Here is a non-exhaustive list of places where Kacey Musgraves has made me cry over the past year: on a patio in Cabo San Lucas, at my therapist’s office, on a bus, in the middle of a crowd, and—on at least two occasions—in the shower. And it’s all because of her ubiquitous gem of a record Golden Hour.
When the East Texas native put out her fourth studio album on March 30, 2018, critics immediately realized its potential as a crossover that could turn the plucky Nashville princess into a bona fide multi-genre queen. Accolades rolled in: Album of the Year at both the Grammys and the Country Music Association Awards; presenting at the Oscars; performing on Saturday Night Live. The internet offered its stamp of approval, idolizing Musgraves and her contribution to a new wave of yee-haw culture and paying tribute through memes (including many made by the artist herself).
All the while, I cried.
My reaction to her music wasn’t always like this. I’ve been a fan of Musgraves since her 2013 debut, Same Trailer Different Park. At the time, she was often (lazily) compared to Taylor Swift, another young female singer-songwriter who tested the edges of what country music could sound like. But Musgraves’s early command of lyricism and no-frills composition stood out. She skirted the cheesy with authenticity and thumbed her nose at Nashville bro culture before it was so fashionable to do so.
Her paeans, both on and offstage, to THC and same-sex marriage set her apart from her country cohort. She wrote about trailer parks. She took jabs at Sunday morning politics. She reminded us that we were all a bit too big for our britches. Over the course of three albums, Musgraves made a home in my East Texas heart through her musical sensibility and wry reads on convention, rural or otherwise. She was a reliable, if not challenging, favorite.
Then Golden Hour dropped. I was on vacation on a sunny balcony in Cabo, with my third (or fourth?) beer in hand, when I put it on for the first time. By the end of the album I was sobbing so loudly that the passersby in the marina below began to look up, alarmed.
Likely assuming that I’d simply had too many afternoon Pacificos, my husband put a hand on my shoulder. “Maybe no more Kacey for now,” he said gently. That began a year of crying to Kacey Musgraves, Pacifico or no.
Golden Hour isn’t outwardly emotive. For anyone who’s heard the glittery disco lilt of “High Horse” or the playful groove of “Velvet Elvis”—a tribute to the most delightfully tacky art form—crying seems impossible. For those not prone to Musgraves-induced tears, “Mother,” her longing, post-acid-trip ode to the enduring love between mothers and daughters, is perhaps the only sob song. The 1:18 piano-driven ballad plucks at the heartstrings with its sparseness and a brevity that makes you feel like even Musgraves can’t talk about it for too long.
Musgraves has often said that the album is a kind of love song to her husband, fellow Nashville singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly. It’s the first full-length record she penned while the two were together, and the clutch that new love—not to mention newlywed love—has had on Musgraves is evident.
But, just as she did with radio-ready country, Musgraves gave a tired trope her own spin. “[Golden Hour] is sort of a love song to [Kelly],” she told the New York Times Magazine, “but also to nature, the human race, Earth and why we’re here. We don’t know, and I kind of love it.”
If that sounds a little New Age-y, well, sure it is. Musgraves admits that parts of the album were written on or after acid trips. But in her distillation, that isn’t unlike the feeling of gazing up at a West Texas night sky, wide-eyed, staring at a world that at once seems too beautiful and too much.
Though the album in many ways represents a departure from form, it’s also unmistakably Musgraves. The first strummed moments of opener “Slow Burn” demonstrate her signature wordplay (“Born in a hurry, always late / Haven’t been early since ’88”), but the song quickly evolves into an understated anthem to taking things as they come. That’s a common thread in Golden Hour, and one she often roots in her relationship with Kelly—even if she avoids making him the center of it. In “Oh, What a World,” she interrogates the moments of bliss that you feel with a romantic partner, picking those feelings apart for what they are—a combination of a grander sense of wonderment and matters of the heart. The nature imagery in “Love Is a Wild Thing” seems as much of a love letter to her husband as it is to a larger feeling of rootlessness. Perhaps the only time when she wholly gives over to romance is in lead single “Butterflies.” And doesn’t a newlywed deserve some saccharinity?
But Golden Hour’s bigger, more sweeping outlook places that sense of wonder beside its constraint: the existential dread of being a grown up. “Lonely Weekend” puts an almost Fleetwood Mac-esque lightness on the push-pull of extrovert and introvert tendencies and the challenge of making adult friends. “Happy & Sad” puts a voice to the strange nag you feel in the throes of elation, when you realize just how fleeting the moment truly is.
Musgraves put a voice to something I’d long suspected: age doesn’t always inherently bestow wisdom; bumbling through life is a universal feeling that stretches past young adulthood.
She does, however, offer some assurances, and that’s perhaps why the closing song affects me most of all. “Rainbow” sung by a lesser cynic than Musgraves could come across as hackneyed. We’ve all heard the message of gray clouds clearing and blue skies ahead—it’s a theme that’s been sung since the beginning of music. And yet, as its slow, full piano chords ring dramatically below a simple melody, I brace for the closing line: “It’ll all be alright.” And I cry because I have to believe her.
I’d related to Musgraves’s earlier albums as a fellow East Texas rebel who could never quite kick the twang, someone who was of a place that I didn’t entirely belong in. Like Musgraves, I felt my dreams were too big for a small town. Like her, I’d moved to Austin to try and turn all that energy into something worthwhile. Listening to her felt familiar.
Before Golden Hour, I had turned to her music for a nod to the past. The new songs are part of my present: the shifting priorities of my late twenties, understanding my place in the world, the feeling of loving too much and not enough. I was expecting Musgraves to take me to the trailer park. Instead, she took me to the mountaintop and said, “Take it in.”
And I did. I felt it all—on the porch at an Airbnb condo in Mexico, sharing final toasts with a friend I wouldn’t see for a long time, watching Musgraves herself sing her songs—and it made me weep. Golden Hour made the world feel vast and unattainable, but also beautiful and present. Maybe I won’t figure out all the answers for how to be an adult right now. Maybe there aren’t tidy answers out there. Maybe, as Musgraves says, it’s a slow burn—and that’s all right.