A Grammy Awards screening committee who must make the tough decisions of which albums are considered “country” in the ever-mutating world of popular music has deemed that the latest album from Kacey Musgraves called Star-Crossed should not be eligible for Best Country Album for the awards coming up on January 31st, 2022. And anyone who has actually heard the album and regards it objectively would have to agree.
In the category descriptions that the Grammy Awards publish each year for guidance of where certain albums should be considered, it states from the outset that the award is “For albums containing at least 51% playing time of new country songs.” Even most dyed-in-the-wool Kacey Musgraves fans would admit that Star-Crossed would not qualify. This is not a criticism of Kacey Musgraves, or her music. It’s simply a call on genre. And in this case, it was the correct one.
Nonetheless, the President of Universal Music Group Nashville, Cindy Mabe, is playing the inclusivity card and citing Morgan Wallen of all people in a strongly worded letter to the Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason, which was then leaked to the label’s friends at Billboard to hopefully put pressure on the Grammy Awards.
“This decision from the country committee to not accept ‘star-crossed’ into the country albums category is very inconsistent and calls into question the other agendas that were part of this decision,” Mabe says. “As a prime stakeholder in country music, I would really like to frame what’s happening in our genre right now and help you and the Grammy’s fully understand the importance of Kacey Musgraves to country music and why this decision is so much more than an entry point for an awards show. Taking her out of the country category actually does harm to a format struggling with change and inclusivity overall.”
Cindy Mabe then goes on to say, “The numbers speak and are a matter of public record with women making up only 10 percent of all country airplay. This year alone country music has been mired in the controversy surrounding one of the formats biggest artists, Morgan Wallen, who used a racial slur and grew fans and audience from it. THIS IS NOT ALL THAT WE ARE. Under the surface are the artists that change it all and they are led by the example of Kacey Musgraves.”
But there are multiple problems with Cindy Mabe’s assertions, the first and foremost being that none of this takes away from the fact that Star-Crossed is not country, and Cindy Mabe and UMG Nashville knew as much from the very start. On April 20th, it was announced by UMG Nashville that they had entered into a unique label partnership with the decidedly non-country imprint Interscope Records to promote and release the Star-Crossed album. Why? Because even by the internal assessments of UMG Nashville, Star-Crossed did not fit well enough in the country world to be promoted by the label, and so they needed a partner outside of the genre to help release the album.
At the time, Cindy Mabe herself said, “Kacey’s music has never had boundaries. Her clever songwriting, adept storytelling, vulnerable and real emotional delivery, and her overall ‘take me or leave me’ spirit have translated through genre, time, space and culture. As we begin to set up her new music, it made sense to once again push the boundaries to reach more fans around the world as we continue to serve the fans who have been here from the beginning.”
At that moment, we knew that Star-Crossed was unlikely to be a country record. When it was released on September 10th, those suspicions were verified. Again, this is not a call on if we want Kacey Musgraves to be considered in the country format. It’s whether the music found on Star-Crossed is objectively more country than it is any other genre. A committee made up of label representatives, artists, journalists, and other country music industry professionals said that it did not.
Cindy Mabe also went on to cite how Kacey’s previous albums had been considered in country categories, and strangely that, “Sonically, it’s got more country instrumentation than ‘Golden Hour’ which won Country Album of the Year in 2019.”
This is just fundamentally untrue. First, the Grammy screening committees are specifically asked not to consider an artist’s previous work in their decisions about current albums or songs under consideration for the current year’s awards. Whether previous works from Musgraves were considered country are irrelevant. Furthermore, Golden Hour featured steel guitarists Russ Pahl, Justin Schipper, and Dan Dugmore. Star-Crossed doesn’t feature any steel guitar at all. Golden Hour also features more banjo and fiddle than Star-Crossed, while Star-Crossed also credits more people for “synthesizer” and “drum programming” in the liner notes.
But the most damaging and misleading portion of Cindy Mabe’s letter to the Grammy Awards was her attempt to undermine the credibility of the decision by bringing up inclusion and diversity in country music. This decision has nothing to do with Morgan Wallen. This is simply an attempt to stab at the Grammy’s decision, and capitalize off of current events. Meanwhile, as one of the most powerful people in country music as the President of UMG Nashville, Cindy Mabe has been one of the individuals presiding over the current regime that has seen such poor representation for women in country music. In 2019, Cindy Mabe was named the Billboard Nashville Power Player Executive of the Year.
While strongly promoting the radio singles from artists such as Luke Bryan, Keith Urban, and Sam Hunt, UMG Nashville has consistently shown piss poor support behind singles from women such as Kacey Musgraves. In February of 2018, Saving Country Music wrote an open letter to UMG Nashville and Cindy Mabe asking why the label wasn’t promoting Kacey’s single “Space Cowboy.” Similar to previous Kacey Musgraves singles, the label released the song into the wild, but put little or no promotion behind it at country radio. This is one of the reasons that despite Kacey’s strong critical acclaim over her career, she never had a hit single on the country radio format.
As major country radio personality Bobby Bones said recently, “Here’s the truth about No. 1 songs: It’s politics. They trade them out like baseball cards. A record label will talk to another record label and go, ‘OK, I’ll give you this No. 1 on this date; you give me that No. 1 on that date.’” But UMG Nashville did not go to bat for Kacey Musgraves singles similar to her male counterparts.
Cindy Mabe is most certainly right that country music continues to deal with issues pertaining to inclusivity, especially for women. That is why it was such a disappointment to many country music fans when Kacey Musgraves released an album that was so decidedly pop.
As Saving Country Music said in its review of Star-Crossed:
What the release of ‘Star-Crossed‘ means is that once again a woman in country music that has amassed major award show hardware and media attention (aside from radio) is now moving on with the genre having nothing to show for the investment. Yes, country music has a serious concern with supporting and developing women. But retention is perhaps the biggest worry, while being more the fault of the artist than the genre.
There have been seven total CMA wins, and 21 total CMA nominations of Kacey Musgraves over her country career, not to mention four ACM’s and 16 nominations there, and six Grammy Award wins. That is a lot of hardware for an artist that just released a pop record.
Similar to Taylor Swift, as soon as Kacey reached a certain level of achievement, she moved on, and country music has nothing to show for it, aside for the guarantee of more think pieces wondering where all the women in country are. You can’t say Kacey was chased away, irrespective of radio, which she never really tried to court in recent years. 46 nominations and 17 wins over an eight-year span is an incredible commitment from country music. ‘Golden Hour‘ won the super-fecta of awards—CMA, ACM, and Grammy for Best Album, and the Grammy for all-genre Album of the Year.
But making a pop album from Kacey Musgraves eligible for a country music award is unfair to actual country artists such as Carly Pearce and Lainey Wilson who both released powerful country records who might be shaded out if pop music is allowed to compete in country categories. So would black country artists such as Chapel Hart. Kacey Musgraves has the right to make whatever kind of record she wants. This isn’t about limiting her creativity. But country albums should be allowed to compete with other country albums, and not albums decidedly outside of country music’s sonic parameters.
Kacey Musgraves and Star-Crossed will still be eligible for awards in the pop categories, and the Grammy’s all-genre categories like Album of the Year, which Musgraves won for Golden Hour. And sure, maybe her chances will be less competing with bigger pop titles. But that’s the risk you run when you choose to transition from country to pop. All of a sudden you become a small fish in a big sea. Then again, Kacey competed in that world in 2018 as well, and won.
Again, Cindy Mabe is right. It is unfortunate that the latest album from Kacey Musgraves will not be considered for Best Country Album at the Grammy Awards. But that is not the fault of the Grammys. It’s due to Kacey’s creative decisions, which were perhaps inspired in part by years of UMG Nashville under-promoting her music to country radio.
The Grammy Awards are not to blame for Star-Crossed not being considered for Best Country Album. Kacey Musgraves and UMG Nashville are.