Remember how shocked Kacey Musgraves looked when she won album of the year for her Golden Hour at the 61st Grammy Awards in 2019? That’s exactly how I feel right now.
Shocked that one of country music’s most beloved singer-songwriters could be so easily snubbed by the Grammys just a few years after so many massive wins, both in the country and all-genre categories.
Shocked that she could be aptly celebrated with a three-year exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame - Kacey Musgraves: All of the Colors - all about where she’s come from and where she’s going, and yet not be celebrated in the country category at the upcoming Grammys.
Shocked she could win six Grammys (five in country categories) since her debut in 2013, and yet have her new star-crossed album be considered completely ineligible for the country categories this year.
This new album may not be straight-up mainstream country, but that’s always been exactly where Musgraves shines. She isn’t cutting songs that sound like everybody else’s songs, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t country. It just means that they are country through her lens. And like any art form, it’s nearly impossible to create a benchmark for what is and isn’t country enough.
Even though the 2022 Grammy nominations won’t officially be announced until Nov. 23 (a couple months before the Jan. 31, 2022 show), Musgraves’ record label received word last week that star-crossed is ineligible for the country category and would only be able to compete in the pop category.
How is that possible? And who makes that decision? This new album features 15 tracks written by Musgraves and her two longtime country collaborators Ian Fitchuk and Dan Tashian. Both men were writers and co-producers on her last album Golden Hour, the one that won best country album and album of the year at the Grammys in 2019. (A handful of tracks also include co-writing credits from Ilsey Juber, BJ Burton, Andrew Neely, Dante Jone, Dewain Whitmore Jr., and Violeta Parra.)
And yet, here we are. Officially, the Grammys define country eligibility thusly:
'The country field recognizes excellence in country music recordings that utilize a stylistic intention, song structure, lyrical content and/or musical presentation to create a sensibility that reflects the broad spectrum of country music style and culture. The intent is to recognize country music that remains reminiscent of its culture’s legacy while also engaging contemporary forms that “push the boundaries” but still are relevant in the collective country music culture.
The field includes recordings and songs that are country in content as opposed to those that may have a “country flavor,” but are aimed at the contemporary or pop audience.'
So, in other words, Musgraves can push boundaries and reflect a broad spectrum, but has to do so with more than just a country flavor? The ambiguity of this gray area is too hard to wrap my head around.
And I’m not the only one who feels this strongly. On Sunday (October 10), the president of Musgraves’ record label, Cindy Mabe, sent a lengthy, emotional-yet-rational letter to the Recording Academy president-CEO Harvey Mason Jr. expressing her concerns over what the decision means not just to Musgraves, but to the genre and all of its fans.
Below is Mabe’s letter in full.
I am writing as a follow up to our recent conversation about the determination to exclude Kacey Musgraves’ album star-crossed from the Grammy’s country albums category. I am a big believer in the Grammys as an organization and have witnessed the power of its platform to transform artists’ careers and reflect, amplify and change culture. That certainly has happened for Kacey Musgraves over the last seven years with wins in 2014 for Country Album of the Year for Same Trailer Different Park, and then again in 2019 for Golden Hour as well as overall Album of the Year. The Grammy’s have been a destination of artist discovery and for Kacey it’s a place where her musical history was written.
As a prime stakeholder in country music, I would really like to frame what’s happening in our genre right now and help you and the Grammy’s fully understand the importance of Kacey Musgraves to country music and why this decision is so much more than an entry point for an awards show. Taking her out of the country category actually does harm to a format struggling with change and inclusivity overall. For the past several years, the stories around country music have been the stories of country radio and the limitations put on women’s voices or diversity of any kind from our key artists, their perspectives or their sound. The numbers speak and are a matter of public record with women making up only 10 percent of all country airplay. This year alone country music has been mired in the controversy surrounding one of the formats biggest artists, Morgan Wallen, who used a racial slur and grew fans and audience from it. THIS IS NOT ALL THAT WE ARE. Under the surface are the artists that change it all and they are led by the example of Kacey Musgraves.
Kacey Musgraves is a beacon in a format ready to push back on the ideas that there is more than one way to succeed, there is more than one sound and perspective for what country music is and most importantly who it speaks to. While that might not sound radical, I’ll remind you that our world believes you are either on country radio or you aren’t country. Kacey Musgraves is an extreme revolution and if Kacey can create her own path, others can too. She has taken the lead role of lighting the way of success in a format that has been so restricted by rules of who’s allowed in and what they can sing about. Artists like Maren Morris, Brothers Osborne and Mickey Guyton continuously site Kacey’s career path and music as an inspiration for their own success. My own artist Mickey Guyton has struggled for 10 years to be heard. It took the example of watching Kacey create her own path by living out her own truth in country music for Mickey to see what was possible and she followed suit laying out her perspective as a Black woman in America singing country music and re-writing history on your show last year.
Universal Music Group Nashville has launched every major label album Kacey Musgraves has put out. Kacey has always forged her own path. She has stayed true to herself and has never taken a different stance on how she framed this album from the last ones. Sonically, it’s got more country instrumentation than Golden Hour which won Country Album of the Year in 2019. To compare Golden Hour to star-crossed, both albums were produced by Ian Fitchuk, Daniel Tashian and Kacey Musgraves. Both albums were mixed by Shawn Everett. On Golden Hour, Ian, Daniel and Kacey wrote 7 of the 13 songs and on star-crossed they wrote 11 of the 15. Both albums complete each other with Golden Hour telling the story of falling in love and star-crossed telling the conclusion of the breakup. There is no departure in sound from these two projects. This album was consistently classified as country throughout it’s metadata and overall labeling across the DSP accounts and partners. star-crossed appeared on every major country playlist of every DSP. It’s being played on SXM The Highway, CMT and was covered by every country media outlet at release. This decision from the country committee to not accept star-crossed into the country albums category is very inconsistent and calls into question the other agendas that were part of this decision.
That takes us to the process. The idea that a handful of people including competitors, who would benefit from Kacey not being in the country category, are deciding what is country only exacerbates the problem. The system is broken and sadly not just for Kacey Musgraves but for our entire genre because of how these decisions are made for music’s biggest stage. Building roadblocks for artists who dare to fight the system is so dangerous and against everything I think the Grammy’s stand for. But that’s where we are today.
I haven’t slept all weekend because I’m really sad for our format. I’m sad for fans of our music and the ramifications of how we’ll continue to define success in country music. This short-sided, biased decision will send ripples throughout our format to continue to insure that the message is sent that country music can only be for the limited few that enjoy the same perspective.
Thank you for listening to my concerns.
President, Universal Music Group Nashville
What’s so notable about Mabe’s letter is that she sent it on behalf of Musgraves. The mere fact that the boss of her major record label has Musgraves’ back is an avid testament to the kind of fiercely loyal commitment that exists within the country community.
Mabe’s passion for country music – the old-school songs, the modern ones and every other kind in between – is virtually tangible in this letter. And while that alone doesn’t make an album country, it sure shows the world that if you are part of a major label in Nashville, you matter.
And shouldn’t that matter to the Grammys? To learn that our genre doesn’t just throw everything we’ve got at the Recording Academy hoping something might stick, but that the music being sent in for consideration has been carefully and obsessively considered?
By taking the time to paint a bigger picture for Mason, Mabe is able to give him specific reasons why Musgraves is so right for right now, and honestly, now more than ever. She is leading by example, Mabe explains, at a time when inclusivity and diversity are at their most pivotal point.
Musgraves is proof that there is more than one way to succeed in a genre.
Then, without being at all ambiguous, Mabe gives the Grammys all she’s got by pointing out exactly how she thinks this catastrophe came to be: the decision makers aren’t objective enough. In fact, they are just “a handful of people who would benefit from Kacey not being in the country category.”
If Mabe’s letter is able to change the Academy’s collective minds, and it places star-crossed back in the country category where it belongs instead of continuing to put up nebulous roadblocks, her sleepless nights will not be for naught.
And if the letter fails to change their minds, maybe Nashville music makers will have to change their minds. Maybe country music will have to consider whether the Grammy Awards are even eligible for the genre’s attention anymore.
What do you think about star-crossed being left out of the Grammys Country Albums category? Tweet us your thoughts - @hollercountry
Listen to star-crossed in full below.