Typically there are two paths for an artist seeking the Grammy Awards’ top prize, Album of the Year. The winner is either a hit-driven commercial juggernaut or a critically-acclaimed later-career release by a legacy act. The young performers who’ve won in recent years are all mega-stars—Adele, Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars—while the older artists to score wins, like Beck, essentially received it as a lifetime achievement award. But on Sunday night, something new happened.
Kacey Musgraves, whose album Golden Hour has neither been embraced by radio nor serves as a capstone to a decades-long career, took the honor. It was well-deserved. Golden Hour is a lovely, innovative album that breathes so much new life into a stagnant country music genre that it’s no shock Nashville didn’t seem to know what to do with it. Musgraves’s triumph feels like a turning point, both for her and the recording industry’s awards.
The Grammys seemed to be intentionally seeking a shakeup. For the first time, the list of Album of the Year nominees was expanded, from the usual five to eight. Four were commercial smashes driven by huge singles—albums by Drake, Cardi B, Post Malone, and the Black Panther soundtrack. The others were critical darlings from Musgraves, Janelle Monae, Brandi Carlile, and H.E.R. Outside of Drake, none of the nominated artists had spent more than a few years, if that, as a superstar. In other words, the Grammys didn’t just expand the field of nominees. They expanded what an Album of the Year contender sounds like in the first place.
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In 2019, it sounds like Golden Hour. Musgraves’s album is the lowest-selling to claim the award in more than a decade (Herbie Hancock, a legacy act, won for a collection of Joni Mitchell covers that had sold 56,000 copies in 2008). As of January, Golden Hour had sold 141,000 copies—fewer than half the copies that the next lowest-selling winner during that period, Beck’s Morning Phase, had moved when it won. Rather than think of that as a knock on Musgraves, let’s credit the Recording Industry Association of America for broadening its definition of award-worthy work.
Musgraves’s win wasn’t exactly an upset. Golden Hour was the favorite according to both oddsmakers and industry observers (her odds buoyed by the unfortunate tendency of the Grammys to ignore hip hop and R&B for the big prize). It felt like the culmination of the year she’s had and further acknowledgment that she’s special. At the Country Music Awards in November, Golden Hour also took top honors, beating out releases from artists like Chris Stapleton and Thomas Rhett, whose singles (unlike Musgraves’s) are in heavy rotation on country radio.
During her acceptance speech, Musgraves seemed shocked and delighted. She had performed twice during the ceremony—once delivering a lovely rendition of the ballad “Rainbow” while wearing an outfit that wouldn’t have been out of place at the State of the Union address, and then later with Katy Perry and Dolly Parton as part of a tribute to the country legend. She’d accepted the award for Best Country Album earlier in the evening, as well as Best Country Song in a non-televised presentation (for the album’s standout “Space Cowboy”). She couldn’t have been too surprised, since she was presumably aware that observers expected her win. Perhaps her shock was about what it means to have taken that award at this point in her young career.
Musgraves might never have a country radio smash. She’s come close before—”Merry Go Round,” from her first album, performed well. Yet by taking home the industry’s highest honor, she’s learned that she doesn’t need to change her music to suit the tastes of programmers in Nashville. By making music she’s passionate about, she can exceed any expectations she might have had for her career.
Winning Album of the Year, as NPR noted after Mumford and Sons took the prize in 2013, comes with a transformative sales bump, usually resulting in a spike that can transform even a middling performer into a huge hit. That Herbie Hancock album that won in 2008? After taking the Grammy, it sold nearly 300,000 copies during the following five years. And that’s a jazz album, a genre with nowhere near the commercial potential of something like Golden Hour, which fits much more comfortably into most listeners’ rotations. Musgraves is likely to be eating off Golden Hour for years to come.
That’s a good thing for both her and her fans. Kacey Musgraves is the sort of artist who does her best work when she’s operating on her own terms. With a Grammys win, she can continue doing just that. She’s releasing her best music, building a superstar career without worrying about country radio’s formulas, and receiving all the accolades—and, surely, the attendant commercial success—that one can hope to receive. Given how well things went on her Golden Hour gamble, we’ll expect her to forge her own path for as long as she wants.