Last weekend the Recording Academy handed out its prestigious Grammy Awards to honor the past year in music. The Recording Academy’s picks often cause quite a bit of controversy, whether it be for perceived racial bias or genre inequalities. But this year, many agree that the Grammy’s highest honor, Album of the Year, went to an admirable project.
The field of nominees this year was deeper than usual with eight options for voters to choose from. The nominees included blockbuster releases like Drake’s “Scorpion” and the Kendrick Lamar curated “Black Panther: The Album.” But in the end, a more understated body of work from Kacey Musgraves took home the golden gramophone.
Musgraves is a country singer who released her album “Golden Hour” March 2018. Though, country is usually a divisive genre, many flocked to this body of work throughout the year, finding something special in its soft melodies and vivid lyrical imagery. The last country album to take home Album of the Year was Taylor Swift’s “Fearless” in 2010.
The Triangle included the album in its year end list of picks, placing it at No. 3 and describing it like so: “‘Golden Hour’ is a subtle, but deeply impressive album. Musgraves’ beautiful and sly lyrical wit is the shining star that leads the album forward. It’s expansive, yet focused and a great low-key album to put on and just breathe with.”
Musgraves was born in Texas and moved to Nashville to chase her songstress dreams. She began as a straightforward country artist, but quickly started to blaze her own path. She realized that the country archetypes weren’t going to work for her and that the country radio system was unlikely to support her anyway because she was a woman.
Country music is driven by success at country radio. Even in the current world of streaming, it is a genre that has remained largely traditional. And for a very long time, women have struggled at country radio. Take this for example: Billboard’s Country Airplay Chart dated week of Feb. 16 has only eight songs by women in the Top 50. While country women have received much critical acclaim, they have often been barred from radio due to the traditionalism and conservatism that rules the mechanisms behind station programming.
The Recording Academy has also come under fire for their underrepresentation of women creating music, especially those behind the console. This culminated in the large backlash to, the academy’s president, Neil Portnow’s comments after last year’s ceremony that increased representation had to begin with women needing to “step up.” Following these comments, it was decided that Portnow’s contract would not be renewed. He will be stepping down in July of this year. Compared to last year having one female nominee in the Album of the Year category, this year’s pool had five.
Though she has been largely left out of country radio, Musgraves has still found alternative success. Previously, Musgraves had won two Grammys. Both were in 2014, one for Best Country Song for “Merry Go ‘Round” and the other for Best Country Album for her debut album “Same Trailer Different Park.” She was also nominated for Best New Artist that year. Her first two albums reached the top three on the Billboard 200, and “Golden Hour” reached No. 4.
The draw to Musgraves music has always been in the expert songwriting. The focus is on the storytelling aspects that have always been country music’s strong suit. As a songwriter Musgraves proved herself an adept observationist, commenting on the world around her in a simultaneously respectful, biting and clever way. A great example is her Grammy winning track “Merry Go ‘Round.” The lyrics of the chorus are at once a clever lyrical flip and a takedown of the small town she grew up in.
“Golden Hour” takes the intimate moments of songwriting in her past work and elevates them with more personal content and stronger performance and production.
She turns her observational microscope to herself and her emotions. This creates a more striking picture of the singer herself, and a more deeply touching emotional work. She draws on inspiration from her recent marriage to Ruston Kelly and from her life before that she hadn’t taken the opportunity to write about. The imagery throughout is vivid and colorful, perhaps aided by her use of psychedelics during the writing process.
Her vocals on this album also shine more than on her past albums. Her delivery is more passionate and controlled. Musgraves vocals soar through modulations in “Space Cowboy” and “Happy & Sad” and dance through the melismatic chorus of “High Horse” with a confidence and softness that is alluring. She is going beyond the display of her songwriting and truly showcasing her voice.
The biggest asset the album has is its seamless blending of other genres into its sonical fabric. “High Horse” is a rhinestoned disco track, and the vocoder on “Oh, What a World” alludes to Daft Punk and Imogen Heap. Where other country music has pulled from pop music and ended as a classless cheeseball, “Golden Hour” keeps its virtues. It pulls from other genres in an organic way that always benefits the song overall.
In addition, the increased amount of space in the songs’ frameworks keep it from becoming too overwhelming. The space allows listeners to focus on the heart of the song: the story in the lyrics and the melody.
This is most palpable in “Slow Burn,” the album’s opener and one of its highlights. The song takes its time to roll in, and then adds core elements to the production as it closes around the first chorus. There are flitting instrumental moments throughout that hint to the song existing in a larger expanse, but it’s in the instrumental bridge where this expanse truly fills aurally. And as quickly as the space fills, it empties again.
“Life is pretty tumultuous right now for all of us I feel like it can feel that way. And I feel like because of that, art is really thriving and it’s been really beautiful to see that Thank you for championing mine,” Musgraves said while accepting her award.
“Golden Hour” is a truly wonderful body of work that showcases both the art of songwriting and song production. In addition to Album of the Year, Musgraves won three other awards for the body of work, including Best Country Album, Best Country Song and Best Country Solo Performance. She also performed twice throughout the ceremony, performing her current single “Rainbow” and participating in the tribute to the music of Dolly Parton.
Musgraves is continuing the promotion of “Golden Hour.” Her new single “Rainbow” is being serviced to country radio in hopes that the recognition of the Grammys can push her through the high barriers. She is also on her headlining “Oh, What a World: Tour,” which she just announced a second leg of. Musgraves will perform in Philadelphia Sept. 11 at the Met Philadelphia.