The Washington Post
Musgraves’s familiar path from splitsville
This past spring, country-pop star Kacey Musgraves shared a photo from a shoot for the cover of Elle magazine in which she looked resplendent in a metallic, puffsleeved, tinier-than-mini dress.
“Legs longer than my marriage,” she wrote in a caption on Instagram and Twitter.
Musgraves’s deadpan candor was an indication of what was about to come — her highly anticipated fourth studio album, “Star- Crossed,” a deeply personal project (released Friday) that chronicles the dissolution of her 2½-year marriage to singersongwriter Ruston Kelly. Her fan base is already losing it. (“Kacey Musgraves’ new album is about to trigger a depressive episode over a divorce I didn’t go through,” one person tweeted.)
As the Texas native’s career has exploded beyond Nashville, leading to arena tours with Harry Styles and earning her album of the year at the 2019 Grammy Awards, there has been a lot of discussion about what genre she fits in. Musgraves, 33, has called her new music, which incorporates many different sounds, as “galactic country,” drawing from countless influences. But a recent New York Times profile, which centered on her expansion into pop stardom, included one telling quote that shows Musgraves still knows exactly
what audiences crave from Nashville stars: “I wasn’t going to be a real country artist without at least one divorce under my belt,” she quipped.
It’s true: Nothing gets fans going quite like a country song about a real-life breakup, especially when it takes place between two recognizable names. After country superstars Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton ended their marriage, Lambert released the double album “The Weight of These Wings.” She took issue with those who repeatedly called it “a divorce album.”
“I don’t think that’s accurate at all,” she told the Cleveland Scene. “I didn’t make a divorce record. It’s not a divorce album. Divorce isn’t a big enough deal to deserve an entire record. It’s part of the story, but I found happiness and playfulness on this record. It’s a little dramatic to call it a divorce album.”
Fans nevertheless sifted the liner notes for clues about what happened between her and Shelton; even beyond than the natural interest in celebrity drama, many took comfort in the lyrics. That’s one main reason fans clamor for a country songwriter’s spin on a breakup: Country music is known as both the genre of sad, “there’s a tear in my beer” music and detailed “three chords and the truth” songwriting. That combination can provide powerful catharsis for listeners going through similar experiences.
Sam Outlaw, who has opened for Musgraves on tour, has been happily married for seven years to his second wife. But his most autobiographical song was the one he wrote after his divorce, titled “She’s Playing Hard to Get (Rid Of ).” Fans connected to both the lyrics and the tongue-and-cheek title. Outlaw, who has a new album coming in November, said that was probably the fastest he’s ever written a song — the words poured out as he reflected on the relationship.
“People listen to country music to get a story rather than simply wanting to hear a hook. It’s one of the last genres where people are really intently listening to the lyrics,” he said in an interview. “And there’s some real catharsis in writing a sad song, even when tinged with a sense of humor. I think that’s what people are longing for. . . . Love songs feel universal, whereas a divorce or breakup song is so painful, you get something a little extra special.”
Country albums about divorce range from Tammy Wynette’s classically apt “D-I-V- O-R- C-E” to Willie Nelson’s “Phases and Stages.” The divorce-song canon includes Jerry Reed’s “She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft)” and Merle Travis’s “Divorce Me C.O.D.” Country music historian Diane Pecknold noted that the country industry really took off around World War II, just when divorces started to skyrocket, a phenomenon often attributed to couples rushing to get married before the war and then realizing things would not work out.
“Country music emerged as a really identifiable format and genre at a time when all of these social changes were taking place,” Pecknold said. “And the rise of divorce rates was one of them.”
Plus, she said, it gave singers an identity that listeners could relate to — a flawed person who has experienced loss. “I think there’s a public perception that the greatest artistry comes from suffering,” she said.
Contemporary country star Carly Pearce experienced this dynamic recently when she released “29,” an extremely personal album that dove into the aftermath of her divorce from fellow Nashville singer Michael Ray. In an interview with The Washington Post earlier this year, she said she was inundated with messages from strangers on social media, who wrote things like “You made me feel like it’s okay to be in my 20s and go through a divorce” or “You gave me the strength to file for divorce.”
“I carried so much shame in the beginning, and I feel like now, through telling my story, I’ve healed and I’m also helping other people to heal,” Pearce said. “My purpose has just grown so much.”
Musgraves’s “Star- Crossed” now joins Nashville’s pantheon of divorce albums, a swerve from the love-struck, dreamy “Golden Hour,” which won her new fans and a shelf of awards.
“My last album is what people know me for,” Musgraves told the European-based Crack Magazine. “They see me as this starry-eyed, rose-colored-glasses kind of girl; the ‘Golden Hour’ girl. Well, here I come with a post-divorce album, bursting the . . . bubble.”