In the run-up to Sunday’s Grammy Awards, one of this year’s most high-profile nominees made a stop in a much smaller space than the Staples Center — the adjacent Grammy Museum’s 200-seat Clive Davis Theatre — for “An Evening With Kacey Musgraves.” Her intimate benefit for the museum included a set of songs from her “Golden Hour” album, following an hour-long Q&A moderated by the museum’s executive director, Scott Goldman, in which the girl from Golden, Texas talked navigating the Nashville music scene as a female artist, being embraced by the LGBTQ community, and garnering four Grammys nominations this year, including album of the year.
“When you’re put up in a category with albums that have garnered giant sales numbers and a giant number of spins, you just don’t expect to be put there based on those facts alone,” Musgraves said. “I know that the Grammys and the Recording Academy don’t always look at those as the end-all and be-all factors, but it’s a giant part of it whether we like it or not. I think I was just surprised because this record was something that’s different for me, and you never know how that’s gonna go down. People like the things that they like to stay how they like ’em,” she quipped.
No matter the outcome, she feels like her nominations in the general categories represent a win for fans not being restricted by genre. “Being in that category whether I win or not makes me feel like all the hard work has really paid off,” she said. “It reinforces the notion that people just want to hear songs that resonate with them in some way, and it doesn’t matter how they hear them, where they hear them, how big those artists are, what genre they come from or what kind of clothes they wear.”
Goldman mentioned the newly opened Dolly Parton costume exhibit just outside the theater’s doors and revealed that Musgraves will be participating in a tribute to Parton on Sunday’s telecast. (Musgraves will also be performing Saturday at a MusiCares benefit honoring Parton.)
“She’s from another planet,” said Musgraves. “She’s like a starchild… What I love most about her is that she has sex appeal, she has humor and she has brains, and she wasn’t afraid to be the woman with all of those things. I think a lot of women hold those things back because they don’t want to be intimidating or they think they would be liked better if they just toned one of those things down a little bit. But she was like ‘I don’t care’ and she did ‘em all as loud as possible.” Plus, said Musgraves, “She was one of the first advocates for the LGBTQ community (in country music) when that wasn’t even a thing.”
That’s definitely become much more of a thing since Musgraves has becomes a recognized champion for the LGBTQ community. Her CMA Award-winning single “Follow Your Arrow,” from her 2013 debut album “Same Trailer Different Park,” has often been heralded as a gay anthem.
Prefaced with a testament to how Musgraves’ music had helped him with his own struggles growing up gay in a small Texas town, one fan asked Musgraves how she reacted to “stan Twitter” and her legion of LGBTQ fans who laud her as Parton-esque mouthpiece for inclusion in country music.
Musgraves responded humbly, “What’s not to love about that community?” She joked that she sometimes feels like “a gay man trapped inside a woman’s body.” While maintaining her deep love of country music and the community that creates it, she gently pointed out that the genre can sometimes be “hypocritical” in its exclusion of gay-positive narratives. “Country music is supposed to be a genre built on real life and real stories,” she said. “I don’t see why country music as a genre wouldn’t move with the times.”
Musgraves spoke openly about some regrets she has from her childhood in Texas.
“I think maybe there’s part of me that feels a little guilty about growing up in East Texas and going along with how everyone else treated that subject,” she said. “I felt bad for having it all wrong, you know? And it just goes to show you that anyone can change, anyone can evolve. It’s just become a community that I feel really supported by,” she said, going on to explain how she became an LGBTQ ally when her best friend came out to her after they’d moved to the state’s more progressive capitol. Later on, after moving to Nashville, she became a regular at a drag bar, “and at this point it was like, ‘We ain’t in Texas anymore, Toto!'”
But despite her support for causes that some might call political, Musgraves says she was never trying to climb up on a soapbox.
“‘Arrow’ wasn’t necessarily meant to be this gay anthem,” she said. “It was just a song to be like, ‘Society’s never gonna be completely happy with whatever side you’re on, so just be yourself.’ But it did bring a lot of people from that community to my music,” she said. “I’ve been a social commentator before, whether it was with ‘Arrow’ or ‘Merry Go Round,’ and your message can get unintentionally quieter the louder you try to make it sometimes. I’ve never tried to be the message girl. I’m not trying to bestow wisdom on anyone. I’m just over here trying to figure it out just like everybody else.”
With “Golden Hour,” she knew she wanted to make a switch from her first two acclaimed albums, but didn’t know what it would be. “I was just kind of in a funk. I didn’t have my stride. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I had to do something different. I was craving a different side of songwriting; I was craving trying out different flavors. There’s the saying, ‘Don’t fix what’s not broke’… but I was like, there’s other stuff out there. What if?”
She felt the urge to set aside the witty storytelling she’d become known for on those first two albums. “Damn, you can only do that for so long, and then everyone’s like, ‘We get it! You have an album full of riddles. How cute.’ I just think that it could easily get cutesy,” she said, “and I never intended for it to be like that. Honestly, I’m gonna blame John Prine for this one. This guy, he’s such an inspiration to me, and his songs are so witty and involve so many turns of phrase and sarcasm.” (Prine is up for three Grammys Sunday night, himself.) “He is my hallmark as someone to look at. I’ve been inspired by him since I first heard his music. But I did think for me there were other colors in the box that I wasn’t using.”
Part of the answer came with working with a new set of co-writers and producers not as steeped in classic country. And part of it came through falling in love with her now-husband, Ruston Kelly.
“I thought I needed to have suffering to be able to create something that I thought was good,” Musgraves admitted. “I think I kept myself in situations or relationships longer than I should have because maybe it was inspiring in some way — which really is not healthy at all. When I met him, I wondered, am I screwed? And I wasn’t. it ended up being the opposite. It ended up waking my senses up, and I think my heart too. … If you’re not with somebody who’s making you comfortable with your own self, how the hell can you express yourself correctly? You can’t. So it changed a lot for me. Songs started immediately pouring out.”
Part of her goal for “Golden Hour,” she said, was to provide listeners with an escape from the grating nature of the 24-hour news cycle.
“I kind of want to give people a little bit of a hiding place, something free, something hopeful. I feel like we need that right now,” she said.
The album received nearly unanimous critical acclaim, and was just announced Wednesday as having topped the annual Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics’ poll. It didn’t received much airplay on her native format, country radio, though, and Musgraves talked about how she was told, when she turned the album in, that it had a “tempo” problem. Musgraves said she and an associate then went through a list of recent hit songs in the format and found that their beats-per-minute worked out to about the same BPM average on “Golden Hour.” The answer she got back, she said to laughs from the audience, was that the problem had more to do with “perceived tempo.”
The pace of things was just fine for the Grammy Museum audience when, following the Q&A, Musgraves and her six-piece band took to the Clive Davis Theater stage to perform six of the 13 tracks from “Golden Hour,” including a version of the most determinedly up-tempo track, “High Horse,” that put a slightly more bluegrass spin on the album’s disco arrangement. Introducing her song “Butterflies” — which has just been released as a single to country radio — she said, “This is the first song I wrote for the man who is now my husband.” Musgraves closed the evening with a heartfelt performance of the last song on the album, “Rainbow,” featuring just her voice and a piano accompaniment.