This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue with the headline “Love & Kacey Musgraves.”
Kacey Musgraves wrinkles her nose as she looks at a text message that has just come in. It is a mid-November afternoon. We are sitting in a dressing room at the Fox Theatre, in Midtown Atlanta, where she will be performing in a few hours. Musgraves is barefoot, her thick black hair falling straight down her back. She wears a tiny silver nose ring and what she describes as her “comfort clothes,” a dusty rose sweatshirt and stretchy black yoga pants. On her left hand is a giant engagement ring given to her by her husband, singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly, whom she married in October. “Oh, man, the maids don’t have a key to my house,” she tells me as she looks up from her phone. “I usually clean it myself, but I had to call a cleaning service because I’ve got people coming over for Thanksgiving.” She thinks for a moment, shrugs her shoulders a little, and quickly composes her own text, her fingers flying. “I asked them if there was any way they could break in,” she says.
Maybe she notices my curious look. She literally wants strangers to break into her home? “Well, I do need my house cleaned,” she says. She shrugs again. “I know, I know. I’m a little unconventional.”
Yes, well, she is that. When Musgraves arrived in Nashville from Texas a decade ago, at nineteen, industry insiders took one look at her and assumed she was another wannabe country diva who hoped to someday stride across stages, belting out power ballads that had been expertly crafted by hitmaking songwriters. She was exceptionally pretty and had an achingly beautiful voice. She seemed destined to give Carrie Underwood a run for her money.
Musgraves, however, has spent her career deliberately going in the other direction, recording mostly songs that she has written or co-written: unadorned tunes that combine twangy instrumentation with lyrics that most mainstream country musicians would never touch. In one of her most popular songs, “Follow Your Arrow,” she not only proclaims that same-sex love is just fine with her (“Kiss lots of boys / Or kiss lots of girls / If that’s something you’re into”), she also declares that no one should be judged for smoking a little pot. “When the straight and narrow gets a little too straight / Roll up a joint / I would.” In “It Is What It Is,” a meditation on friends with benefits, she invites a guy to come over for a night of no-strings-attached sex. “But I ain’t got no one sleepin’ with me / And you ain’t got nowhere that you need to be / Maybe I love you, maybe I’m just kind of bored / It is what it is / Till it ain’t anymore.”
Musgraves’s unadorned tunes combine twangy instrumentation with lyrics that most mainstream country musicians would never touch.
Other Nashville musicians in recent years have formed a kind of new outlaw-country movement—singer-songwriters such as Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Nikki Lane, and Margo Price. Musgraves is something else. With her gleaming smile and tight-fitting cowgirl outfits or bodysuits that she sometimes wears onstage, she will never be mistaken for a gritty honky-tonk performer. She doesn’t brood. But in her own cheeky way, she is part of the outlaw tradition, singing only the songs that are important to her, even if they rarely get played on conservative-leaning country radio. “She’s a rarity in this business, someone who refuses to be anyone but herself,” says Shane McAnally, one of Nashville’s top songwriters and producers. “And believe me, it takes a lot of courage in Nashville not to do what other people say you should be doing.”
Even without the benefit of mainstream country radio, Musgraves has built a large following, provoked music critics to describe her with such phrases as “gloriously provocative,” and brought home a stack of trophies from awards shows. This month she is releasing her fourth album, Golden Hour. Some of it contains her usual wit and wordplay, but what’s surprising—jarring, even—is that it also includes half a dozen love songs. Over the years, Musgraves has not exactly waxed sentimental about romantic relationships. In her 2013 song “Stupid,” about a love affair that’s gone bad, she sang, “I drink to feel / I smoke to breathe / Just look what love / Has done to me.” But in May 2016 she got to know Kelly, a little-known Nashville singer-songwriter who was then 27. A couple of weeks later, she composed a simple, heartfelt melody, “Butterflies,” about the way he was already changing her life. “I was hiding in doubt until you brought me out of my chrysalis,” she wrote. “Then I came out new / All because of you.”
Musgraves says that she believes the music will appeal to both country and non-country fans, especially those “who can use a little bit more warmth and positivity and magic” in their lives. And to win over more non-country fans, she has agreed to be the opening act on English pop singer Harry Styles’s North American tour later this summer, performing for hordes of millennials at the country’s biggest arenas, from New York’s Madison Square Garden to the Forum, in Los Angeles.
It’s a critical moment in Musgraves’s career, one that could vault her into a whole new category of crossover fame— or make her look like she’s gone soft. Musgraves is clearly excited about Golden Hour. “On this project, I feel like I’m leading more with my heart than with my brain,” she tells me. That kind of abrupt turn is not easy to pull off. But then again, Musgraves has never done easy.
Musgraves lives in a modest two-bedroom home, built in the thirties, in a gentrified Nashville neighborhood. The centerpiece of her living room is a pink couch that she admits is uncomfortable to sit on. There are some potted plants by the front door and cowhide rugs on the floors. On one wall hangs a framed marijuana joint that Willie Nelson rolled for her and her band—“a big ol’ fattie,” she calls it. She also has an autographed Rolling Stone cover of Nelson. He signed it for Musgraves years ago when he had no idea who she was. Instead of writing “To Kacey,” he wrote “To Katie.”
“Keeps me humble,” she tells me.
In the mornings, when Musgraves isn’t traveling, she makes herself a protein smoothie, and then she and Kelly, a good-looking guy with a scruffy beard, head to a nearby gym. In the afternoons, she prefers hanging out at the house, plucking chords on her guitar. Like any other newly married couple, she and Kelly go out on dates in the evenings. They go to the movies or to a favorite neighborhood bar, where they sit by the fire. Mostly, however, they stay at home and play music or watch television. Whatever they’re doing, Musgraves ends up typing ideas for lyrics into her phone. “She never stops writing,” says Kelly, whose own mostly introspective Americana songs have been recorded by Tim McGraw and the Josh Abbott Band. “There’s no telling how many songs she has in her.”
You don’t have to be around Musgraves for long to realize she’s not much of a diva. She doesn’t travel with a personal assistant. Nor does she have a public relations person hovering over her when she gives interviews, making sure she doesn’t use the f-word, which she tends to do. She also doesn’t have a stylist. She prefers doing her own hair and makeup. Her one major vanity, she acknowledges, is using hair spray before she goes onstage. “A lot of hair spray,” she emphasizes. “I am, after all, from East Texas.”
Musgraves was raised in Golden, population 200, which sits at the intersection of two farm-to-market roads, seven miles from the town of Mineola (about an hour and a half east of Dallas). Her parents—Craig, who runs a small printing business in Mineola, and Karen, who works as an artist when she’s not helping at the print shop—had music constantly playing at home, everyone from Tom Petty to the Beach Boys to Sheryl Crow. “Kacey would listen to whatever we were playing, and then she’d go to her bedroom and write her own songs,” recalls Craig. “She wrote one called ‘Movin’ On,’ which was about someone moving off his farm because all the crops had died and there was no water for the cattle. [The song begins, “I went up to the ridge today to watch the sun go down / The land was bare and dry, I wish the rain was falling down.”] I listened to it and said to Karen, ‘You know, there’s something going on here.’ ”
“She never stops writing. There’s no telling how many songs she has in her.”
On weekends, the family hopped in a minivan and drove to the Fort Worth Stockyards, where Musgraves and her younger sister, Kelly, performed in a children’s country music group, the Cowtown Opry Buckaroos. Kelly eventually tired of being a Buckaroo, but Musgraves loved performing. Her parents took her to area opry houses, where she wore a fringed cowgirl outfit and sang western swing, accompanied by a house band. She and another girl on the opry circuit, Alina Tatum, did yodeling duets. They called themselves the Texas Two Bits, and they became so popular that they were invited to Washington, D.C., to perform at the Texas State Society’s Black Tie & Boots ball for George W. Bush’s 2001 inauguration.
Musgraves was twelve then. By high school, she was ready to seek her own style. She started coming to school dressed in vintage T-shirts, Dickies pants, and Chuck Taylors. She went to the local beauty shop, “and without telling my family, I chopped off nine inches of my hair, spiked it up in the back, and swooped it down the front,” she says. “It was kind of like an emo take on a Flock of Seagulls–type thing.”
Musgraves did not want to walk away from country music. What she wanted, she says, was to write and perform her own songs, ones “that would connect with my peers.” One of her first teenage efforts, “Anonymously,” was about a girl who had fallen for a boy who didn’t know she existed. “I’ll just have to wait / It wasn’t meant to be,” she wrote. “I’m stayin’ right here / So I can love you / Anonymously.” She wrote other songs based on stories she had heard about neighbors. “Nothing More,” about a small-town woman unhappy with her husband, was an early indication of just how funny she could be. “You drank all the Keystone / And you smoked my last cigarette,” the song goes. “Went on a shopping spree at the dollar store / Put us a little bit further in debt.”
When she graduated from high school, she promptly moved to Austin, where she got a few gigs at small clubs like Momo’s and Threadgill’s, playing a combination of her songs and such classics as Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” and Willie Nelson’s “Whiskey River.” In 2006 she tried out for Nashville Star, the country version of American Idol. (She was encouraged to audition by fellow East Texan Miranda Lambert, who had gotten her big break on the show a few years earlier and learned guitar from the same Mineola teacher as Musgraves.) By then, Musgraves had grown her hair back out, and she looked like a can’t-miss prospect, especially when she removed her nose ring. But as she would later say, she was still “figuring myself out musically and personally.” And she never seemed comfortable singing the hits that defined the show. She was booted after the third episode.
By high school, as Musgraves matured as a songwriter, she shed the fringe-wearing cowgirl look and sought her own style, which involved what she calls a “Flock of Seagulls–type” hairstyle.
Courtesy of Kacey Musgraves
Musgraves had an early aptitude for putting on a show. For years she traveled the opry circuit and performed as one half of the Texas Two Bits. The duo played George W. Bush’s 2001 Black Tie & Boots inaugural ball, sharing the stage with Ray Benson.
Courtesy of Kacey Musgraves
Musgraves wasn’t about to give up. She decided to move to Nashville and initially supported herself by dressing up as Cinderella or Ariel and performing songs or painting faces at children’s birthday parties. She worked as a backup and demo singer and eventually scored a job as a staff songwriter for the music publisher Warner/Chappell, where she honed her craft. Among the many songs she wrote or co-wrote was “When You Love a Sinner,” which was picked up by Martina McBride; “Get Outta My Yard,” which was recorded by Gretchen Wilson; and “Mama’s Broken Heart,” which Lambert turned into a hit.
At the same time, Musgraves kept writing songs for herself. None of them were slick, commercial tunes with exploding choruses. They were breezy melodies that required only a few backup musicians playing acoustic guitar, banjo, piano, violin, and pedal steel guitar. One was a jaunty anthem to individualism, “John Prine,” that fans have taken to calling “Burn One With John Prine.” In it she described her maverick-like personality (“Grandma cried when I pierced my nose / I never liked doing what I was told”), her feelings about organized religion (“I ain’t one to knock religion / Though it’s always knocking me”), and her desire to share a joint with Prine, the beloved gravelly voiced singer-songwriter who’s now 71 years old (“I ain’t good at being careful / I just say what’s on my mind / Like my idea of heaven / Is to burn one with John Prine”).
Word spread around Nashville about Musgraves and her singular writing. Shane McAnally, another small-town Texan (he was raised in Mineral Wells), met Musgraves one evening at a mutual friend’s home. By the end of the night, they had written two songs together. “Two in one night!” McAnally exclaims. “And when Kacey sang, I was so flabbergasted I didn’t know what to say. Her voice contained traces of so many people I loved in country music, from Willie Nelson to Dolly Parton to Lee Ann Womack. I kept looking at her and saying to myself, ‘Who is this?’ ”
“Can we just get really weird tonight?” she’d shout, and off she’d go, cheerfully singing about doing whatever you want and loving whomever you choose.
By 2011 Musgraves was looking around for her first major-label record deal. Stephanie Wright, an A&R (artist and repertoire) executive for the prestigious Universal Music Group Nashville, took her to lunch at the Copper Kettle Café, a cafeteria-style eatery, and was ready to sign her before they had finished their meal. “Compared to every other new artist we were seeing, she was unique,” says Wright. “She wasn’t writing typical country songs.” Musgraves signed with Universal, but she made it clear that she would walk away if she could not control the album’s content. She also demanded that “Merry Go ’Round,” a bittersweet song about the limitations of small-town life (“Mama’s hooked on Mary Kay / Brother’s hooked on Mary Jane / Daddy’s hooked on Mary two doors down”), be her first single. The label’s executives were concerned that “Merry Go ’Round” would not get much radio play. “They said it was too down, too depressing for a new female country artist,” Musgraves tells me. “I said, ‘I don’t care.’ I said, ‘I would rather go down in flames for a song I truly believe in than release something that would appeal to people in a more McDonald’s kind of way.’ ”
The album, Same Trailer Different Park, was released in 2013, when Musgraves was 24. To just about everyone’s surprise, it went to number one on Billboard’s U.S. Top Country Albums chart. “Merry Go ’Round” did get some radio attention, reaching number ten on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart. The album and the single won Grammys, and Musgraves picked up awards from the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association as well. Critics were beside themselves.
In the sixties and seventies, Lynn pushed the boundaries of country music by singing about philandering husbands, birth control, women’s rights, and the Vietnam War. She angered lots of traditional country music fans (the men, for the most part), and country stations banned her songs. But it was hard for people to get mad at Musgraves. For one thing, she delivered her lyrics with a down-home wink and a smile. She also made her shows gleefully campy, the stages decorated with shimmery backdrops, neon lights shaped like cacti, and plastic pink flamingos that she would toss to the crowd. She had her five-man band dress in retro Porter Wagoner–like uniforms, and she herself often wore cowgirl outfits much like the ones she’d worn on the Texas opry circuit, with little white lights illuminating her boots. “Can we just get really weird tonight?” she’d shout, and off she’d go, cheerfully singing her songs about doing what you want and loving whomever you choose.
To celebrate the release of her second album, Pageant Material, in 2015, Musgraves threw a one-of-a-kind party at a Nashville gay bar called Play and invited her friends, her family (including her grandmother), and industry insiders. Drag queens wearing sashes and gowns lip-synced the new songs onstage. When Musgraves herself later performed “Dime Store Cowgirl” at that year’s Country Music Association Awards, she wore a silver rhinestone bodysuit with a matching white-and-silver cowboy hat pushed back on her head and white boots. The members of her band wore pink suits. As she sang, a movie-screen backdrop showed animated pastel ponies prancing in a meadow underneath a rainbow.
In Pageant Material, Musgraves once again bristled at narrow-mindedness. “Pouring salt in my sugar won’t make yours any sweeter,” she sang in “Biscuits.” “Pissing in my yard ain’t gonna make yours any greener.” She took some more pokes at small-town life. “You’ll end up in the paper, wreck your family name,” she sang in “This Town,” about small-town gossip. “What goes around comes back around by Friday’s football game.” And she took a few shots at male-dominated society. In “Good Ol’ Boys Club,” she snorted, “I don’t need a membership to validate / The hard work I’ve put in and the dues I’ve paid . . . Cigars and handshakes, appreciate you, but no thanks.”
“It was just like when Dorothy opens a door in the Wizard of Oz, and the world turns into color from black and white.”
Although the songs got little or no airplay on traditional country radio, which tends to pander to the Solo Cup–carrying “bro country” crowd, critics were once again impressed. (A Spin writer called Pageant Material a “sophomore masterpiece.”) Musgraves next put out a Christmas album, which included covers of such unconventional tunes as “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.” Then she began working on a new original album, which she assumed would be filled with her trademark sense of irony.
But her own life took a turn in February 2016, when she drove to the Bluebird Café, a famous Nashville club. That night, an ex-boyfriend was playing a “round”—Nashville-speak for a group of singer-songwriters sitting onstage with their guitars and performing songs they’ve written—and Musgraves, who was still on friendly terms with him, had come out to listen.
Ruston Kelly, one of the other singers, played a few songs, one of which was about an unhappy man trying to allow himself to be loved by a woman. Kelly’s back was to Musgraves, and she couldn’t see his face. She found herself crying. “His songs reminded me a lot of John Prine,” she says. When the round was over, she walked up to him, and he turned around.
“She was wearing a black dress, and of course she had that long black hair,” recalls Kelly. “I thought, ‘This is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.’ ”
They got together three months later, when Musgraves invited Kelly over for a “write” (a songwriting session). They ended up talking until three in the morning. “It was just like when Dorothy opens a door in the Wizard of Oz, and the world turns into color from black and white,” says Musgraves. Soon she was penning one love song after another, her lyrics unlike anything she had written before. In one of her songs, “Oh, What a World,” she seems unabashedly starry-eyed:
Oh, what a world,
I 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.
On Christmas Eve 2016, Kelly asked Musgraves to marry him, and she announced their engagement on Instagram. (“I didn’t say yes . . . I said HELL YESSSS!!”) For her bachelorette party she took her girlfriends to Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s slightly daffy theme park. She and Kelly had their wedding this past October on a friend’s property outside Nashville, where two small rivers come together, after which they had an old-fashioned barn dance.
Musgraves knows she’s taking a risk with Golden Hour, moving away from her usual material to sing melodies about romantic love and what she calls “the magic of everyday life.” Yes, the new album is deeply sentimental. “Baby, don’t you know / That you’re my golden hour?” she sings on the title track. “The color of my sky / You set my world on fire.” She also describes parts of the album as “trippy.” In December she set off a lot of talk when she tweeted to her 450,000 Twitter followers that she had written one song for the album, titled “Mother,” “while on an LSD trip & missin my mom.”
But she makes no apologies. She tells me Golden Hour simply shows “a different color of who I am.” She gives me an unwavering stare. “I don’t feel like I would be doing a favor to myself or anybody who enjoys my music if I just repeated myself,” she says. “Music isn’t made for that reason, you know.”
In December she set off a lot of talk when she tweeted that she had written one of her new songs “while on an LSD trip & missin my Mom.”
For the Atlanta concert, Musgraves is opening for John Prine. Since writing her ode to him, she and the old troubadour have become friends—when they first met, she tried, unsuccessfully, to get him to smoke a joint with her—and she has agreed to come down from Nashville for the night to play a set.
When the members of her band show up to her dressing room, they’re all wearing black jackets and stringy black bolo ties, to match the long black skirt and strappy heels that she’s changed into. They and Musgraves down a shot of tequila. “Okay, guys,” says Musgraves. “Let’s get weird.”
Almost everyone in the theater looks at least twenty years older than Musgraves. They are obviously there for Prine. I cannot help but wonder how many of them have even heard of her. She stands behind a microphone and begins her set, which consists of only eight songs. One is “Butterflies,” the first ode she wrote to Kelly. As her honey-smothered voice resonates throughout the theater, I look around. No one in the crowd is talking. They are watching her intently. She plays “Burn One With John Prine” and then concludes with “Follow Your Arrow.” When the last chord lands, the crowd erupts into cheers.
Afterward, Musgraves stays backstage and watches Prine perform. Eventually she heads to her dressing room, changes back into her yoga pants and sweatshirt, and heads for the bus to make the trip back to Nashville. She piles up in a bunk bed alongside others that are used by her band and crew—she says she doesn’t like using “the star bedroom” in the back of the bus—and she calls her husband to let him know that she loves him with all her heart. Then the bus rolls away into the night.
A few days later, I get her on the phone. She tells me she is busy putting the finishing touches on Golden Hour and that she’s finalizing plans for her upcoming tours. Then she mentions that she is already writing new songs for a future album. “New songs?” I ask. “Already?” “I’m always evolving,” she says, and she pauses. “What’s the point if you don’t evolve?”