Next-Gen Nashville: The artists and creative forces transforming Music City.
On her tour bus parked across from Santander Arena in Reading, Pa., Kacey Musgraves has created a little oasis from the nor’easter-induced chill outside: a bouquet of tiny pink roses, a giant white geode and a burned-to-the-quick Jenni Kayne candle adorn the table where she’s sitting. Comforts of the road, sure -- but for Musgraves, they’re also reminders that there’s magic in the world. “It can be easy to forget that right now there are literally jellyfish that light up, and plants that can change your mind, and Northern lights and shooting stars ... all these crazy beautiful things, like rainbows and shit -- you know what I mean?” she says. She holds up the geode: “This crystal grew in the earth! I’m like, what?! Aaaghhh!”
These days, Musgraves, 29, is more dreamy than she is cheeky. Later she’ll tell me about the “giant impression” psychedelics have made on her, but the reality of her life today is pretty marvelous as it is. She’s nearly midway through a 26-show run opening for country superstars Little Big Town (tomorrow, the caravan heads to Washington, D.C.), then joins Harry Styles for his U.S. dates before setting out on her own headlining Oh, What a World! Tour. And she’s about to release her third studio album, Golden Hour (March 30), a lovely, unexpectedly romantic record with two early singles, “Butterflies” and “Space Cowboy,” already hailed as among 2018’s best yet.
Her mindset was decidedly less sunny before the inspiration for Golden Hour first came to her in 2016. “I was in this lonely, not-creative place and just felt like shit about myself,” says Musgraves today on the bus, shaking her head at the memory. That changed as soon as she met singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly -- now her husband -- at Nashville’s famed Bluebird Cafe, where he was playing alongside one of her exes in a writer’s round. (When I arrived at the bus earlier, the lanky, bearded Kelly sat quietly strumming a guitar, cigarette tucked behind his ear.) She loved his songs, and her own soon followed: “I had just cleared my schedule to get back to writing when I went to that show and I met him,” says Musgraves. “Songs just immediately started pouring out.”
Love songs are a new look for Musgraves, who built her audience telling sharply observed stories about small-town life and extolling the virtues of “mind[ing] your own biscuits” on 2013’s Same Trailer, Different Park and 2015’s Pageant Material, both of which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart. Her second release came in the heat of what was dubbed Tomatogate, when radio consultant Keith Hill advised country programmers to treat women artists like “tomatoes” in a salad -- that is, to use their music sparingly. Musgraves, though, earned considerable acclaim and a devoted following despite minimal radio play. Instead of trying to fill a Taylor Swift-sized hole or match Miranda Lambert’s swagger, suddenly there was a bit more room for diverse sounds and perspectives from women in country. “She isn't going to sacrifice her art or point of view for any gatekeepers,” says Maren Morris, a friend since they were “13 or 14,” when they met at a show in Dallas. “Never has, never will.” Similarly tradition-defying women artists like Morris and Kelsea Ballerini have proliferated in Nashville since.
With Golden Hour, it was most important to Musgraves to keep that evolution moving. Joined by longtime friends and collaborators Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian, she decamped to Sheryl Crow’s studio, housed in a barn, for about a year to complete the writing and recording process, repeatedly coming back to one idea: As Musgraves puts it, “If Sade made a country album, what would it sound like?”
The result is not only more tender than what came before, but also less reverent to her earlier albums’ contemporary honky-tonk sound. “It was a nice escape to fixate on this person that has completely changed my world, rather than try to be a social commentator,” she says, fiddling with the rainbow fringe on her sky blue sweatsuit. “I’ve been that a lot before, so it might surprise people that I’m not now. But everyone has a soapbox these days! Everyone’s tired of it.” Still, in conversation Musgraves is forthright with her opinions on everything from Nashville’s misplaced preoccupation with “tempo” to how country music’s double standard extends even to sunglasses (Eric Church can wear them around the clock; women, not so much).
That evening, after her band’s ceremonial preshow tequila shot out of cactus-shaped glasses, Kelly watches alone from the crowd as Musgraves, backed by her powder-blue-suited band, performs “Butterflies,” which she wrote with Luke Laird and Natalie Hemby weeks after meeting him: “Cloud nine was always out of reach/Now I remember what it feels like to fly.” The song has been out for only a week, but Musgraves stands before an arena that’s impressively full, and impressively eager to sing her tune.
Could 18-year-old Kacey have foreseen playing psychedelic country in a glittery jumpsuit on The Tonight Show?
I didn't really get that far, I guess, in my brain. At 18, I was a lot more redneck than I am now. I think back to who I was then: being in a small-town high school and seeing a gay guy get made fun of, I’d like, laugh along and not really think much about it. A best friend came out to me right after high school, and that’s when I started getting it -- my perspective completely changed. Moving to Nashville, I started hanging out at this gay club called Play all the time, and I made so many friends. It really hurt my heart that I had ever even been close to being the opposite of that.
I met Shane [McAnally] and Brandy Clark, we ended up writing “Follow Your Arrow,” and it became this unintentional anthem. It was really redeeming for me, because I come from where I come from. Part of me felt a little guilty that I was the “Arrow” girl and a long time ago ... it has not always been my viewpoint. But I guess people can change.
How has Nashville evolved since you moved there? It feels like you were on the front edge of the diversification happening now.
It seems like it’s opening its mind a little bit to outliers. When I first came out I was probably considered by many to be, like, the “weird” one in country music. Now, I’m probably not as comparatively weird, but I don’t know. Maybe I’m even weirder now.
Even as Nashville changes, though, the box young women artists have to fit in is still narrow.
Anything out of the norm takes convincing to make happen. Even with “Merry Go Round” they were like, “It’s kind of depressing, and it’s not really uptempo.” They have this thing with tempo in Nashville. They think everything will fail if it’s not uptempo. I’m like, “I don’t choose what I listen to based on tempo.” It was the highest-charting song I’ve ever had. It just goes to show that you know what’s best for yourself.
I imagine you didn't have to have those same conversations about “Space Cowboy.”
Not necessarily the same conversation, but they definitely thought that “Space Cowboy” was too slow. So I charted the BPM of every country song that had hit No. 1 in the past year and charted the BPMs of my entire record and looked at them side by side. They were, if not the same tempos as my record, even slower.
I gave [the data] to them, and they were like, “Yeah, but it’s more of, like, a perceived tempo thing -- what it sounds like the tempo is.” Like, perceived tempo?! I don’t even know anymore. How about we just go on, is this a good song or not?
How do you feel about the rootsy traditionalism, a la Chris Stapleton, that has gotten so big?
This album is traditional with pop influences, in a way. I like that kind of thing. But one thing that I’ve been thinking about with the Americana movement being so strong, I feel like it can be a little ... not sedentary, but one-dimensional? Though I love Americana and roots music, it feels like there’s a contest sometimes with how country or how traditionalist you can prove yourself to be.
It’s interesting when artists like Jason Isbell, a great musician functioning within a specific lineage, are talked about as rebels.
It is interesting -- and people have thrown the rebel card at me a lot, too. It always makes me chuckle a little bit because that has never been my aim. I’m just being me, so it’s funny that it registers to people like that.
Well, the bar for women to be “rebellious” is fairly low.
Oh, my God, totally. All you have to do is not smile. And then they’re like, “She’s a bitch.” There’s so much extra pressure on females in the music industry to be accommodating and nice, and it’s such horseshit. They would never say that to Stapleton, or Eric Church, who wears his fucking sunglasses all the time. If I wore my sunglasses all the time, people would be like, “She thinks she is hot shit.”
Do you feel like the current conversations about #MeToo and country music have been a long time coming?
I’ve been lucky enough to not really experience much of that, or if I have, either I don’t remember or I’ve blocked it out. Maybe it’s just so written into societal norms that sometimes I’m blind to it -- but it’s definitely there. I’m lucky; I only work with people that I don’t get creepy vibes from. I won’t work with somebody if they give me any kind of ... touch-me-inappropriately vibes. But every now and then, you run into it in radio interviews or whatever. I, God forbid, showed my legs on the Same Trailer, Different Park cover. On air, this DJ was like, “Love the album cover, you have really nice legs. Can I touch them?” And I was like, “Uh... no?” What’s wrong with people? Ugh. [Says Maren Morris: “Kacey inspired me to keep my strength when I went into radio tour -- be kind, but be a powerful presence no one can fuck with.”]
Right now, it seems like you’re in a sort of hippie-ish, philosophical head space.
I’ve always been into that kind of thing, I guess. Once I hit my 20s, I started going to Bonnaroo and... I don’t know. Honestly, psychedelics really made a giant impression on me.
When did you first try them?
I was probably 21 or 22 when I tried mushrooms. I had profound experiences. I feel like it made my music better, it made me miss my family and care more about them and also know my place egotistically in the universe. Like, I’m nothing.
Talking about psychedelics and drugs in general, would you ever advocate for legalization?
I mean, I don’t need to be a lobbyist for anything -- and what works for me may totally not work for someone else. But it makes me happy to see that people are getting help and healing from marijuana. If there weren't so much propaganda against it for no reason, [marijuana] would probably save a lot of lives. I’m a firm believer that what you do with your body is your own choice, and legally that covers a lot of ground.
Your process working on this album sounds like it was fairly Zen, too.
We really wanted to avoid the typical Music Row rat-race-feeling studio; there’s a kind of 9-to-5 element that applies to music-making there, and it’s just really uninspiring. Sheryl has like, 50 acres, horses. She’d pop by, and we ended up talking about reincarnation and all this crazy shit.
Your last two albums had a pretty cohesive sound. Was it scary to step into something new?
It’s easy to look at something you’ve done previously and go, “I don’t want to fix what ain’t broke.” But that can be dangerous. You can get into a rut where you start to think, “I have to work with the exact same team I’ve always used.” But it’s not saying you’ll never work with them again if you change it up. You can come back. And there are so many talented people in Nashville, right at my fingertips.
Speaking of whom, you’ve gotten to work with a lot of people you idolize: John Prine, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn. What have you learned from them?
These days, they’re hailed as icons and legends, but we don’t often consider the fact that at one point, they really pissed a lot of people off. They had to say, “No, I’m fucking doing it this way and I don’t care if anyone likes it or not.” That turned them into who they are now. When the industry tries to change someone, it’s like, “You realize that you’re hurting everyone here, right? You’re hurting your own chances of having the next Loretta on your label.”
I’ve wanted to pick those people’s brains when I run into situations that are hard to navigate. It’s almost like a “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelet. What would Loretta do? What would Dolly [Parton] do? What would Willie do? They would say, “Fuck everybody, and just keep on trucking.”