Country music’s ongoing identity crisis and the Recording Academy’s unceasing incompetence have joined together for one head-scratching decision. As Billboard reports, two-time Best Country Album Grammy winner Kacey Musgraves won’t be going for a threepeat in 2022, as her new studio set, star-crossed, has been declared ineligible for the country music categories.
Musgraves has previously taken home top honors in the category for 2014’s Same Trailer, Different Park and 2018’s Golden Hour, which also won Album of the Year. On paper, star-crossed looks like a strong contender. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart, and six singles have placed on the Hot Country Songs chart: “justified,” “simple times,” “breadwinner,” star-crossed,” “good wife,” and “cherry blossom.”
But despite those country credentials, star-crossed was barred from the Country Album categories last week during the Recording Academy’s annual screening committee meeting. Members can veto projects that they feel don’t fit into the category. But what counts as country? That’s an increasingly touchy subject for a genre that has made room for EDM and hip-hop influences over the last decade. Is Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” country enough? Did the then-Dixie Chicks stop being country when they criticized George Bush? What if an artist raps about a pickup truck? To some people, it don’t mean a thang if it ain’t got that twang. To others, cultural signifiers and political affiliations matter more than anything.
That may have been the case with Musgraves, an outspoken LGBTQ activist and vocal Trump critic. Cindy Mabe, president of Universal Music Group Nashville, seems to think so. In a letter to the Recording Academy, obtained by Billboard, she wrote,“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 added that, “Taking her out of the country category actually does harm to a format struggling with change and inclusivity overall,” as evidenced by “women making up only 10 percent of all country airplay.”
Besides that, the country industry has struggled to come up with a cohesive approach to its most problematic stars. Morgan Wallen was caught on video using the N-word while in the middle of what he said was a “72-hour bender,” and while he’s been banned from the upcoming CMA Awards next month, he’s still nominated for Album of the Year.
Mabe addressed this in her letter, saying that Wallen “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.”
Mabe seems to believe that the decision was made from ulterior motives, because when it comes to star-crossed, “Sonically, it’s got more country instrumentation than Golden Hour which won Country Album of the Year in 2019. To compare Golden Hour to star-crossed, both albums were produced by Ian Fitchuk, Daniel Tashian and Kacey Musgraves. Both albums were mixed by Shawn Everett. On Golden Hour, Ian, Daniel and Kacey wrote 7 of the 13 songs and on star-crossed they wrote 11 of the 15. Both albums complete each other with Golden Hour telling the story of falling in love and star-crossed telling the conclusion of the breakup. There is no departure in sound from these two projects. This album was consistently classified as country throughout it’s [sic] metadata and overall labeling across the DSP accounts and partners. star-crossed appeared on every major country playlist of every DSP.”
She concluded with a stirring defense of Musgraves and an indictment of the Recording Academy’s decision. “The system is broken and sadly not just for Kacey Musgraves but for our entire genre because of how these decisions are made for music’s biggest stage. Building roadblocks for artists who dare to fight the system is so dangerous and against everything I think the Grammy’s [sic] stand for. But that’s where we are today.”
Country or not, Musgraves continues to be a cultural powerhouse. Earlier this month she was the debut musical guest for Saturday Night Live‘s latest season, in the process becoming the first artist to perform naked on SNL. In January she’ll be hitting the road on tour, and tickets are available through Ticketmaster.