chart with a sharp and cutting bit of societal commentary entitled “Merry Go ‘Round.” That artist was Kacey Musgraves. The single was a seen as a major victory for the genre. In the heart of the bro-country movement, a young female singer-songwriter infiltrated the A-list with one of the most intelligent and thoughtful singles of the decade. It dominated year-end lists, and offered the perfect platform for her 2013 debut project, Same Trailer, Different Park.
Musgraves’ rise to “powerhouse” status seemed well underway; the album was met with almost universal acclaim for its wit and stark social commentary. It took home the Grammy for Best Country Album and the ACM Award for Album of the Year (though it controversially lost its CMA bid to Blake Shelton’s Based on a True Story…).
She took home the CMA Award for Best New Artist, beating out rising heavyweight duo Florida Georgia Line. The next year, she took home the CMA Award for Song of the Year with “Follow Your Arrow,” a fan and critical favorite that earned praise (as well as backlash) for its open embrace of LGBTQ+ themes and marijuana use. The industry appeared to be behind her. What wasn’t, evidently, was radio.
Despite the success of her debut single, its follow-up, the romping “Blowin’ Smoke,” scraped the top-25, while the aforementioned “Follow Your Arrow” (despite strong sales numbers and a top-10 placement on the blended Hot Country Songs chart) didn’t even get to the top 40. And though the choice for her third single proved safer, the poignant “Keep It to Yourself” achieved a peak of #32.
This proved to be a running theme throughout Musgraves’ first few album eras: a growing profile, status as a critical darling, with radio unwilling to get behind her. She embraced her role as an outsider, and has been outspoken about the problems plaguing country radio. It endeared her to her fans and outside observers. In terms of airplay, however, it did not appear to be a winning strategy.
Her 2015 sophomore era was led off by “Biscuits,” a single following a similar formula seen on her debut project. Despite critical buzz, it again failed to register meaningful chart impact: a #41 peak, despite a top-30 placement on the flawed-though-sometimes-revealing Hot Country Songs chart. “Dime Store Cowgirl,” a more radio-friendly offering, suffered a similar fate (a peak of #44). The backdrop was a familiar story: Grammy and CMA nominations for the work. Still, however, there appeared to be little room for Musgraves on the airwaves.
The thing is, she didn’t particularly seem to care. After a three year gap, she released her most recent output, Golden Hour. The anticipation was rampant among genre diehards. Pre-release tracks “Butterflies” and (especially) “Space Cowboy” were met with widespread acclaim. Conversations of gender inequity within the genre were gaining steam, and added clout to what Musgraves’ long-awaited third album could mean.
Upon its release, the narratives and reaction were somewhat predictable (even if the music itself was not—it was Musgraves’ most eclectic and unique work to-date). Some used the politically-tinged songwriting of her past to apply a similar view to Golden Hour (an absurd reading of the album by most any interpretation). Some railed against it is a push of the genre towards the barriers of pop. Despite this disjointed punditry, however, the unconventional project was gaining steam.
Commercially, it reached the top spot on the country album sales chart. It won the CMA Album of the Year award, this time against somewhat longer odds than her debut. Just as predictable as the praise-filled storylines succeeding the album was ignorance it received from radio gatekeepers. It seemed as though, yet again, Musgraves’ wide appeal and viability would be ignored by those who control the radio sphere.
And then the 2019 Grammy’s happened.
Musgraves dominated the show, winning Country Album of the Year, Country Solo Performance of the Year (“Butterflies”), Country Song of the Year (“Space Cowboy”), and the big one, the all-genre Album of the Year award. Her performance of her most recent single, “Rainbow,” garnered attention and acclaim. Golden Hour rocketed back up the album sales charts, while “Rainbow” reached #38 on the airplay chart in just three weeks, outperforming almost all of her radio efforts to-date. Her appearance at the Oscar’s then put her, once again, in the limelight. It was a remarkable display, and one that could have grand ramifications for the genre at-large.
To understand just what impact such an explosive burst of attention could have, one need look no further than Chris Stapleton-mania in 2015. Relatively unknown outside the critical realm, he took home three major awards at the 2015 CMA Awards show, and didn’t look back from there. He dominated sales charts, sent singles to the upper echelons of the airplay rankings, and has consistently ranked among the genre’s best performing artists since then.
With his solid artistic presence and authentic persona, he pushed the genre towards a more traditional and meaningful version of itself. Musgraves could do similar things. If Musgraves is able to leverage her newfound—or, arguably, refound—stardom into a permanent spot in radio rotation, it will break barriers in terms of genre quality. It will normalize reflective and substantial songwriting in the mainstream, which has long been a central rallying point of critics.
She could also establish herself as the face of gender parity in country music. It’s a subject that has been written about regularly over the past handful of years, with many lamenting the genre’s inability to develop sustained and impactful female stars. For whatever reasons, country radio phased out Miranda Lambert, and is seemingly doing so with Carrie Underwood, though to a lesser extent (“Cry Pretty” and “Love Wins” have been among her least successful hits in recent memory). Could Musgraves change the conversation? It’s certainly possible. What makes the situation unique is the grassroots nature of the movement. There is a legitimate and undeniable demand for her style of country music, and it might just be impossible for radio to ignore.
The recent ACM Award nominations reinforce these promising trends. She received nods for Female Vocalist of the Year, Album of the Year, and Song of the Year (again for “Space Cowboy”). She’s the arguable frontrunner for each category, and will almost certainly be given a performance slot at April’s ceremony. What follows could be extravagant. Is a CMA Entertainer of the Year nomination (or even a win) out of the question this coming Fall? Could Musgraves be the face of a wave of rising women in country music? The likes of Ashley McBryde (who also received an ACM Female Vocalist nomination) and Tenille Townes (the most recent iHeartRadio On the Verge selection) feel like possible beneficiaries of Musgraves’ openness about these topics and her subsequent dominance of the public spotlight.
The importance of Kacey Musgraves’ emergence as a star in country music cannot be understated. She will serve as an ambassador and role model for young women, showing that they can indeed be change-makers in the genre. She’s a reminder that substance can in fact prevail in a sea of generic platitudes. She looks to become one of the faces of the genre, and for many, it’s been a long time coming.
No longer is she isolated to bloggers’ year-end lists, or an example given about frustrations with gender inequality or the shallowness of lyricism. She is taking these conversations to the mainstream, and in the process, changing what it means to be a country music superstar. For Kacey Musgraves, it’s yet another well-deserved step in a career already full of noteworthy moments. For country music, however, it may be just the beginning.