On a dreary afternoon in late March, Kacey Musgraves pulls up to a Walgreens in the town of Sioux City, which sits at the intersection of South Dakota, Nebraska, and Iowa, tucked just inside the border of the latter. She’s here supporting country behemoths Little Big Town on a tour that is approaching the end of a run through cities in the Upper Midwest–Duluth, Grand Forks, Cedar Rapids–where the populations are small but the appetite for country music is vast. At the end of the night, a snaking line of hulking tour buses housing superstars, band members, crew, staff, and gear will depart on a 14-hour drive back to Nashville for a week off the road. But for now, she has a quick errand to take care of.
We came here to pick up some toiletries for the road, but walking into the store, Musgraves is immediately distracted by its expansive and prominent Easter aisle. Scanning the shelves of chocolate and eggs, she picks up and puts down dozens of items in various shades of blue, yellow, and pink. “I love the aesthetic of Easter,” she says, asking me to take her photo in front of the rows of pastel candy. She eyes the shelves of chocolate and toys, and realizes she has an excuse to indulge: the children of the various members of Little Big Town have joined their parents on the road, and Musgraves wants to surprise them with treats.
The singer could easy blend into this quiet town, but today she would be hard to miss. Musgraves is wearing a sky blue fur coat (which she keeps on all day and then later onstage) over a white sweatsuit printed with pastel-colored marijuana leaves. It’s an exceedingly chill outfit for someone who needs it. The previous night, a loud creaking sound on her tour bus—a recording of which she plays for me and later posts to her Instagram story—had kept her from sleeping. She has also been filling gaps in this tour with trips to the United Kingdom (for headlining shows) and Mexico (for video shoots). She’s promoting her third album, Golden Hour, a stunning and unexpected follow-up to her Grammy-winning debut Same Trailer, Different Park and 2015’s Pageant Material. The record is her most personal yet, a lyrical and sonic reflection on new love and marriage that doesn’t aim to answer the nagging question of where she stands in modern country music. Instead, it uses a new palette to sidestep the question altogether, presenting a familiar but entirely new Kacey Musgraves to the world.
By the time we leave, Musgraves has spent $120 on a haul that includes five bags of sour Haribo gummies (mostly for her, though she insists I take one home), three neon, squishy stress relievers in the shape of ice cream cones, chocolate eggs, and eggs filled with confetti, excited to have stumbled on something to help break up the protracted monotony of tour life. Later, hanging backstage before the show, she gets Little Big Town’s kids, merrily rollerblading around the venue, to smash the eggs over her head, leaving pink, blue, yellow, and orange dots in her hair. She debates leaving them in for her performance—a shimmery kaleidoscope of colors that represents her current state of mind.
Earlier in the day, we were sitting at Crave, a regional “fusion” chain Musgraves found on Yelp that rests next to the Missouri River in the shadow of the arena where she’s playing tonight and a Hard Rock Hotel & Casino where I’ll later lose money playing roulette. Musgraves’s new album comes out in a week, and she’s reflecting on the year-plus she spent making it.
“Last year was the year of change for me. You can’t imagine how many things changed for me. Business management, booking agency, band members, tour manager, front of house person,” she says. “I needed new blood. New producers, new songwriters, almost every single thing changed. New energy.”
Where Musgraves had previously worked closely with a small group of collaborators headlined by the songwriters Shane McAnally and Luke Laird, Golden Hour was created with a different team: Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian, two Nashville-based songwriters and session players who Musgraves knew previously but had never written with. (Fitchuk played on Pageant Material and Tashian had met Musgraves years prior for a songwriting session that produced good conversation but no songs.)
The biggest change in her life, though, is a more personal, if visible one. After spending over a year on tour supporting Pageant Material, Musgraves split from Misa Arriaga, her then-boyfriend who also played guitar and sang in her band. Feeling drained, uninspired, and in her words, confused, she told her label and the rest of the band that she needed time off.
“‘What the fuck do I do?’,” she remembers asking herself. “I was in a weird place personally. I was getting out of a long relationship, I didn’t have a lot of self-confidence. I didn’t feel great about myself, so I needed time to figure it out again.”
One winter night in Nashville, where she lives, she went to a showcase for songwriters in the industry and encountered the singer and songwriter Ruston Kelly, who was there performing.
“He just fucking floored me. He, like, stuck a knife in my heart and twisted it. It was so good,” she says of that night. “I don’t know if you’re a fan of John Prine, but his songwriting kinda reminded me a little of John’s. I love that style, so, I was like ‘Damn, who is this? I wanna write with you!’” (Musgraves thinks that he didn’t know who she was when she gave him her number later in the night, which she says she never normally would do.) But despite her forwardness, she says she wasn’t ready to get back into a relationship.
“He would text every now and then like, ‘Hey, you should come grab a drink,’ and I would just delete the text. I didn’t even respond, but we had a writing date set for May,” she says. “It rolled around and to be honest I was kinda dreading it, because it takes a lot of effort to open yourself up to someone new, and in your own house, too. I was still in a sad place kinda.”
Those reservations melted away when they finally met up.
“When he came to my house and walked through my door, I was just like…,” and here she trails off and sighs happily. “He knocked down these walls I feel like I had put up and he made me truly laugh again. We laughed our asses off. It just felt so good, like a weight lifted off my shoulders.” In October of 2017, Musgraves and Kelly got married.
Consequently, and unsurprisingly, Golden Hour is an album that is both about and informed by the sort of love that sweeps you away. “Butterflies,” the first song Musgraves wrote after meeting Kelly, is about how the excitement of a new crush can make you feel like you’ve rediscovered yourself. It comes from an entirely different place than her previous two albums, which won her acclaim and some radio play thanks to biting songs about small town life. Some of Musgraves’s best songs are about relationships, but those were digressions within albums that probed the values of the East Texas city she grew up in.
Golden Hour is country music of an entirely different sort. Where Musgraves’s first two records relied heavily on instruments like banjo and pedal steel that served mostly to foreground the strength and wit of her songwriting, her new one expands the definition of her music considerably. It is an extremely well-produced and richly textured record that the singer describes as “galactic country,” and, indeed, its expansiveness recalls the wonder of staring up at the kind of starry night sky that seems to envelop you. Where Musgraves’s career to this point has been defined by her sound, Golden Hour is an album defined by its sounds: silken reverb and misty harmonizing, rippling guitar lines and bubbly bass, of vocoders and drums that evoke the soothing pitter-patter of a lazy rainy day. At times it recalls the aquatic haze of Madonna’s Ray of Light, and at others the open-highway rumbling of the War on Drugs. It very well may be her best.
The album began to take shape in the fall of 2016, after Musgraves met Tashian and Fitchuk at Tashian’s house in Nashville. The three wrote “Oh, What a World,” an amniotic, motionless composition on which Musgraves is awestruck:
Oh, what a world
Don’t wanna leave
All kinds of magic all around us it’s hard to believe
Thank God, it’s not too good to be true
Oh, what a world and then there is you
Though the album purposefully touches on themes beyond the power of love—self-doubt, fleeting lonesomeness, the strength that comes from accepting the reality of a break-up—its creation followed in the footsteps of this initial finding, a vocoderized ballad that sounds like nothing else in Musgraves’s catalog. Fitchuk and Tashian say that instead of sitting down and discussing in which direction to take the album, the trio instead let the material drive itself.
“Kacey’s a wicked smart person, and she also really knows how she feels. This is one of those records where when something felt right, she would sort of instinctively move in that direction,” Tashian tells me over the phone. “There’s those junctures where if you sit down on paper and try to work out where you’re gonna go on an album, it almost doesn’t work as well as if you had just closed your eyes and navigated by feel, and that’s a lot of what she did.”
“Oh, What a World,” which steps back to consider the grand wonder of the Earth and our place within it, sports none of the genius turns of phrase that Musgraves made her name on. Neither does much of the rest of the album, with the exception of “Space Cowboy,” which stands as one of the most brilliant concepts in her discography. Musgraves, who told me she “wanted more air around the ideas themselves,” found this new style of songwriting—not “tying up everything in a bow”—refreshing after tiring of the songs she had been playing for years.
“It felt like a long drink of ice water after being in the desert,” she said of writing Golden Hour. “Me and Daniel push each other, but he felt totally game for my vision. It felt organic and new and fresh.”
Nonetheless, Musgraves was careful not to uproot herself. Golden Hour has all manner of instrumental flourishes previously foreign to her discography, but she believes it to be a country record at its core. Pedal steel, in particular, plays an important emotional role, adding to the wondrousness in some places and bringing melancholia in others. (“It almost has to cry sometimes,” she told me of the instrument.) Musgraves says Fitchuk and Tashian were crucial in landing the album in a place that still felt true to her artistry.
“They were down to explore a world where I’m keeping these intrinsic country elements that are familiar to my music, like pedal steel and banjo, at the organic center of it, and then forging ahead and finding parts where synths and vocoders could live. It was really fun to explore that—a place where futurism meets traditionalism. And along the way, just trying to make sure we keep the balance. I didn’t want people to be like, ‘Who is this?’”
For Fitchuk and Tashian, the creation of the album was driven by Musgraves’ vocals, which glisten and glide across the record. While Musgraves has always possessed a conversationally expressive singing voice, one that allowed her to lean into or out of the acidity of her writing, it was never one that filled the air. To Musgraves, her music was powered by her songwriting, telling the Fader in 2015, “When I realized I didn’t have a powerhouse voice, it made my songwriting better.” But Golden Hour shatters that notion.
“I think we were just blown away by her capacity as a singer,” Fitchuk says. “Her ability to write the songs was not a surprise, her ability to take some risks was not a surprise, but I think her ability to deliver such really great vocals was a pleasant surprise for us all.”
Little Big Town shares this same excitement when we speak in their dressing room before the show in Sioux City. “I love her voice, there are times when I hear Loretta Lynn and people like that,” says the band’s Jimi Westbrook. “She has this ease with her delivery.” Adds Karen Fairchild: “Kacey always feels authentic, but Golden Hour feels like a moment in time. Her delivery, her lyrics… it’s gonna be one of those classics.”
“Vocally, this record lets me soar,” Musgraves tells me. When I ask her to reevaluate the quote about her songwriting improving when she had a realization about the capacity of her singing voice, she said, “It’s okay for me to flip the coin.” Still, she views the distance between her previous album and this one to be not as wide as it might seem. “It’s not like the singing licks on this are taking up more of anyone’s attention than the last [two] albums. I wanted it to still be tasteful, but there’s more room on these songs to play with those kinds of things,” she says. “You know those hits of the ‘70s that are undeniably just giant songs but had substance with the lyrics? I like that idea.”
The conversation surrounding Musgraves inevitably ends up settling in the same spot: hand-wringing over her place in modern country music. She is undoubtedly a country artist, and she is undoubtedly a planet in the mainstream country solar system. A few weeks ago she headlined the C2C Festival, a multi-city country extravaganza in the United Kingdom. In addition to her current tour with Little Big Town (with whom she shares a management company), she will play Stagecoach, the Coachella of country, in April. That month she’ll also forego a day off in order to attend the Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas, even though her time off means she’s not nominated for anything.
Still, her relationship to the current industry is complicated. Her debut album won two Grammys, but she’s had only one true country radio hit (“Merry Go-Round,” the release of which she says she had to fight for). She described Pageant Material to me as a record in which she “went really hard in the traditional country side of my influences,” but the album was largely ignored by country radio and instead embraced by indie tastemaker publications. The benefit of her relative distance from her peers has allowed her opportunities other, more traditionally successful country acts may not receive—invitations to play Colbert, Fallon and Ellen, opening slots for Katy Perry and Harry Styles—but it can also leave her seeming like an artist without a home.
“At this point it’s just fact,” she says when I ask her whether she’s tired of this narrative. “All I can do is what I can do, you know. It’s interesting, though, because I would think that this album has more for radio to grab onto, though I never create based on anything like that. It’s kind of just what naturally came out. We used to say, ‘Why is the industry the way it is?’ I think it definitely needs to change.” She also won’t be doing traditional promo on the Nashville circuit this time around: “We released two singles at once, which is not the norm for Nashville. Instead of begging radio to play it, we just sent it to ‘em and were like, ‘If you want to play it, it’s there.’ Spotify and Apple have been giant partners. The music will get heard. If you want to be part of this I would love for you to be, but I’m not going to beg anybody.”
When I ask her what currently excites her about country music she says: “It’s been really cool over the last few years to see more traditional aspects of country music emerging and being appreciated. Whether that’s in songs or style. I mean, look at Kesha and Miley, they’ve been donning the fringe and rhinestones, the stuff I’ve been wearing since I was 12. I appreciate those looks and I always hoped it would become popular.”
In Sioux City, the tension between her and her genre is palpable while watching her perform. She has some technical issues but sounds great, teasing her new album while bending some of her old standards into this new dimension. (“Keep It to Yourself,” from her debut, sounds revelatory with the added texture of light disco-y guitar.) Still, she’s the opener tonight, and the reaction from the crowd, especially the large portion of older folks in attendance, registers as somewhat obligatory. The audience perks up for “Merry Go-Round”—the only song to receive cheers of recognition as she begins—and sings along with her gorgeous cover of Brooks & Dunn’s “Neon Moon,” but she hasn’t yet won over the kind of audience who shows up to see a country act as beloved as Little Big Town.
That tension exists offstage, too. Our meeting happened to take place on the same day as the March For Our Lives rallies, where people across America took to the streets to protest in favor of gun control. In the hallway outside the dressing rooms, a March For Our Lives poster sits propped on someone’s luggage; a handful of crew from the tour attended the local rally in Sioux City. When I ask Musgraves whether she thinks country artists have a special responsibility to speak out about gun control, especially in the wake of the massacre in Las Vegas, I can sense her choosing her words carefully.
“Well, I have no business lobbying for anything or getting on a soap box really. At a certain point it becomes less of a political issue and more of a human issue, and an issue of humanity. I have an interesting perspective because I did grow up in Texas around tons of guns and hunting and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just the manner in which the system seems to be failing. I don’t know what the right answer is but I know something’s not working, and I really hope that something’s figured out soon. It’s getting a little scary out there, especially for the people who have to be on stage at these things. It’s a constant fear.”
She remembers when her band played in Paris a few days after the Bataclan attacks. “We were playing in some of the same exact venues that the Eagles of Death Metal had been in literally two days before. Some of their merch boxes were there. I mean, their shit was there, we were on the same trail. It could have been us, too. A couple days after the attacks, we had a show in Glasgow, I was asked if I wanted to cancel all the shows and go back home, and I was like, ‘No, then what? They’ve totally scared us into going home. Music is really needed right now.’ To my surprise, everyone still came out. They could have stayed home in fear, but they didn’t. It’s not worth not living… you can’t not live.”
In Sioux City, Musgraves ends her set with her latest single, the disco experiment “High Horse.” She walks off the stage under a shower of confetti and into the bowels of the arena, where she goofs around with her band for Instagram content before retreating back to her bus as Little Big Town takes the stage. There, she removes her eyelashes and nibbles at a lukewarm pizza, which she decides tastes like cafeteria food. A short time later her bus would depart south, several hours ahead of schedule. Nashville, after all, is still home.