Photo: Adrienne Raquel
Kacey Musgraves' Road To 'Star-Crossed': How The Breakup Album Fits Right Into Her Glowing Catalog
Three years ago, Kacey Musgraves released Golden Hour, a glittering display of her buttery vocals through what she calls "cosmic country." The whimsical production was a musical representation of the fairytale love she found with fellow country singer Ruston Kelly.
Three years later, Musgraves' script has completely flipped. She and Kelly divorced in September 2020, giving the Texas-born star a new form of inspiration, and one she least expected. The result is star-crossed, a 15-song diary of Musgraves' marriage that she and Kelly said "simply just didn't work." Rightfully so, it's the singer's first full-fledged breakup album. But despite its lovelorn backstory, star-crossed is, at its core, another level of the resilience Musgraves has shown from the start.
Musgraves' 2013 debut set, Same Trailer Different Park, dissected the suffocating mindset of small-town life—a bold move for the native of Golden, Texas, a town of 200 people—in tracks like her breakout single "Merry Go 'Round" while also rejecting societal norms on the cheeky "Follow Your Arrow." Ironically, the impudent songs marked Musgraves' biggest commercial hits to date, landing at No. 10 on Billboard's Country Airplay and Hot Country Songs charts, respectively.
The struggle for commercial success has always been part of Musgraves' narrative, largely in part due to her unabashed honesty. With references to kissing girls and rolling a joint in "Follow Your Arrow," Musgraves immediately declared that she didn't care if she polarized country traditionalists and radio programmers.
But her boundary-pushing approach was clearly resonating with just about everyone else: Same Trailer Different Parkwon Musgraves her first two GRAMMYs and Country Music Awards (as well as her first Academy of Country Music Award), and the album debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart. (What's more, Miranda Lambert's fiery hit "Mama's Broken Heart"—co-written by Musgraves—received GRAMMY, CMA and ACM nominations, and reached No. 2 on both Country Airplay and Hot Country Songs that same year.)
As her star quickly rose, Musgraves' pop sensibilities also gained notice. Not only did her debut set land at No. 2 on the all-genre Billboard 200, but the singer's unique stylings caught the attention of pop superstars Katy Perry and Kelly Clarkson. Perry recruited Musgraves to open the Midwest and Canadian portions of her blockbuster 2014 Prismatic Tour; Clarkson invited Musgraves to perform at a holiday benefit concert she hosted in Nashville later that year.
"She has such an innocent voice, while her lyrics are so clever and smart," Clarkson said of Musgraves in a 2015 SPIN feature. "Her music gives me room to breathe in this rapid-paced world of political nonsense."
Musgraves' doughty commentary continued on her sophomore effort, 2015's Pageant Material, though this time it was aimed at her critics instead of her narrow-minded upbringing: "Good Ol' Boys Club'' was a direct reference to the country radio folks who refused to give her a shot.
She used her trademark turn of phrase to countrify the idiom "Mind your own business" with the twangy single "Biscuits" ("Mind your own biscuits/ And life will be gravy," she quips on the hook), and the playful "Cup of Tea" sees Musgraves acknowledging that her music isn't going to please everyone ("Nobody's everybody's favorite, so you might as well just make it how you please/ 'Cause you can't be everybody's cup of tea").
Naysayers aside, Musgraves' wordplay won the hearts of many in the first few years of her career. But as she began crafting her third record, the singer recognized that she needed a change. "Before, my songwriting hinged more on turning phrases," Musgraves explained to Marie Claire in 2019. "I like that style, but I wasn't using all the colors in the box. This time, I wanted to speak from the heart. It was time to shift gears and feel things and let people in a little bit more. I'm a perfectionist. I had to let go."
She had also let go of any inhibitions she had about love, resulting in a whirlwind romance with Kelly that began in 2016. Three weeks after meeting the crooner, Musgraved wrote the appropriately fluttering "Butterflies," which proclaimed in the pre-chorus, "Out of the blue/ I fell for you." The Golden Hour single teased what was to come with Musgraves' next project, which ushered in a starry-eyed perspective and introduced dreamy production and Auto-Tune into her sonic universe.
While it was evident there was something in the air while Musgraves created Golden Hour, she likely never could've anticipated the kind of impact it had. The album made the trailblazing country starlet a household name, winning the Album of the Year honors at the CMAs, ACMs, and the GRAMMYs. (Musgraves won all four GRAMMYs for which she was nominated for in 2019, including Best Country Album, Best Country Song for "Space Cowboy," and Best Country Solo Performance for "Butterflies.") The set's pop-leaning dynamics also earned her an invite to open for Harry Styleson his highly anticipated 2018 North American arena tour.
Once Golden Hour was declared the GRAMMY Album of the Year—over the likes of Cardi B, Post Malone, Drake, mind you—it felt as though Musgraves had become bigger than a crossover success. She was more like a pop culture phenom, sending social media into a frenzy with her impeccable Moschino Barbie look at the 2019 Met Gala, guest judging on RuPaul's Drag Race, and hosting a star-studded Christmas special that featured Schitt's Creek star Dan Levy, Lana Del Rey, and Camila Cabello, among others. Though a major bar had been set for a Golden Hour follow-up, Musgraves carved a solid path that kept expectations and hopes equally high.
But as she pointed out in one of Golden Hour's only breakup tales, "Space Cowboy," "sunsets fade, and love does too." Before she knew it, Musgraves' life-changing romance was coming to an end, and as she declares in her star-crossed track "What Doesn't Kill Me," "the golden hour faded black." Following a guided psilocybin trip in Nashville at the beginning of 2021, Musgraves explained to Crack magazine that she had a revelation about her situation: "I've been through a f***ing tragedy!"
That sparked the idea of presenting her post-divorce album like a three-part Greek tragedy. The 15-track star-crossedunfolds her relationship's demise, establishes where it went wrong, and looks ahead to new beginnings. Before landing on the tragedy theme, Musgraves admitted she wasn't quite sure she wanted to divulge the issues that ultimately crumbled the magical world she had created with Golden Hour. But once she really thought about it, she knew there was no other way.
"People know me to be a songwriter that writes about what I'm going through, and I think it would've been extremely awkward if I just acted like this chapter didn't happen for me," Musgraves told Apple Music's Zane Lowe. "You saw my highlight reel with Golden Hour, and this is the other side of that. There are beautiful sides of that too.
"I want the chance to transform my trauma into something else, and I want to give myself that opportunity even if it's painful," she added. "It was completely life-changing in so many ways."
It was seemingly creatively stimulating as well. Star-crossed takes the ethereal production of Golden Hour to new heights, experimenting with just how cosmic Musgraves can sound on swirling tracks like "Good Wife" and "If This Was a Movie." Perhaps the latter ignited another lightbulb moment for Musgraves, because star-crossed is, indeed, a movie. A 50-minute film of the same name played for one night only in 25 theaters around the U.S. on Sept. 8, and arrived to Paramount+ as the album hit streaming platforms at midnight on Sept. 10.
Star-crossed: the film is a reminder that Musgraves is an artistic mastermind. It also reassures fans that her playfulness hasn't completely disappeared. Complex manifestations of the tracks are sprinkled with Easter eggs and entertaining performances from the cast, including comedian Megan Stalter and Latin singer-songwriter San Cha. It's a fitting parallel to the balance of the album, which is lyrically dense while sonically mesmerizing.
For example, the title track is soundtracked by flittering Latin-inspired guitar and thumping production as Musgraves starts off the album in poetic form: "Let me set the scene/ Two lovers ripped right at the seams/ They woke up from the perfect dream/ And then the darkness came/ I signed the papers yesterday/ You came and took your things away/ And moved out of the home we made/ And gave you back your name."
While it's obvious why Musgraves delved into heartbreak on star-crossed, a full project of breakup songs shouldn't come as a complete shock to longtime listeners anyway.
No matter how impudent Musgraves has been in her music and in the public eye, her sensitive side hasn't been lost in her audacity. Each of her albums has had its tender moments, like Same Trailer Different Park single "Keep It To Yourself" and Pageant Material closer "Fine." Yes, even the rose-colored Golden Hour featured some melancholy, with the lamenting ballad "Space Cowboy" and the nerve-wracked "Happy & Sad."
Funnily enough, for a woman who has no problem telling anyone off, Musgraves doesn't have any truly scathing breakup tunes in her catalog. The edginess comes in the form of creative phrasing and lighthearted jabs, like Golden Hour's disco-tinged single "High Horse" or Pageant Material's falsetto-laced track "Miserable." "Breadwinner" and "Justified" are about as caustic as Musgraves gets on star-crossed, which is overall more of a diary than a revenge party.
"I'm not a ruthless person," Musgraves told ELLE earlier this year. "I care about other people's feelings," she added, asserting that releasing such a detailed account of her divorce was "kind of scary."
At the same time, the writing process was a "therapeutic outlet" for the singer-songwriter. "I can't help but to write about what I'm going through," she said in her February cover story for Rolling Stone. "I want to honor the huge range of emotion that I've felt over this past year, past six months. I also want to honor the relationship [Ruston and I] had and the love we have for each other. Because it's very real."
One thing that didn't scare Musgraves was the elevated production that Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian (the dream team behind Golden Hour) brought to star-crossed. Combining Musgraves' country-leaning wordcraft and velvety voice with synths and vocoders clearly worked on her previous album, which she told Crack allowed her to accomplish "everything I could have ever dreamed of." With that, "I felt like I didn't really have anything to prove," she said, "and I don't make albums for accolades anyway."
Even if this isn't musically her most country work, Musgraves would argue she's more aligned with the genre than ever. She joked to The New York Times (in classic Kacey fashion), "I wasn't going to be a real country artist without at least one divorce under my belt."
Kacey die-hards will be pleased to know she's feeling butterflies once again, as her new beau, writer Cole Schafer, made things Instagram official with a sweet dedication to Musgraves on her Aug. 21 birthday. "Here's to you making it through thirty-two and here's to you making history in thirty-three," he wrote in the caption of a black-and-white photo montage. He left his star-crossed review in the comments: "that s*** f***s."
Whether or not Schafer is the muse for her next work, Musgraves has hinted that she's at peace with the heartache that resulted in star-crossed—even if it wasn't what she'd envisioned for this next chapter. "I'm in a night period," she contended to Rolling Stone. "But what's great about that is that next is another light period. It will come again."