“She brings such a mixture of people together in one room,” Sandbox Entertainment founder and chairman Jason Owen says, “because they’re all there for the experience, as well as the music. Kacey’s shows are about celebrating life. She takes you on a journey – and I think people like that.
“It’s a lot of emotions. But there’s also fun stuff, and she’s very aware of how she puts her setlists together. I think the older people get the humor of her lyrics – and she reminds them of the country music they think of as country music. Pageant Material and Same Trailer, Different Park have some great twists musically, but they also have a sound they relate to.
“Then, just being Kacey, she touches on things younger people are thinking about: fluid sexuality, getting high, laughing off people not getting it. She’s very much the voice of youth, especially LGBTQ teens and 20-somethings, and they see her as one of them.”
For Musgraves, who won the 2014 Best Country Song Grammy and CMA Award for “Follow Your Arrow,” as well as the 2019 Best Country Song Grammy for “Space Cowboy,” ground zero is simple. Though known for visual spectacle and presentation, aware of how to create iconic images, in the end, it’s about… the songs.
“It’s always of the utmost importance the songs and the emotional intention behind them come through,” she explains via email. “In my opinion, songs should be able to translate just as much, or even more, if you strip away all the production.”
Universal Music Group Nashville President Cindy Mabe, who’s watched the evolution from the almost Americana folkie of Same Trailer to today’s quicksilver pop doyenne of star-crossed, agrees. “Watching the audience be so inspired and moved and connected to her songs and her presence is everything. They hang on – and sing back – every word. The audience is wide-ranging and beautiful, and not just one kind of people. They are diverse and connect to her and her music for different reasons, but they all feel the same way about her.
“Some found her because they love her traditional country sound, some come because they love her turn-of-phrase lyrics. Some come because of the doors she’s opened and messages she embodies: she says, ‘You have to be yourself’ and ‘Don’t try to make everyone happy.’ Some just discover her on a TV show or fashion magazine. But they all connect. Very passionately, too.”
If Musgraves spent her early touring life with George Strait and Kenny Chesney, she quickly moved to Willie Nelson and Alison Krauss. But her sparkling take on classic country coupled with her curiosity about pop, dance and EDM created a platform that allowed Katy Perry and Harry Styles to put her on their tours. Not kitsch, nor Smithsonian retro, fans in the broadest sense of pop music were charmed by the purity of her voice and smart aleck-y wokeness of her lyrics.
Dan MacMedan / Getty Images – Golden Hardware:
Kacey Musgraves with her collection of Grammy Awards in 2019.
In Musgraves’ songs, people smoke dope, waitresses don’t lose “the baby weight,” girls can kiss lots of girls “if that’s what you’re into” – and everybody accepts everyone else. Maybe it’s the smalltown ethos she was raised on… Perhaps the evolution of genuinely engaged tolerance of a red state emigre… Or it’s her truth-telling, love all, but especially the really interesting people perspective.
For whatever reason, Musgraves, like friend Willie Nelson, struck a chord with people who – theoretically – dislike and distrust each other. She sees the larger reality of her “all welcome” audiences, knowing mainstream country shows aren’t always places “outsider” communities feel comfortable coming.
“One of the best things I’ve ever read about the environment at my shows was someone saying they were really nervous to come alone,” she explains. “They had no one to attend with, but to their surprise, while they were there – in the drink or merch lines, or in the crowd, they ended up making new friends.
“They had a really warm, beautiful night. That says so much to me – and about all the people who come to my shows.”
Sandbox Entertainment GM and Head of Global Touring Leslie Cohea understands. Rather than taking the broadstroke country radio approach, the AEG Louis Messina/Ali Harnell protege “got granular” – spreading the word via social media across myriad bases. Recognizing the LGBTQ person may not be where the Broken Spoke or Gruene Hall Sunday afternoon dancer would be, that the elite music fans and NPR listeners weren’t overlapping mainstream country radio folks, getting creative with how they broke up social media advertising helped support every audience who loved Musgraves’ sound, songs and ethos.
“We knew we didn’t want to skip a level,” Cohea stresses. “So it was very grass roots, starting in theaters. It was never about the money for her. Everything was intentional. Every show sold out, so people couldn’t get in, and people felt that.
“Early on, we did some geo-targeting with digital advertising, but we really let the people come to her. She cultivated that environment of acceptance. We didn’t put restrictions on it. We didn’t limit ourselves about who to reach out to. With fashion, her Grammy wins, it was about who she is – that’s brought people.”
Even more telling, Musgraves’ agent Lenore Kinder at Wasserman – who’d promoted early tours through Golden Hour – made it a point to put the truth-telling songwriter in rooms most country acts couldn’t play. Laughing, she admits, “I made sure we played rock rooms, not the Dusty Armadillos. I wanted her where young, hip contemporary artists were playing, so she was part of larger musical conversations; she was playing where the rock bands and Trixie Mattel were playing. Even in 2014 and 2015, we were digitally-driven, Facebook and Twitter. If we were going to break out a group, it was always community marketing, looking to the LGBTQ community and employing street teams.”
When Kinder booked her into Portland’s Crystal Ballroom, the country PD said it was too big for the songwriter who’d won awards, but hadn’t connected on radio. She marveled when she sold the date out in advance. Kinder acknowledges, “There was a disconnect about how big her audience was, because it falls so far outside the metrics that apply to most country acts. She creates culture; she doesn’t follow trends, but creates them, so we’re always trying to amplify whatever she does.
“The goal always was to find places where art could happen and people felt comfortable. When Pageant Material came out, we had her play the Pageant in St. Louis on either release day or Valentine’s Day; we played the Bluebird Theater on 4/20 one year because she had ‘Blowing Smoke’ out. Rather than playing the Billy Bob’s, we were trying to use venues to craft the narrative of who she was.”
John Shearer / Getty Images / Sandbox Entertainment – With A Little Help From Our Friends:
Kacey Musgraves and Harry Styles together at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville Oct. 25, 2019.
Then came Harry Styles. Easily the most coveted tour, tapping Musgraves during her Golden Hour touring cycle shook the industry. How did the droll young woman who looked like a cross between Cher and Lana Del Rey, but sang like Dolly Parton with songs written through a refracted prism of Mary Chapin Carpenter, the early (Dixie) Chicks and Roger Miller do it?
Naysayers were stunned to see fans turning up early, scooping up merch like it was Musgraves’ personal wardrobe.
“That changed everything,” Cohea concedes. “Suddenly, everyone knew what Kacey was all about live. She’s the only woman to have played Coachella and Stagecoach, but this wasn’t that. It was so much more.”
“She’s a generational songwriter,” Kinder begins. “The lyrics and expansiveness of her art, how it unfolds, it contains anybody who’s living life out in the open. That connects beyond what kind of radio station you’re listening to, or how you identify as any kind of person.”
Kinder estimates domestic audiences are 30% older men who appreciate classic country word play, 10% little girls who identify with the fairy princess piece of Musgraves’ persona, 20% LGBTQ+, 20% girls’ (sometimes with frat boy dates) or women’s nights out and 20% music aficionados who seek the best of everything.
And there’s the rest of the world. Musgraves’ decision to release star-crossed via UMGN and Interscope was not going pop, but global. Having fallen in love with European audiences following her first C2C experience, the coltish songwriter will headline Britain’s C2C Festival, but also play Stockholm’s Lollapalooza, Germany’s Rock Werchter, Barcelona’s Primavera and Denmark’s Roskilde.
She’s doubling down on her commitment to Japan and the Far East, where Owen offers, “She’s by far the biggest country star after Dolly Parton.” With a massive Apple Music promotion for country in Japan, seeds were sown. She did a campaign for Marc Jacobs in the Far East.
Mabe, who encouraged international after radio’s cold shoulder, recognized the potential few country artists have beyond North America.
“Kacey’s always had that spirit of finding her own audience, and she wanted to go after the world. It became really real when she kept going to Europe; she was struggling with radio, having a hard time finding an entry point. That wears on an artist. In Europe, specifically the UK, they couldn’t get enough. It felt like one of those breaking moments – only it was across the Atlantic Ocean. She was selling out Royal Albert Hall. Prince Harry was coming to see her perform, yet we were struggling to move forward in the U.S.
“Kacey loved those audiences as much as they loved her. It created a fire to build this international career and find her people no matter where they lived.”
Kevin Winter / Getty Images / Coachella – Golden Hour:
Kacey Musgraves performs at Coachella 2019 in Indio, Calif.
After an initial trip to Japan, Owen and Mabe committed to send her back for a round of TV shows, photo shoots, YouTube tapings and other opportunities. Had the pandemic receded, Musgraves planned to shoot the video for star-crossed’s “Cherry Blossoms” outside Tokyo.
With only 15 American shows – Madison Square Garden, Staples Center, Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena sold out – the vision has moved to less is more. If Golden Hour was a relentless touring cycle, the emphasis now is fewer dates, but make them mean more. Fans seeking tickets in sold-out markets are directed to other cities; the hope is everyone will get to see her. Knowing it’s about the experience and the music, Musgraves in top form is the priority.
“Self care and wellness rituals are the first things that go when you’re on the road. It’s harder to take care of yourself when you’re in constant motion. It’s become imperative to not jump on the hamster wheel, so-to-speak. If doing less shows means I can put on a better show and stay as healthy as possible, I’m for it.
“I’m in the process of trying to wrap my brain around how I structure the show. There’s an age-old conundrum for artists most excited to play their newest creations, but also realizing a lot of people are coming specifically intent on hearing songs,” she explains. “Blending those two worlds doesn’t always feel super smooth sonically… (Still) there will be a time and place for all the songs I’ve created to live in some fashion. I just want the current set to best represent me in this space where I am now.”