by Natalie Weiner
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Photography by Joseph Llanes
On her tour bus parked across from Santander Arena in Reading, Pa., Kacey Musgraves has created a little oasis from the nor’easter-induced chill outside: a bouquet of tiny pink roses, a giant white geode and a burned-to-the-quick Jenni Kayne candle adorn the table where she’s sitting. Comforts of the road, sure -- but for Musgraves, they’re also reminders that there’s magic in the world. “It can be easy to forget that right now there are literally jellyfish that light up, and plants that can change your mind, and Northern lights and shooting stars ... all these crazy beautiful things, like rainbows and shit -- you know what I mean?” she says. She holds up the geode: “This crystal grew in the earth! I’m like, what?! Aaaghhh!”
These days, Musgraves, 29, is more dreamy than she is cheeky. Later she’ll tell me about the “giant impression” psychedelics have made on her, but the reality of her life today is pretty marvelous as it is. She’s nearly midway through a 26-show run opening for country superstars Little Big Town (tomorrow, the caravan heads to Washington, D.C.), then joins Harry Styles for his U.S. dates before setting out on her own headlining Oh, What a World! Tour. And she’s about to release her third studio album, Golden Hour (March 30), a lovely, unexpectedly romantic record with two early singles, “Butterflies” and “Space Cowboy,” already hailed as among 2018’s best yet.
Her mindset was decidedly less sunny before the inspiration for Golden Hour first came to her in 2016. “I was in this lonely, not-creative place and just felt like shit about myself,” says Musgraves today on the bus, shaking her head at the memory. That changed as soon as she met singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly -- now her husband -- at Nashville’s famed Bluebird Cafe, where he was playing alongside one of her exes in a writer’s round. (When I arrived at the bus earlier, the lanky, bearded Kelly sat quietly strumming a guitar, cigarette tucked behind his ear.) She loved his songs, and her own soon followed: “I had just cleared my schedule to get back to writing when I went to that show and I met him,” says Musgraves. “Songs just immediately started pouring out.”
Love songs are a new look for Musgraves, who built her audience telling sharply observed stories about small-town life and extolling the virtues of “mind[ing] your own biscuits” on 2013’s Same Trailer, Different Park and 2015’s Pageant Material, both of which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart. Her second release came in the heat of what was dubbed Tomatogate, when radio consultant Keith Hill advised country programmers to treat women artists like “tomatoes” in a salad -- that is, to use their music sparingly. Musgraves, though, earned considerable acclaim and a devoted following despite minimal radio play. Instead of trying to fill a Taylor Swift-sized hole or match Miranda Lambert’s swagger, suddenly there was a bit more room for diverse sounds and perspectives from women in country. “She isn't going to sacrifice her art or point of view for any gatekeepers,” says Maren Morris, a friend since they were “13 or 14,” when they met at a show in Dallas. “Never has, never will.” Similarly tradition-defying women artists like Morris and Kelsea Ballerinihave proliferated in Nashville since.
With Golden Hour, it was most important to Musgraves to keep that evolution moving. Joined by longtime friends and collaborators Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian, she decamped to Sheryl Crow’s studio, housed in a barn, for about a year to complete the writing and recording process, repeatedly coming back to one idea: As Musgraves puts it, “If Sade made a country album, what would it sound like?” “There’s a freedom in putting yourself out there from day one, never trying to fit someone else’s mold,” says Musgraves. The result is not only more tender than what came before, but also less reverent to her earlier albums’ contemporary honky-tonk sound. “It was a nice escape to fixate on this person that has completely changed my world, rather than try to be a social commentator,” she says, fiddling with the rainbow fringe on her sky blue sweatsuit. “I’ve been that a lot before, so it might surprise people that I’m not now. But everyone has a soapbox these days! Everyone’s tired of it.” Still, in conversation Musgraves is forthright with her opinions on everything from Nashville’s misplaced preoccupation with “tempo” to how country music’s double standard extends even to sunglasses.
That evening, after her band’s ceremonial preshow tequila shot out of cactus-shaped glasses, Kelly watches alone from the crowd as Musgraves, backed by her powder-blue-suited band, performs “Butterflies,” which she wrote with Luke Laird and Natalie Hemby weeks after meeting him: “Cloud nine was always out of reach/Now I remember what it feels like to fly.” The song has been out for only a week, but Musgraves stands before an arena that’s impressively full, and impressively eager to sing her tune.