The biggest award of the Grammys is saved for last: best album of the year. This year, there were some top contenders, including Drake, Brandi Carlile and the Kendrick Lamar-curated “Black Panther” soundtrack. But none of those stars was the ultimate winner. Instead, the award went to a country singer.

When host Alicia Keys announced that Kacey Musgraves had won for “Golden Hour,” no one looked more shocked than Musgraves herself.

“Oh my God. Oh my God! I don’t even know what to say,” Musgraves said, and immediately got choked up. “It was unbelievable to be even in a category with such gigantic albums, really brilliant works of art. It’s really crazy. But I’m very thankful. And I know that winning this doesn’t make my album any better than anybody else’s in that category, they’re all so good.”

Musgraves, 30, walked away with four trophies overall, tied with Childish Gambino for the most of any artist that night. She also won best country song (“Space Cowboy”) and country solo performance (“Butterflies”). It’s the first time a country artist has won album of the year since Taylor Swift did with “Fearless” in 2010. So how did Musgraves break out of the country music bubble to capture enough mainstream attention for the Grammys’ biggest award?

Redefining country

Since the Texas-born Musgraves released her first single in 2012, she has stood out in Nashville. When so many singers were embracing the pop and rock-leaning, party-centric songs that commercial radio programmers craved, Musgraves’s first effort was pure country: “Merry Go Round,” a breathtaking, sharply written track, was a bleak look at feeling suffocated in a small town. It’s still her highest-selling song to date and earned enough acclaim that people outside the genre took notice; she was nominated for best new artist at the Grammys. In early 2013, Musgraves told USA Today that one thing she heard all the time was, “I don’t like country music, but I love you.”

A version of that label, the “country singer for people who don’t like country music,” has stuck with Musgraves for years. Her debut album, the Grammy-winning “Same Trailer Different Park,” was also a hit, and her third single, “Follow Your Arrow,” became an instant classic among her steadily growing fan base. The references to marijuana use and same-sex kissing were highly unusual for a country artist; Musgraves was also a vocal supporter of LGBT rights, which only brought her more attention outside Nashville.

Kacey Musgraves performs "Rainbow" at the Grammy Awards. (Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)
Kacey Musgraves performs "Rainbow" at the Grammy Awards. (Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)

However, “Follow Your Arrow” proved too controversial for country radio — and although Musgraves seemed a bit frustrated by the snub, she appeared uninterested in playing the typical industry games. That included speaking out against country radio, which is normally taboo for Nashville artists, as airplay can often make or break stars.

“I just hate that people are scared of it,” Musgraves told the Guardian about “Follow Your Arrow.” “But I don’t want to be begging. I don’t want to be at the mercy of country radio with it.”

“It’s gonna have its own life regardless, so I don’t really want to ask their permission,” she said.

Skyrocketing to another level

All of Musgraves’s singles since “Merry Go Round” have received little attention, including from her second Grammy-nominated album, “Pageant Material.” Yet it didn’t really matter. She sold tons of albums and concert tickets and took her career to another level last March with the release of “Golden Hour.” The dreamlike album was a risk, sonically, as Musgraves worked with new producers and mixed everything from pop to disco into country. As it turned out, critics loved it, and Nashville industry types also appreciated her unique sound.

“I just started imagining this land, musically, where it was possible to keep these elements of country music that are really intrinsic to my music, like pedal steel, banjo,” she told reporters last fall at the Country Music Association, where she also won album of the year.

“But I wanted to explore this new frontier for myself with kind of electronic elements. And it’s a big mixture of a bunch of different things.”

In another critical mainstream boost, Musgraves’s music caught the attention of Harry Styles, formerly of One Direction. She opened for him in arenas across the United States last year and discovered a new set of fans. It all led to this Sunday night, when she won the music industry’s biggest prize and put a spotlight on Nashville.

“I love country music with everything that I am,” she told the Grammy audience. “And I’m very proud to be able to get to share my version of that with the world.”

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