Is Kacey Musgraves really country again?

Both Star-Crossed and Golden Hour were created by the same team of people. And in addition to winning Country Album of the Year, the latter album also won several other country music awards at the Grammys in 2019 including Best Country Solo Performance.

Mabe’s point was that the albums were so similar stylistically that it defied logic to categorize one as country and the other pop. And as it turns out, Mabe is not the only one who feels Musgraves never really abandoned country music.

“I would still consider [Star-Crossed] a country album, she’s still a country artist on that album,” Jason Lipshutz, senior director of music for Billboard, tells BBC Culture.

“I wouldn’t say she left country behind. All of her albums are ostensibly country,” continues Lipshutz. “She is definitely playing with the contours of what country music can be and sound like, but she’s definitely still a country artist through and through.”

But Lipshutz offers this caveat: Musgraves is clearly a country artist who also enjoys other styles of music and likes collaborating with other artists who aren’t in the country space.

It’s an observation made by other critics as well. Musgraves is an artist who’s comfortable navigating her own unique course not limited or defined by traditional genre boundaries. And that reality appears to inform the music she releases and choices she makes, say critics.

Pop as a career stepping stone

For some industry watchers, Musgraves’ dabbling in pop-influenced tracks is not surprising – iIt’s a move that makes perfect sense.

“She essentially hit the top in country – she won album of the year at the Grammys with a country album [in 2019], which is very rare, so where does one go after that?” Hugh McIntyre, a senior contributor and music writer for Forbes, tells BBC Culture.

“There’s only so much she could continue to do within the country world, only so many more people she can reach,” adds McIntyre. “So one way that artists expand their reach and continue to grow is by trying new things and reaching new genres.”

Annie Zaleski, music critic for Rolling Stone, NPR, Salon and other publications offers a similar rationale for Musgrave’s musical path, pointing out that if an artist wants to reach the widest possible audience, then pop is often deemed the way to go.

“I think of the biggest and most obvious artist who moved toward pop from her country roots is Taylor Swift – an evolution that of course has been wildly successful from a critical and commercial standpoint,” Zaleski tells BBC Culture. 

When Swift moved fully in a pop direction starting with her album 1989, it was partly because her musical tastes and influences had expanded – Peter Gabriel and Annie Lennox were both inspirations for 1989, says Zaleski. Swift was also at a point in her career where a leap into the pop world would be the key to  the next level of visibility.

Marren Morris provides a similar example, suggests Zaleski. Morris famously sang on Russian-German record producer Zedd’s pop song The Middle back in 2018.

“[Morris’] sound as well I think has always had bigger aspirations beyond country,” says Zaleski. “And [The Middle was] just her signaling that she was taking more control over her career and approach.”

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But there’s one more potential motivation that can’t be overlooked when it comes to the evolution of female country artists like Marren and Musgraves, which is that country is often a challenging place for artists who don’t fit the (traditionally white, straight, and male) historical mold. It’s an issue that was also taken on by Morris, who has worked to make country music more inclusive, particularly for people of color and the LGBTQ+ community.

“People in the space, especially women, have been coming forward lately and speaking about how country music is still largely male-dominated, white-dominated, there’s not a lot of room for people who don’t fit a very specific look and sound, much more so than almost every other genre,” says McIntyre.

There is hope, however, for an end – or at least a dramatic change – to the gatekeeping of country music, as Beyonce’s recent (not easy, but ultimately successful) first steps into the country genre have shown.

Deeper Well’s balancing act

It is against this complicated backdrop that Musgraves is releasing her new album, Deeper Well. Co-produced and co-written with collaborators from her two previous albums, Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, and released by Interscope Records and UMG Nashville, Deeper Well chronicles habits and people that Musgraves appears ready to put in the past.

Musgraves herself teased the album’s theme in an X (formerly Twitter) post stating: “I’m saying goodbye to the people that I feel are real good at wasting my time. No regrets, baby, I just think that maybe you go your way and I’ll go mine.”

Some have hailed the album, and the year ahead for that matter, as Musgraves’ “emphatic return to country.” Though a closer, more nuanced inspection reveals that the upcoming album may represent a continued balancing act for Musgraves.

“It’s a little bit of a back to basics album, has a country music foundation, but gestures toward folk and pop song writing. Kind of what Kasey has always done,” says Lipshutz.

That unique mix of musical styles on her latest and past albums – country, folk and even some indie influences – Zdan says, is quintessential Musgraves. 

“This only proves my point that she’s a true and great artist of our time,” says Zdan of the new album. “I can’t wait to hear the whole thing and see what she does next.”

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