Country is only recently a dirty word. The once proud genre has become little more than a southern hospitality tinged pop monstrosity. At its worst it’s the pretty LA cowboy pretending he’s done anything more than eat kale and collect royalty checks. It all feels dishonest, forced, and pandering. As such it’s refreshing to hear a country artist bring some honesty into their work, even if that honesty and the musical stylings that accompany it, don’t always “feel” like country music.
Kacey Musgraves has always felt like an outlier in modern country music. Regardless of whether or not she has a team behind her she never feels like she does. Her music has always been exceedingly honest, whether it be a dissection of the trappings of small town life on “Merry Go Round” or the hilarious self criticisms of “Blowin Smoke” she’s never been afraid to lay into her subject matter. Golden Hour sees Musgraves doing much the same, but make no mistake this record is a clear evolution in style from her previous entries. In recent times, country music has felt like pop with a small town photo filter haphazardly thrown on top. Take something from the top 40, add some twang and dirt roads then make someone who hasn’t so much as smelled a farm sing it and you’ve got tomorrow’s biggest country hit. Musgraves on the other hand has never tried to hide her pop influences behind cheap tricks. Golden Hour exemplifies the culmination of her evolution toward a more pop oriented sound, but even on that side of the coin she’s still in a league of her own. The reason Musgraves is able to stay at the top of the pack in the competitive world of pop is because she’s embraced the storytelling that actually makes country music special. Country didn’t become popular because it played off some gross fetishization of rural life, but because of the ability of its artists to tell deeply specific and relatable stories in great detail. Musgraves has always been an expert at this and seeing her pull that strength over to a slightly poppier sound is delightful to see.
Getting into the sound of the album itself, there’s a lot to unpack. While her last albums were fairly straightforward in instrumentals and brought to life with savvy songwriting, Golden Hour features a notable increase in electric based instruments and production. The strongest example of this is “High Horse” which has flavors of disco and funk flowing through it in a way that is instantly memorable. Other songs like “Space Cowboy” and “Lonely Weekend” break the country mold by incorporating slightly pop production or a distant reverberated vocal style. Each song on this record is essentially a pop masterpiece, and best of all we have a decent chance of seeing Musgraves be rewarded for her expertise. Where most of the current saviors of country music like Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Tyler Childers aren’t let anywhere near events like the Grammys or the CMA’s, Musgraves has a much more approachable and popular style that seems destined to net her a moment in the spotlight that she more than deserves.
While the drought for great country may not be over, Golden Hour is a huge step in the right direction. Musgraves seems destined to be the next big thing in the genre as she drags it kicking and screaming into the next decade. Much like the Dixie Chicks before her, she understands that what makes country music special was never the wild nights at the honkey tonk or the trains and dirt roads out by the farm. Rather it was the stories that came from those rural areas, a distinct intersection of humanity and community that made for, and still makes for, some of the most compelling songwriting in any genre.