Look. We all have differing opinions and tastes in music. Music is the mother of all subjective mediums. We also tend to have differing opinions on the nature of certain genres, or even the importance of genres in general. The tired, nauseating back and forths about what country is, and what it isn’t can become so tedious, especially for outside observers who just want to listen to something on their way home from work that’s entertaining.
However within that subjectivity, there are some underlying truths. You wouldn’t call Sam Hunt a traditional country artist, for example. This would be deemed universally incorrect by anyone with even a cursory understanding of country music. You also wouldn’t label someone like Jason Isbell as a country music purist since he’s clearly a self-proclaimed and widely-recognized Americana performer who deals in rock, folk, blues, as well as country.
But when it came to the coverage of the recently-released Kacey Musgraves album Golden Hour, such an aberration of truths, perspective, knowledge of the country and roots realm, and in some instances even common sense was so woefully on display, it illustrated a widespread embarrassment for the entire music media pool, and the journalism industry in general.
To put it plainly, the vast majority of entertainment media has no idea what the fuck it is talking about when it comes to Kacey Musgraves and Golden Hour. And the fact that so many outlets and journalists were parroting the same incorrect talking points in reviews and articles posted simultaneously, as well as declaring the album the greatest in 2018 when there’s still nine months left in the calendar, it tells you all you need to know about the nature of the opinions, the ignorance of their authors, the prevalence of a media echo chamber, and what’s really at play behind all of the praise.
In 10 years of service, Saving Country Music has never witnessed such an incredible obsequiousness to an artist and their handlers as was evidence surrounding the release of Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves. Some of this was due to genuine appreciation. Much of it was due to journalists outside of country music attempting to speak with authority about a genre they’re perfectly ignorant of, and in some instances downright hate. Some were also motivated by politics, seeing Musgraves as a figure who must be elevated due to the current political climate.
Esquire feels so confident in the quality of Golden Hour, they declared, “Kacey Musgraves Made The Years Best Country Album – Even If You Hate Country Music.” So much is summed up in the title of this article, from declaring the year’s best record on March 30th, to admitting this article was written to appeal to people who hate country music, it’s the perfect encapsulation of the media coverage that coincided with the release of Golden Hour. But the content of the article is even more telling.
In the Esquire review, New York-based music reporter Madison Vain, who has previously written stories recently about Wyclef Jean, The Spice Girls, and Lorde asserts, “Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, and Jason Isbell have been deemed the new bastions of authenticity by genre purists…”
If you think that Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, and Jason Isbell have been “deemed the new bastions of authenticity by genre purists,” then you have absolutely no business writing about country music for a major periodical, especially if you’re going on record to declare the best album of 2018 even before taxes for 2017 are due. Most genre purists hate Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson, and only tolerate Jason Isbell at the best, if they even know about him. And out of the three, Jason Isbell is the least country.
Of course there are exceptions, and perhaps there are a good number of traditional country fans who still appreciate Sturgill and Stapleton as being better than what much of the mainstream has to offer. But qualifying fans as “purists” takes the level of hardline adherence of country music’s traditions to a whole other level, and one where you will find little or no love for these three guys.
It is inconceivable how this issue continues to come up in the media, when only a cursory gauge of the genre would quash this thinking. And the reason for this hatred by purists against these three guys? When it comes to Chris Stapleton, it’s the same reason Madison Vain of Esquire arrogantly explains in the common Millennial practice of talking down to their audience, “Stapleton, long one of Nashville’s premier songsmiths, has written for the likes of Rhett—not to mention Luke Bryan, another artist maligned for his pop sheen—is often forgotten in the argument.”
No, that’s not forgotten in the argument at all. It’s the entire reason country purists unequivocally hate Chris Stapleton as a bloc. They also hate Sturgill Simpson because he started out in traditional country with his first record, and then became a turncoat with subsequent releases in their estimation.
The Esquire piece also states that early in her career, Kacey Musgraves was “…often positioned as an alternative to Taylor Swift, who was dominating the pop and country airwaves at the time, she became the latest ingénue tasked with saving country music.” Not sure if that’s true either, but it shows that someone is probably aware of a site like Saving Country Music, but only has a cursory understanding of the genre itself, and misunderstands that any praise lumped upon Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, and Jason Isbell is often done at the expense of purist readers, as opposed to pandering to them.
This Esquire piece is just the very beginning, though remember how it brings up the names of Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, and Jason Isbell as being “purists,” because this is a point that comes up again and again in the Golden Hour media coverage.
For example, last week Kacey Musgraves was bestowed the cover story for Billboard to coincide with the album release. The interview was conducted by journalist
Natalie Weiner asks Kacey Musgraves for Billboard, “How do you feel about the rootsy traditionalism, a la Chris Stapleton, that has gotten so big?”
Here it is once again. Chris Stapleton is being portrayed as a “traditionalist.” But sure, maybe to an outside observer who only has a cursory understanding of country music, perhaps Stapleton would come across as a traditionalist compared to big radio stars. Kacey Musgraves answers the question,
“…One thing that I’ve been thinking about with the Americana movement being so strong, I feel like it can be a little … not sedentary, but one-dimensional? Though I love Americana and roots music, it feels like there’s a contest sometimes with how country or how traditionalist you can prove yourself to be.”
Here, Kacey Musgraves herself seems to be conflating Americana with country traditionalism, and not just traditionalism, but a hard line vein of it that is a “contest” to see who can be the most country. This isn’t correct at all. For example, country traditionalist Dale Watson broke away from Americana and started his own organization called Ameripolitan because Americana was way too inclusive to other influences that were not country.
Then Billboard’ssays, “It’s interesting when artists like Jason Isbell, a great musician functioning within a specific lineage, are talked about as rebels.”
In other words, Billboard, just like Esquire, is portraying Jason Isbell of all people as a country music “traditionalist” or “purist,” who is “functioning within a specific lineage.” It would be impossible to be more wrong about Jason Isbell, or describe him more incorrectly. The very specific reason Jason Isbell is considered Americana is because he does not work within a specific lineage, and instead blends elements of American roots genres such as rock, blues, R&B, country, folk, and singer/songwriter material.
This “purist” angle is echoed over and over again in coverage for Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour. In the Rolling Stone review it proclaims, “Purists will sniff, of course.” In a big spread in GQ, which once again insults country music fans by professing Kacey Musgraves Made A Country Album So Gutsy, It’s Not Really Country, Musgraves is asked, “How’ve you prepared for the country purists who might hear ‘Golden Hour’ and be confused by the new direction?”
An article in Vulture on Golden Hour also mentions purists, while the URL for the article (and original title) declares it once again the best country album in 2018. The journalist, Craig Jenkins, is a New York-based writer whose recent byline includes stories about Snoop Dogg, Logic, and Cardi B. The article is another hyperbolic proclamation from a journalist who only knows country music from the outside looking in, and is uniquely unqualified to declare any record as the “best” at any time, especially in March. It’s irresponsible, and uninformed. When have you ever seen a country music journalist declare the greatest hip-hop album in a given year nine months before the ball drops in Times Square? Yet hip-hop journalists did this multiple times with Golden Hour.
And going back to the purist angle, the irony of so many journalists driving home the idea that purists need to be put on the defensive when it comes to Golden Hour woefully misunderstands that country music purists and traditionalists we not on board with Kacey Musgraves to begin with. Similar to Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, and Jason Isbell, purists were sideways with Kacey’s career way before the stretching of genre boundaries started, including due to the political pronouncements Musgraves has made in her music in the past.
And this brings us to our next set of wild, inappropriate, and at times, completely incorrect proclamations about Golden Hour, which are politically-driven in some capacity. Upon the release of Golden Hour, Buzzfeed declared “Kacey Musgraves Is The Queer Fan’s Country Music Queen.” But why Kacey Musgraves, when she’s not even gay? Why not give that distinction to Brandy Clark, who helped write “Follow Your Arrow” with Kacey? Or Brandi Carlile who just released an excellent record, or drag queen Trixie Mattel who also just released a critically-acclaimed country record, or half a dozen other gay country artists who are relevant and releasing albums?
Are we so hungry for hyperbole in our praise of Kacey Musgraves, we now are declaring her the Queen of Queer Country? That’s tantamount to recognizing a white guy during Black History Month, because he did good stuff for black people. The political arguments surrounding Golden Hour devolve from there and are quite numerous. But in the spirit of trying to leave politics on the sideline, we’ll shelve that concern for the moment. Rest assured though, numerous outlets have chosen to use the release of Musgraves’ completely apolitical Golden Hour as an unwitting political pawn to attack the electorate populating Southern, country music-listening states, making Kacey and Golden Hour politically polarizing when that’s not what she intended.
And to prove that this isn’t just a running rebuke of all of the opinions of Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour that aren’t Saving Country Music’s, there was one reviewer named Bobby Finger writing for The Muse who brilliantly encapsulates the problem with all of the proceeding opinions, even though just like all the other reviewers, he had a very favorable take on the album. In an article called “Kacey Musgraves’s Golden Hour Is Everything Good About Country Music,” Bobby Finger says,
At the risk of sounding like a stubborn asshole, I have no interest in reading musings about country music from someone who grew up in a bustling metropolis in the heart of a blue state. I’m thrilled to watch them stan—don’t get me wrong—and I would never rip up their Kacey Klub membership cards or bemoan Musgraves herself for being so universally appealing, but have always interpreted the subtext of this argument—that her music could not possibly be “real” country because they, city folk who have never been able to stomach the stuff, miraculously think it’s pretty damn good. To me, a fellow Texan from a speck on the map roughly the size of Musgraves’s beloved hometown of Golden, it’s everything good about country music, written and performed by someone who has no interest in leaving the genre behind.
Yes, yes, and yes!
In one paragraph, Bobby Finger eviscerates everything said by these other so-called music critics in their major periodicals read by millions. Just like many political writers, these non-country critics are using Kacey Musgraves and Golden Hour to push a cultural agenda that is anti-country, anti-genre, and that is nothing short of insulting to Kacey Musgraves and her effort on this new album.
How is it possible to be insulting to it Golden Hour when critics are universally declaring it the greatest country record released all year? It’s because they’re only praising Kacey Musgraves to shit all over everything else that is country music, from traditional to contemporary, from old to new, from mainstream to independent, and from its performers to its fans. These people hate country music. It’s redneck bullshit to them. But it’s okay to love Kacey Musgraves, or Sam Hunt, or other performers that cultural writers that mostly write about hip-hop love to say is great country music for people that hate country. It’s more respectful to Kacey Musgraves to give Golden Hour rightful, honest criticism, to judge it among its peers, to let the ultimate critic of time rest upon the project for a while, and allow the calendar to play out on 2018 before they declare the best record, or at least qualify hyperbolic praise by saying, “The best country album in 2018, so far.”
Golden Hour is a fine album with some very excellent songs. “Space Cowboy” and the final track “Rainbow” are great, and it’s a shame that some country listeners, especially so called “purists,” will never feel the power of these songs because they write Kacey Musgraves off as being too political, or having sold country down the river. But like Saving Country Music said in its own review, “…It’s far from the rebuke of country some are salivating to characterize it as for their ulterior purposes.” Golden Hour is more pop than Kacey’s previous two records, but there is still a good amount of country here, and Kacey’s intent was to bridge fans of country and other genres together through more universally-appealing music, not rebuke country.
If country writers who feel passionately about Golden Hour weigh their opinions across a wide swath of album releases in country and decide it’s worthy of the utmost praise, then so be it. But country music, Kacey Musgraves, and the greater music listening public doesn’t need uninformed writers telling them their business, or declaring their victors. The media has dirtied the waters for Kacey’s album release in way that will directly affect the perception of the music, including some who will see the overwhelming praise, set high expectations, and then invariably disappointed even if they like the effort, simply because it’s not the most groundbreaking thing they’ve ever heard.
Will the praise for Golden Hour result in some new fans outside country music’s borders? It probably will. But it will be at the expense of actual country fans who see all the praise for Golden Hour as a political album and as a rebuke of country music, and will be discouraged from listening. And country music needs artists like Kacey Musgraves now more than ever, and for the very reasons political and cultural writers outside of country are singing her praises.
Thanks hip-hop writers from New York for your interest in Kacey Musgraves, but we’ve got this handled. Or as Kacey Musgraves would say, “Mind your own biscuits.”