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For The Record: Why Kacey Musgraves' Timeless Album 'Golden Hour' Still Shines 5 Years Later
After winning the GRAMMY for Album Of The Year in 2019, Musgraves' country pop revelation 'Golden Hour' continues to shimmer years later with its universal reflections on love.
In March 2018, Kacey Musgraves heralded the start of springtime with her third studio album Golden Hour — and in turn, the world crowned her a new level of stardom. Brimming with a glorious honeymoon tenderness, the record resonated deeply with listeners and became an instant country pop classic.
In fact, one of the most common Google searches for the album is simply, "Why is Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves so good?" It also won over her famous peers: Golden Hour is Justin Bieber's go-to photoshoot soundtrack, and just its mention on the red carpet earned a gasp from Beanie Feldstein.
The album's magic was equally apparent at the 2019 GRAMMY Awards, where Golden Hour became the fourth country album to win Album Of The Year. It also won Best Country Album, and two of its singles (the starry-eyed "Butterflies" and the wistful "Space Cowboy") won for Best Country Solo Performance and Best Country Song, respectively — meaning Musgraves swept every category she was nominated in that year.
Her inspiration for Golden Hour came to light upon meeting Ruston Kelly, her now ex-husband (more on that later), when he played a set at Nashville's Bluebird Cafe in 2016. "I had just cleared my schedule to get back to writing when I went to that show and I met him," Musgraves said in an interview. "Songs just immediately started pouring out."
This rush of falling in love saturates Golden Hour. ("It was nice to know that you didn't have to suffer to create good art," she said in a 2021 interview with The Guardian.) A free-falling, saccharine infatuation colors the album's prismatic perimeter, and it's tinged with a distinct warmth that crawls over your skin and fills your heart. Buzzy with pink-orange comfort, its cohesion is satisfying and enveloping, from the affectionate nostalgia of "Slow Burn" to the soft solace of "Rainbow."
But what makes Musgraves' Golden Hour so monumental is its pure acceptance of love's ephemerality — and ironically, this embrace of fleetingness is what makes the album beautifully timeless. The grand album offers 46 minutes of sunlight before fading into the horizon.
In theme with its apt springtime to summer ambiance, Golden Hour magnificently captures the seasonality of love, romantic or not. Musgraves finds self-love in isolation on "Lonely Weekend," a song that feels like a shrug with a sad smile. Later, the singer accepts distance from a lover in the cinematic "Space Cowboy," and she watches precious time slip away in her one-minute heart wrenching ballad "Mother."
Yet, as Musgraves gently confronts her grief, she also taps into a resonant relief. Drawing meaning from this duality, Golden Hour honors how the beauty of life and love is found in the recognition of their inevitable conclusions.
For some, this is most deeply felt in the soaring ballad "Happy & Sad," in which Musgraves exquisitely details the joys and fears that come with falling in love. "Is there a word for the way that I'm feeling tonight?/ Happy and sad at the same time," she sings. "You got me smilin' with tears in my eyes."
On "Happy & Sad," she searches for the exact term to pin down the striking emotion — but Golden Hour encapsulates the feeling so much more powerfully than a singular word could ever achieve. "They say everything that goes up/ Goes up, must come down," Musgraves sings on the track, "And I don't wanna come down."
The album blossoms with such radiance that it's difficult to believe that it's Musgraves' first album about love. It comes after Musgraves' Same Trailer Different Park (2013) and Pageant Material (2015), which each spin stories of small-town life, its challenges, and her favored smoky forms of escapism. Musgraves grew up in Golden, Texas — a town of just 200 people — and through the open-mindedness of her music, she grew out of it.
"Undeniably, I'm a country singer, I'm a country songwriter. But I feel like I make country music for people who like country music, and for people who don't," she explained in an Entertainment Weekly interview shortly after her first album release. "It's a blend of being inspired by super-traditional country roots and then all these other kinds of music: Cake, Weezer, Electric Light Orchestra, the Beatles, Glen Campbell. I don't really see genre boxes."
Though Musgraves' roots are undeniably country, her versatile approach to music allows her to break conventions in what is often viewed as a traditional genre. While slide guitar, banjo, and pedal steel guitar whirl across Golden Hour, a perky vocoder and vibraphone also make appearances in a way that Musgraves described to Refinery 29 as "futurism meeting traditionalism."
This contemporary style applies not just to her work's technical production, but also to her sharp — and what some deemed characteristic of a "liberal misfit" — lyricism. Pageant Material saw her shoot down the "good ol boys' club," and on Same Trailer Different Park's "Follow Your Arrow," Musgraves sings, "Kiss lots of boys, or kiss lots of girls if that's something you're into/ When the straight and narrow gets a little too straight, roll up a joint, or don't."
A variation of the label "The country star for people who hate country music" began to follow her around: Musgraves was determinedly making country "cool" again, taking down bro-country one joint at a time.
On Golden Hour, the standout free-spirited anthem is "Rainbow" — even despite its more somber tone. The piano-driven track sees her brush past a swirling storm, and she tenderly reminds listeners that "there's always been a rainbow hangin' over your head." With its endearing message of hope, many fans in the LGBTQ+ community embraced the song's beaming chorus.
"I feel a kinship and a friendship with that community. They really opened my eyes up to a lot of different things that I wasn't aware of growing up in a small town in Texas," Musgraves said of the LGBTQ+ community. "'Rainbow' is something that I can dedicate to that community, but also to anyone who has any kind of a weight on their shoulders."
As much as the song resonates with members of the queer community, "Rainbow" escapes one singular meaning. Co-writer and producer Shane McAnally described it as a "sort of a chameleon," as many people took the song and shaped special meaning out of it for themselves, whether it be in relation to the challenges of the pandemic, accepting one's identity, or simply everyday life.
This is the inherent, irresistible magic of Golden Hour: universality. Along with Musgraves' pivotal embrace of love's transience, the album's timelessness also stems from its fluid meaning — even for Musgraves herself. In September 2020, the golden hour had faded completely: Musgraves and Kelly split, and she momentarily found herself despising her widely beloved masterpiece.
"There was a time where I was like, 'OK, Golden Hour is trash, I'm not ever singing it again," she admitted in an interview with Zane Lowe, just a few days ahead of dropping her 2021 breakup album star-crossed. "It's like, I never want to see another butterfly ever f—ing again."
Musgraves went on to say, however, that she was eventually able to redefine and rediscover what the album meant to her. "As I've gone on and found some more stable ground and personal happiness, I'm like, 'You know what? No: the magic of Golden Hour does not have to die with that relationship. It can live on and I will relate to it again,'" she told Lowe..
As Musgraves has seemingly discovered herself, Golden Hour is the kind of album that can take the shape of whatever listeners need it to be. And while love may often be impermanent, Golden Hour reminds us to cherish our time in the sun.
Photo: John Shearer/MTV VMAs 2021/Getty Images for MTV/ViacomCBS
10 Albums On Divorce & Heartache, From Fleetwood Mac's 'Rumours' To Kelly Clarkson's 'Chemistry'
Divorce albums have been a staple of the music industry for decades. Take a look at some of the most notable musings on a breaking heart, from Kacey Musgraves, Kanye West and more.
Divorce can be complicated, messy, and heartbreaking. But those feelings are prime fodder for songwriting — and it's something that artists of all genres have harnessed for decades.
Writing through the pain can serve many benefits for an artist. Marvin Gaye used Here, My Dear as a way to find closure in the aftermath of his divorce. Adele told Vogue that her recording process gave her somewhere to feel safe while recording 30, a raw account of the aftermath of her marriage ending. And Kelly Clarkson's new album, chemistry, finds her reclaiming herself, while fully taking stock of everything that happened in her marriage, good and bad.
As fans dive into chemistry, GRAMMY.com has compiled a list of 10 divorce albums from all walks of music. Whether you need to cry, vent, or maybe even laugh, there's a divorce album that has what you need.
Tammy Wynette, D-I-V-O-R-C-E (1968)
During her life, Tammy Wynette was a prolific country songwriter and singer, releasing numerous albums exploring all aspects of love. She was also deeply familiar with divorce, with five marriages throughout her adulthood.
The most intimate album on the topic is her bluntly titled 1968 project D-I-V-O-R-C-E, which explores how sensitive the topic was to speak about. The title track is a mournful tune about hiding a separation from her children, but also conveys the general difficulty of discussing the topic with anyone. Elsewhere on the album, "Kiss Away" is a longing ballad about wishing for a more tender resolution when words have failed.
Fleetwood Mac, Rumours (1977)
After recording 10 albums together, Fleetwood Mac were in disarray. During the recording of their eleventh record, the members of the band were going through affairs, divorces, and breakups, even some with each other. Against all odds, they created Rumours — and it became the band's most successful and iconic album.
The spectrum of emotions and sounds on the album is wide. "The Chain" is all fire and bombast, while the laidback acceptance of "Dreams" seeks to find peace in the storm. Fleetwood Mac sorted out their issues and are still going strong to this day, but their heartbreak created something special in Rumours.
Beck, Sea Change (2002)
Beck has had a prolific career, with 14 studio albums to his name. One of his most affecting is 2002's Sea Change, written in the aftermath of his engagement and nine-year relationship ending.
It's a deeply insular album, even by Beck's standards. Tracks like "Already Dead" are slow and mournful, while standout "It's All In Your Mind" finds him burrowing deep into his own thoughts to parse out how exactly he's feeling with his new life.
Open Mike Eagle, Anime, Trauma, and Divorce (2020)
Divorce isn't a topic that immediately brings laughter, but rapper Open Mike Eagle seemed to find humor in his personal story with his album Anime, Trauma, and Divorce. The album title gives a pretty good rundown of what inspired the project, and Mike's laidback rapping sells how silly the aftermath of pain can be.
"Sweatpants Spiderman" finds him trying to become a functional adult again, and discovering the various ailments of his aging body and thinner wallet that are getting in the way. The fed-up delivery on standout track "Wtf is Self Care" is a hilarious lesson on how learning to be kind to yourself post-breakup is harder than it sounds.
Carly Pearce, 29: Written In Stone (2021)
Heartbreak is a common topic in all genres, but country has some of the most profound narratives of sorrow. Carly Pearce added to that legacy with 29: Written in Stone, her 2021 album centered around her 29th year — a year that included both a marriage and a subsequent divorce.
The emotional whiplash of such a quick change can be felt all over the project, from an upbeat diss track like "Next Girl" to more poignant pieces like the title track, which finds Pearce reflecting on her tumultuous year. Her vulnerability resonated, as single "Never Wanted To Be That Girl" won Pearce her first GRAMMY, and her latest single, "What He Didn't Do," scored the singer her fourth No. 1 at country radio.
Kanye West, 808s & Heartbreak (2008)
Kanye West's fourth album 808s & Heartbreak came from a deep well of pain. Besides the end of his relationship, West was also in turmoil from the death of his mother, Donda. The result is one of the bleakest sounding records on this list — but also one of West's most impactful.
808s & Heartbreak is minimalistic, dark, and brooding, with a focus on somber strings and 808 drum loops (hence the album's title). West delivers most of his lyrics in a monotone drone through a thick layer of autotune, a stylistic choice that heightens the sense of loss. Besides being a testament to West's pain, the electronic sound pioneered on 808s & Heartbreak would serve as a foundational inspiration for the next several years of hip-hop.
Toni Braxton & Babyface, Love, Marriage, & Divorce (2014)
Toni Braxton and Babyface are two stalwarts of R&B in their own rights, and in 2014, the pair connected over their shared experiences going through divorce. Their bond sparked Love, Marriage, & Divorce, a GRAMMY-winning album that intended to capture the more universal feelings the life of a relationship conjures up.
Each artist has solo tracks on the record — Babyface wishing the best for his ex on "I Hope That You're Okay" and Braxton sharing her justified anger on "I Wish" and "I'd Rather Be Broke" — but where they shine is on their collaborations. The agonizing "Where Did We Go Wrong?" is heartbreaking, and the album ends with painful what-ifs in the soulful "The D Word."
Adele, 30 (2021)
Divorce is hard no matter the circumstances, but it gets even more complicated when children are involved. That was the reality for Adele, and it served as major inspiration for her fourth album, 30.
Like every album on this list, there's plenty of sorrow on the record, but what really sets it apart is just how honestly Adele grapples with the guilt of putting her son Angelo through turmoil as well. The album's GRAMMY-winning lead single "Easy On Me" addresses it in relation to her son, and standout track "I Drink Wine" is a full examination of the messy feelings she went through during her divorce.
Kacey Musgraves, star-crossed (2021)
As many of these albums prove, divorce triggers a hoard of emotions, from anger to sadness to eventual happiness. On star-crossed, Kacey Musgraves goes through it all.
There's the anthemic "breadwinner" about being better on her own, "camera roll" looking back on happier times with sorrow, and "hookup scene" about the confusion of adjusting back to single life. Star-crossed sees Musgraves continue to evolve sonically — incorporating more electronic sounds into her country roots — but ultimately, she comes out the other side at a place of renewed acceptance and growth.
Kelly Clarkson, chemistry (2023)
Kelly Clarkson's tenth album chemistry was born out of her 2020 divorce. In true Kelly fashion, she addresses the subject with thoughtful songwriting and a pop-rock vibe fans have adored for 20 years on.
Chemistry focuses not just on the pain of divorce, but on the tender feelings that many couples still have for each other even after the end. Tracks like "favorite kind of high" mirror the euphoria of love, juxtaposed with ballads like "me," in which Clarkson finds comfort in herself and her inner strength — an inspiring sentiment for anyone who has had their heart broken.
Photos: Jeff Hahne/Getty Images; Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Erika Goldring/WireImage
2023 GRAMMYs To Pay Tribute To Lost Icons With Star-Studded In Memoriam Segment Honoring Loretta Lynn, Christine McVie, And Takeoff
The GRAMMY Awards segment will feature Kacey Musgraves in a tribute to Loretta Lynn; Sheryl Crow, Mick Fleetwood and Bonnie Raitt honoring Christine McVie; and Maverick City Music joining Quavo as they remember Takeoff, airing live on Sunday, Feb. 5.
The lineup for the 2023 GRAMMYs on Sunday, Feb 5, will include an In Memoriam segment paying tribute to some of those from the creative community that were lost this year with performances by GRAMMY-winning and -nominated artists.
The segment will feature Kacey Musgraves performing "Coal Miner's Daughter" in a tribute to three-time GRAMMY winner and 18-time nominee Loretta Lynn; Sheryl Crow, Mick Fleetwood and Bonnie Raitt honoring three-time GRAMMY winner Christine McVie with "Songbird"; and Maverick City Music joining Quavo for "Without You" as they remember the life and legacy of Takeoff.
The 2023 GRAMMYs, hosted by Trevor Noah, will broadcast live on Sunday, Feb. 5, at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on the CBS Television Network live from the Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles. Viewers will also be able to stream the 2023 GRAMMYs live and on demand on Paramount+.
Before, during and after the 2023 GRAMMYs, head to live.GRAMMY.com for exclusive, never-before-seen content, including red carpet interviews, behind-the-scenes content, the full livestream of the 2023 GRAMMY Awards Premiere Ceremony, and much more.
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'Her Country' Author Marissa R. Moss Reckons With Country Music's Gender Inequalities Through Three Of Its Biggest Female Stars
The journalist offers an in-depth look at her new book, 'Her Country' — which features Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris and Mickey Guyton — and details why it's more important than ever to give women artists a voice.
After a decade immersed in Nashville's country music scene, Marissa R. Moss has seen firsthand how pervasive gender inequalities affect female artists from all corners of the genre. Now, she's helping take control of the narrative — literally — with her new book, Her Country: How the Women of Country Music Became the Success They Were Never Supposed to Be.
Moss follows the trajectories of Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris and Mickey Guyton as touch points for country's current climate, as all three have navigated the choppy waters of radio bias and helped broaden the genre's limitations. Looking back at the '90s — an era where, at least from the outside, country radio seemed dominated by women like Shania Twain, Faith Hill, Trisha Yearwood and Reba McEntire — provides context to the narrative, but Her Country is powerfully of-the-moment.
As Moss suggests, country music is, and always has been, a lens through which to examine broader cultural narratives in the U.S. at large. "To be able to weave in some cultural and political narratives — which, in my opinion, you always should, because you can't remove them from these conversations — that made [the book] extra timely," she tells GRAMMY.com.
Guyton saw her star rise after she released 2020's "Black Like Me," which chronicles her experience as a Black woman in America and in country music. Later that year, Morris delivered "Better Than We Found It," her reflection on the importance of making the world a more equal, welcoming place. (Both songs earned GRAMMY nominations, Guyton in 2021 and Morris in 2022.) Musgraves has long weaved advocacy for equality and acceptance into her musical narrative, with her 2013 hit "Follow Your Arrow" and Golden Hour single "Rainbow" becoming unofficial LGBTQ anthems.
While the Her Country women are at the forefront of purveying change in the genre, they're not alone. Countless artists spoke out against racial injustice after the death of George Floyd in May 2020; a month later, the Chicks dropped "Dixie" from their name as a move toward equality. The women of country have publicly supported each other, too, from Carrie Underwood's all-female roster on her 2019 Cry Pretty 360 Tour to Jennifer Nettles' 2019 CMA cape that read "Play Our F*@#!N Records, Please & Thank You."
Still, the lack of women representation within the format remains. As Moss highlights in Her Country, women make up only 16% of country radio airplay — a far cry from the heyday of the '90s. But that percentage doesn't square with the crowds they've commanded, or the diverse (and fiercely loyal) fan bases they've amassed.
To help understand the genre's complicated, often divisive trajectory toward equality and change — and to offer a look towards where it's going next — Moss discusses the themes and discoveries behind Her Country.
Moss will be moderating An Evening With LeAnn Rimes, the opening program of GRAMMY Museum’s The Power Of Women In Country Music exhibit, on May 31. The event will be held at the Clive Davis Theater in Los Angeles starting at 7:30 p.m. PT. For tickets and more information, click here.
Thinking about the current state of country music, or the broader cultural climate of the U.S., what made the topic of this book a pressing conversation for right now?
It was one of those things that was so obvious to me that I hadn't even quite necessarily thought, "I should write this book." And that's how so many really important things are. You think everyone knows these big stories, but basically, that wasn't the case. The radio charts show one story of the genre, but I knew that wasn't gonna be the story that I know, or the story I wanted to tell — [the story] that felt important to document.
If you view country music as a microcosm of what's going on in our country at any given moment right now, in so many ways, that made it extra interesting. To be able to weave in some cultural and political narratives — which, in my opinion, you always should, because you can't remove them from these conversations. To look at country music and our country's narrative at the same time — that made it extra timely.
The three focal points in Her Country are Kacey Musgraves, Mickey Guyton and Maren Morris — three artists whose careers are still relatively young, compared to '90s-era female country stars, or even current veterans Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood. What did it feel like writing about these women in real time, as important moments in their careers were unfolding?
You can read entire books about Miranda and Carrie, and that could have been one route. Or you could have chosen Shania or Reba — really, whoever — but I wanted women who were a couple of albums in each, but had been following this career since they were teeny tiny kids.
Obviously, Carrie and Miranda are still very much of the moment, and make modern albums, but to some degree they've moved into a little bit of a legacy status, at this point. I wanted to look at women who were right in that moment of everything exploding and unfolding. That was the best way to tell the story that I thought was important to tell.
Did you ever write a section and then have to later revisit it because a major development had happened in an artist's career?
Yeah, especially for Mickey. That was really challenging. I chose to end the book as their current albums were coming out, and leave the next phase up in the air, a little bit. Otherwise you could keep writing forever and the book would never end!
So much of what was happening was happening in real time. And at the same time, it was COVID, so I couldn't be out on the road. I was at my house giving virtual school to my two kids under seven. It was a very interesting period, because history was happening as I was writing it. But I was also writing in a very different way than I thought I would be before COVID, because I was stuck at home and I couldn't, like, pick up and move to Texas for a month. So it was all very different than I imagined, but for the best in some ways — just not the COVID part.
Did the research you did for this book shift your perspective on your subject matter?
It never stopped amazing me — as I dug back into the story of Mickey and Kacey and Maren — how truly, they were on this path from so early. People say "I've wanted to do this since I was a kid," but, you know, Maren was playing in honky tonks at, like, 11. And then on the flip side, reading back about the Chicks, and even old Kacey stuff, I found so many new things to make me mad, make me angry. Early coverage of Mickey, and the way she was written about. There was never a shortage of that, either.
There's no shortage of things to get angry about in country music's recent history, either. Maren talking about her feelings on the Morgan Wallen scandal in early 2021 is a particularly powerful passage.
I even feel that, and I'm just a regular person, not a famous musician. I had times where I just felt so discouraged, and disappointed and angry. But, you know, as Maren said, you're not going to make a difference by leaving.
I think that applies to so many things. It's a powerful idea in politics, even here in Tennessee, where politically, it feels unsafe for a lot of people — more so than before. Sometimes I wake up and I'm like, "Okay, I can't stay here." But then I understand that that's a huge privilege, and there's a lot more that can be done by staying and making a better place for people who don't have the privileges you do.
One thing that makes me hopeful about the genre is how tirelessly Mickey has worked to help carve out a space for Black artists in the genre, and how artists like Breland, Brittney Spencer, Blanco Brown, Amethyst Kiah and so many others are finding a home in the genre over the past couple of years. What makes you hopeful about country music right now?
That's so true. And those artists were always there, but they either were not supported or not heard. There's a lot of inspiring things going on with Black Opry, and amazing coalitions of artists creating their own spaces.
At the same time, I go back and forth. I see-saw between inspiration and desolation. Both of those things exist. It's hopeful and it's inspiring, but it's not candy-coated — and it couldn't be, because that's not the truth.
What grounds me is just listening to music. I know it sounds so simple. And being reminded of how much I love it and how much good music is out there, and how much more good music is going to have an opportunity to get to your ears now.
What music have you found most grounding recently?
I've spent a lot of time with the new Leyla McCalla album, which I think is really brilliant. Miranda [Lambert]'s new album is great. I love Maren's new record — not to shill the women I'm writing about! [Laughs.]
I love Morgan Wade. A lot of times I go back to the favorites: Tyler Childers' Purgatory, [Sturgill Simpson]'s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music and [Margo Price]'s Midwestern Farmer's Daughter. Kelsey Waldon. I listen to [her album, White Noise/White Lines] in my car, in the CD player. I never took it out because it never got old.
In the dedication for your book, you write "For anyone who needs to be reminded that it's your country music, too." Did you have any particular type of reader in mind when you were writing Her Country?
Over the years, as someone who you wouldn't think would be a country fan on paper, I guess — a Jewish kid growing up in New York — I've met a lot of people who fall into the category of being a country fan who you wouldn't stereotypically assume is a country fan. And then you realize that person doesn't exist. There's not just one [kind of] person who has a right to listen to country music.
I feel weird saying that, because the artists are really the ones doing the work — it goes an especially long way with Mickey, Kacey or Maren, with their fans saying they had never felt welcomed in the genre until they started listening to Kacey Musgraves. And then that opened up a different world to them. Or Black artists who hadn't seen a Black woman country artist at an awards show in modern times — until they saw Mickey, and that opened up a new world to them. Those are the fans that I hope will feel welcomed back in, or welcomed in for the first time, through a lot of these stories.
You describe yourself as the country fan who people might not assume is a country fan — who made you feel that country music was your genre?
I got into country music in a funny way. I was listening to the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan, but my dad lived in Texas for a while and loved country radio. At the time I was a young kid with, you know, opinions — anything that your parents did was not cool. I didn't appreciate the '90s country thing, in the back of the car. But it must've gotten through there somehow.
I moved to Nashville in 2011, 2012. I was listening to country music before then, obviously, but I really fell in love with what was going on at the time. Caitlin Rose, Nikki Lane and Andrew Combs — all of their first records were hitting around that time. And I really fell in love with Jason Isbell. The way that they were interpreting country music and celebrating it in this different way — that still felt very traditional, but spoke to me directly — is part of the reason that I fell so hard for Nashville when I moved here. That was the soundtrack to what was happening back then. And I just loved it.
Photo: John Shearer/MTV VMAs 2021/Getty Images for MTV/ViacomCBS
2021 In Review: 8 Trends That Defined Country Music
Powerful narratives fueled country music in 2021, between vulnerable heartbreak-driven albums, Nashville veterans getting their spotlight, and Black voices finally being heard
The genre known for three chords and the truth reached new heights of authenticity and storytelling in 2021. After a year of doubt, confusion and isolation in 2020, many country artists returned to the road and their careers with rejuvenated passion, releasing some of their most ambitious projects to date.
Grassroots ways of finding success emerged, with several artists — both established and up-and-coming — unlocking whole new fan bases thanks to social media. The result? Some unlikely hits made it up to the very top of the country radio charts, artists were able to release more music than ever before, and unprecedented cross-genre collaborations came out of quarantine connections.
Read on to learn more about some of the trends, both musical and cultural, that dominated country music in 2021.
Double and Triple Albums
During their pandemic-induced time off the road, many artists found that the one thing they could still do was write songs. By 2021, the plethora of music created in those sessions was recorded and ready for release, resulting in longer track lists and beefier projects.
One such trendsetter was Eric Church, who released a massive, 24-track Heart & Soul album spread out over three discs. Morgan Wallen dropped his 30-track — or 33-track, if you're counting the Target-exclusive and bonus editions — Dangerous: The Double Album in January. The latter made history, becoming the first country album to spend its first 10 weeks at No. 1 on the all-genre Billboard 200; it also spent 43 weeks in the chart's top 10, more than any other album in 2021. (Amid the album’s success, Wallen sparked major controversy when a video surfaced of the singer using a racial slur. He issued an apology and claimed to make donations to Black-led groups, but was promptly shut out from country radio and streaming services, as well as several events and awards shows.)
Thomas Rhett and Jason Aldean also created multiple albums worth of music in 2021. Rhett released Country Again: Side A in April, announcing in November that Side B will arrive in fall 2022 following another album, titled Where We Started, which the star revealed will be out in "early 2022." Aldean had a similar release strategy, dropping Macon, the first half of his double album Macon, Georgia, in November and setting Georgia for April 22, 2022.
Success Stories Years in the Making
Longtime B-Listers finally got their country radio propers in 2021, due to ever-increasing opportunities for artists to create grassroots hits on social media. Walker Hayes' ubiquitous "Fancy Like" went viral on TikTok (particularly thanks to a family-friendly dance craze) and became a No. 1 hit on both Billboard's Country Airplay and Hot Country Songs charts. The song gave the singer — who moved to Nashville in 2005 — his first crossover hit, getting airplay on pop radio and climbing all the way to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Parmalee also took country radio by surprise this year. The band hadn't had a No. 1 since 2013, and their two most recent singles fizzled without ever cracking the charts. But "Just the Way," an unlikely team-up with "The Git Up" star Blanco Brown, saw them cruising back into the top spot.
One more success story came from Lainey Wilson, another Nashville veteran who got her big break with the insightful hit "Things a Man Oughta Know." The song became her first No. 1 on country radio after nearly 10 years of releasing music. Her latest single, a collaboration with resident chart-topper Cole Swindell titled "Never Say Never," is currently climbing the charts.
Classic Hits Found New Life on TikTok
While TikTok was instrumental in creating new hits such as "Fancy Like" in 2021, it was also responsible for revitalizing a few old ones. Reba McEntire's 2001 hit, "I'm a Survivor" went viral thanks to a TikTok spoof trend, with users setting the song to video footage of themselves melodramatically doing everyday chores. McEntire herself got in on the fun, posting a clip of her attempt to feed a pair of ungrateful donkeys.
Shania Twain also reached brand-new audiences with her TikTok presence. She posts snippets of iconic selections from her discography, as well as her hilarious commentary on French fries, sneak peeks at her Las Vegas residency, and the occasional trend trade-off with Taylor Swift.
Career-Defining Divorce Albums
Breakups aren't exactly a new topic for country, but some country artists have gone through very public heartbreaks over the past couple of years. Carly Pearce split from fellow artist Michael Ray after just eight months of marriage, and Kacey Musgraves called it quits with her husband of two years, singer/songwriter Ruston Kelly.
But rather than go through these difficult times privately, both Pearce and Musgraves spun their heartache into gold, with each singer putting out her most revealing, personal and intricately-crafted record to date. Pearce leaned heavily into her country roots to make 29: Written in Stone, while Musgraves expertly defied genre boundaries to release star-crossed, a project so vulnerable that she performed one of its songs on Saturday Night Live wearing nothing but a strategically placed acoustic guitar.
Black Country Stars Broke Through
After the country world said goodbye to the legendary Charley Pride in December 2020, his trailblazing legacy lived on in 2021. Black country stars made waves in several ways this year, from winning awards, to launching business ventures, to making statements on stage and in song.
Hitmakers Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen — the latter of whom is the only country artist up for Best New Artist at the 2022 GRAMMYS — made history with their wins at the ACM Awards (Brown was the first Black artist to win Video of the Year; Allen was the first Black solo artist to win the New Male Artist of the Year). Both of them started their own businesses in 2021 as well: Brown started his own label, 1021 Entertainment (in partnership with his home label, Sony Music Nashville), and Allen launched both a publishing company, Bettie James Music Publishing, and a full-service management and production company, JAB Entertainment.
Mickey Guyton, who first caught attention outside of the genre for her GRAMMY-nominated single "Black Like Me" last year, continued making an impact with her powerful album, Remember Her Name. The album features several vignettes of her experience as a Black woman, including a bouncy anthem "Different" and a poignant ballad "Love My Hair." She delivered a moving performance of the latter track at the 2021 CMA Awards alongside rising stars Brittney Spencer and Madeline Edwards, two of the many promising Black voices in the genre, which also includes Yola, Breland, Willie Jones, and Shy Carter, among others.
Artists Lived Their Truth
Amid the challenges country music faced this year, there were also moments of personal authenticity and joy. Brothers Osborne's TJ Osborne came out as gay in a Time feature, and the sibling duo subsequently released "Younger Me," a compassionate, timely ode to the obstacles they overcame to become who they are today.
Osborne was one of two country acts signed to a major label to come out as gay: The other was Brooke Eden, who came out in January, and later in the year got engaged to her partner Hilary Hoover. She put out the first new songs she’d released in years, and in a Grand Ole Opry performance, she and Trisha Yearwood duetted on Yearwood's classic "She's in Love With the Boy," changing the lyrics to "She’s in love with the girl."
Dolly Parton Retained Her Reign as Country Queen
Dolly Parton was a major bright spot in the dark year that was 2020. Not only did she lift spirits by releasing her third Christmas album, A Holly Dolly Christmas, but she also made a $1 million donation to fund the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.
It’s hard to top that, but this year, Parton continued to trend for her uplifting acts of kindness and legendary musical feats. She sent social media into a frenzy when she celebrated "hot girl summer" — and the birthday of her husband of 57 years, Carl Dean — by recreating the iconic outfit she wore for her Playboy cover shoot back in 1978. She also duetted with Reba McEntire for the first time, landed on the list of Forbes' richest self-made women, and capped off 2021 by setting two brand-new Guinness World Records (and breaking a third record that she already held) for her long-standing chart accomplishments.
Full-Length Collaborations Albums
What’s better than one duet? An album full of them, apparently. Collaborations were hot in country music in 2021, but lots of artists took that one step further, putting out full-length projects featuring a cast of duet partners.
The Hardy-curated Hixtape Vol. 2 dug deep into country lifestyle and party songs, courtesy of some of the biggest names from every corner of the genre. Brantley Gilbert, Brothers Osborne, Jon Pardi, Dierks Bentley and Jake Owen are just a few of the acts who lent their voices to the track list, which features a total of 33 guest artists across 14 songs.
While the Hixtape went ultra-country, other duets albums were genre-spanning. Rapper Nelly put out his Heartland project, featuring Darius Rucker, Breland and Florida Georgia Line. Jimmie Allen went even broader for his Bettie James Gold Edition, which featured everyone from rapper Pitbull to R&B/soul singer Monica and pop star Noah Cyrus.