Country music’s always had a reputation for being resistant to change. Which is one of the reasons Kacey Musgraves’ iconoclastic rise to the top has been so fun to watch.
In 2018, a significant number of people discovered that they—who would have ever guessed—do, in fact, like country music, thanks to Kacey Musgraves’s Golden Hour. A few months into the album’s rippling success, Musgraves acknowledged those new fans with a blessing: “Welcome to the yee yee club[.]” (She used more…colorful language.)
Many of the yee yee club’s newest recruits had no doubt avoided country music prior to Golden Hour out of a sense that the style hasn’t evolved out of the stereotypical primordial backwoods honky tonk. But while Nashville may be the most traditionally-minded genre in American pop music, it still grows and changes like most other human endeavors: in fits and starts, with long stretches of stasis punctuated by moments of rapid transition sparked by innovators with both vision and the ability to change peoples’ minds. Innovators like Kacey Musgraves.
Kacey’s most obviously boundary-pushing quality is the worldview she expresses in her music. On its surface, her 2013 debut Same Trailer, Different Park, could be mistaken typical mainstream country radio fare, with pitch-perfect crystal-clear vocals, and plucky guitar riffs mixed to a superhuman level of polish. But its biggest hit, “Follow Your Arrow” — the chorus of which famously features the line “kiss lots of boys, or kiss lots of girls, if that’s what you’re into”—introduced Kacey as country’s latest progressively-political misfit, part of a long heritage of upstarts that stretches back to the genre’s earliest days. Her follow up, 2015’s Pageant Material, explored similarly “taboo” themes of sexuality and sexism, including a track called “Good Ol’ Boys Club” that called out gender inequality in the music industry. (The album also gave us the unforgettable line “Mind your biscuits and life will be gravy,” which has been used as an Instagram caption shockingly often by people who have never lived south of Central Jersey.)
Innovation has become one of Kacey’s trademarks. The waves she’s been making in music that have rearranged a lot of ideas about who listens to what that once seemed carved in stone.
Golden Hour felt as if it had struck like lightning, thanks to the amount of musical innovation that Kacey poured into it. It seemed to be equal parts “authentic” country and a Top 40 radio friendly version of it, and not only was it a commercial success, but it was musically cool, which was another of her gifts as an innovator. Though aspects of the album leaned more classically pop than her previous releases, she seemed nervier and more stripped down than she’d ever been before. “Slow Burn,” the album’s opener, is a spacy, folk-tinged ode to taking it easy; “Lonely Weekend” is a dissection of the sweetness and sorrow of FOMO in the form of a soft pop track. “High Horse,” one of the album’s lead singles, is almost straight dance pop, while the short-and-bittersweet “Mother” finds Musgraves’s vocals accompanied only by collaborator Daniel Tashian’s piano. Her lyrics seemed more explicitly personal, largely leaving behind the platitudes and character work of typical mainstream country for love songs about her husband, her family, and the world at large.
Kacey’s look had always been curated to a certain degree, just like any big time performer, but since Golden Hour her aesthetic has achieved a kind of neon cosmic psychedelic glam, like if Loretta Lynn had been a guest star on The Jetsons. The ruffles on her dresses became almost big enough to be obscene, and her rhinestone jumpsuit were suddenly composed only of rhinestones. Like Dolly Parton and Bobbie Gentry, she’s taken the level of gloss and glamor that women in country music are expected to maintain and turned it up so far that it’s become both a commentary on those expectations and a way of blowing them completely out of the water. That’s the kind of innovation that’s become one of Kacey’s trademarks. And it’s what’s driving the waves that she’s been making in the music world, which have been big enough to rearrange a lot of ideas about who listens to what that once seemed carved in stone. By switching up country’s traditional aesthetics while staying true to its core, she’s made room for a whole new wave of listeners. She’s blazing a trail not just for herself, but for anyone who’s felt left out of the country narrative before. As she’s shown us, the yee yee club welcomes all kinds.