When Kacey Musgraves won album of the year at the Country Music Association Awards Wednesday night, she looked stunned. Some had predicted she could win the tough category, but the odds weren’t exactly in her favor. Solo male artists have won the prize 37 times. She hugged her grandmother, then made her way up to the stage.
“Wow. This is really, really crazy timing, because I just realized this morning — it sounds like a lie — 10 years ago today, I moved to Nashville,” the 30-year-old Musgraves said, as she thanked her husband, Ruston Kelly, along with her management and record label. “Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian, my two co-producers, made this record with me, and we poured everything we have into this. And I’m so proud of it. It’s inspired by just this beautiful universe, all of you and just most of all, love.”
The award is significant for Musgraves’s career — “Golden Hour,” which has sold about 107,000 copies since its release in March, is now back near the top of the all-genre iTunes charts — but it’s also a win for the industry. Country music has received a lot of backlash in recent years for its very visible gender imbalance. Women only make up approximately 10 percent of the songs played on country radio; streaming playlists and festival lineups are also skewed male. Even the CMA Awards were spare on female nominees, with an all-men entertainer of the year category for the second consecutive year.
The four members of Little Big Town, who presented the album of the year award, couldn’t contain their excitement as they read the envelope with Musgraves’s name.
“And the CMA Award for album of the year goes to ..." Karen Fairchild trailed off. Then she smiled. “For all the little girls writing songs out there, ‘Golden Hour,’ Kacey Musgraves!”
Fairchild’s pointed dedication to “all the little girls” wasn’t just a fun aside — she has been vocal about the challenges women face in the genre. The comment also brings to mind Carrie Underwood’s recent interview with the podcast “Women Want to Hear Women,” in which the superstar confessed she doesn’t know what to say to young girls who want to be country singers.
“What do you tell them? What do you do?” Underwood asked. “How do you look at them and say, ‘Well, just work hard, sweetie, and you can do it,' when that’s probably not the case right now?”
Now, Musgraves certainly gives them some hope, as she was the only woman nominated for album of the year; she beat out Chris Stapleton’s “From A Room: Vol. 2,” Thomas Rhett’s “Life Changes,” Keith Urban’s “Graffiti U” and Dierks Bentley’s “The Mountain.” All four men see much more airplay than Musgraves, who has received virtually no country radio support since her 2013 debut album, “Same Trailer Different Park.”
And while some wondered whether that would have an impact on her chances, clearly it didn’t matter. She’s now the sixth solo female singer to win album of the year in the 52-year history of the CMAs, joining Miranda Lambert (who won twice), Taylor Swift, Lee Ann Womack, Patty Loveless and Anne Murray.
Not only does Musgraves’s victory help prove that albums can be competitive without radio play, but it’s a lesson to Nashville artists who want to take chances. “Golden Hour” is a country album, though it incorporates everything from pop to disco. Although it may not be traditional enough for radio, the album got near-universal critical acclaim. Musgraves has also found more crossover opportunities outside Nashville, as she was the opening act on Harry Styles’s arena tour this past summer. She’s racking up more celebrity fans, from Reese Witherspoon to Katharine McPhee to Kendall Jenner, who wrote on Twitter, “I die for her!”
Backstage after her CMAs win, Musgraves told reporters that going into making the record, she was facing a crisis of confidence, and wasn’t sure what she wanted to do next. She decided to work with a new group of producers and “find that thing that made my soul really happy again.”