When singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves was coming up in Golden, Texas, a sawmill town in the Bible Belt, she spent as much time as possible outdoors, running barefoot through the woods, hair wild, feet dirty. Weekend nights, she dolled up and sang Western swing for folks twice her age. That juxtaposition of down-to-earth country girl and polished music prodigy has informed her outlook ever since. The contrasting touchstones lend Musgraves, 31, a palpable depth and enticing complexity in an industry that prefers its women in tidy boxes.
After her 2013 debut, Same Trailer Different Park, Musgraves shotgunned into stardom. She was named CMA New Artist of the Year in large part due to her brain-teasing lyrics, as sharp as they were melodic. She’s since won six Grammys, including four for her latest album, Golden Hour, a stirring departure from her previous wordplay and a lean into a future she’s building for herself, one deliberately more vulnerable than cerebral. “Before, my songwriting hinged more on turning phrases,” Musgraves explains. “I like that style, but I wasn’t using all the colors in the box. This time, I wanted to speak from the heart. It was time to shift gears and feel things and let people in a little bit more. I’m a perfectionist. I had to let go.”
Musgraves’s soul-baring trust fall was accelerated by tumbling full tilt in love (“for the first time”) with her now husband, singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly. “Going through my 20s and not being in the right relationships made me put up some walls. You put walls up. You’re not happy. Being on the other side of that, I feel more self-confident. I don’t feel daunted putting myself out there. I feel a bit of a softening to myself but also to the world.”
She recognizes this is a conspicuous pivot from her former public persona. “I’ve always had a sarcastic nature, a rebellious spirit. Asking for forgiveness rather than permission is my MO,” she says. It’s a transformation she welcomes as a chance to inhabit a fresh space, to stretch. For Musgraves, complacency may as well be the plague: “Growing up in Texas, I’ve always had a strong idea of what I do and don’t like. And that doesn’t always serve me well. It can be narrow-minded. I have to work at expanding, at being more flexible, and at knowing that if something isn’t my idea, it doesn’t mean it’s not as good as my idea.”
Maybe, but for years that stubbornness was a vital asset as Musgraves navigated the music industry, helping her shake off pressures to modify her message and intention, buoying her as she charted a distinctive, daring path. Musgraves abided no guff, especially from folks who advised her against speaking her mind counter to the more rigid, traditional country music worldview. “From the get-go, I wasn’t going to sign a record deal unless I could completely do it on my terms,” she recalls. “And, yeah, there’ve been moments when I’ve been asked to change lyrics or to do things I wasn’t into. But I’m not going to bend in hopes that it’s going to reach more people or whatever. It’s just not worth it.”
Musgraves’s refusal to compromise her authenticity and vision is one reason her reach extends well beyond country music, netting a contract with IMG Models and a guest spot on RuPaul’s Drag Race. “I’ve always felt my best when I basically look like a drag queen,” she says with a laugh. “I love the glitter and the hairspray and the kitsch and the loudness of it all. I also really love when anyone just fucking puts themselves out there.” For her, defiant audacity and country camp came easy compared to exposing her tender underbelly—“I fixate on my flaws. I can be really critical. I think that’s the Virgo in my personality”—but it’s growth she believes these times require. “People are craving truth; they’re craving something real. People are tired of having a corporatized version of something shoved in their face. Now more than ever, it’s important that artists of all kinds show exactly who they are.” That thirst for integrity goes way beyond music into the realm of everyday philosophy. “We’re inundated with the bad and the grimy. It’s easy to be reactionary. But it’s not always what you should do.”
With her new songs and outlook, Musgraves reminds us there is hope and magnificence in our environments, our communities, even ourselves. She mentions the first song she wrote for Golden Hour, “Oh What a World,” an ode to the interconnectedness of all things. “It was based on this idea that while I was sitting on the tour bus, somewhere plants were popping out of the ground and northern lights were changing colors up in the sky. We don’t know why we’re here, how we got here. And it’s beautiful, because it’s one thing we all have in common.”
Asked when she became so metaphysical, Musgraves gamely mentions her experimentation with psychedelics. (She’s previously talked about acid trips and trying mushrooms.) “They’ve brought me closer to our planet and to humanity. I’ve walked away with a lot of little gifts.” One of the most profound is Musgraves’s faith in the larger future of the world. “Younger generations aren’t afraid to stand up and speak. I feel like we’re in good hands.” For her part, moving forward, Musgraves aims to be like water, to flow and adapt. She confesses that for a woman like her, it remains a battle. “It can become an addiction thinking that something isn’t good enough unless you’ve fucked with it a little bit. Learning to differentiate between when something is necessary or not is a goal of mine. Not every pebble has to be a boulder.”
These days, Musgraves finds the most peace at home with her husband as they settle into their new house in the Tennessee woods. “There are deer everywhere. It’s green and lush, birds singing all the time.” She loves performing and songwriting but is open to whatever path the universe provides. “There are a lot of things that could make me happy. The future is wide open.” Her only criteria? Following her arrow. “If I go down in flames for being me, well then, hey, I fucking tried. At least I went down in flames for something that I was rather than something I wasn’t.” Musgraves isn’t scared. “I have a soft place to land.”
This article originally appears in the October 2019 issue of Marie Claire. Read more about the women changing the future, in honor of our 25th anniversary, here.
Photographer: Thomas Whiteside / Fashion Editor: Ryan Young / Hair: Bok-Hee at Forward Artists for Oribe / Makeup: Yumi Mori at Forward Artists for Chanel / Manicure: Dawn Sterling at Statement Artists for Dior / Production: Elise Connett at 143 Productions