Golden Hour 5 Years Later: A Complicated Classic

Kacey Musgraves’ masterpiece, now a more challenging listen, changed music for the better

Music Features Kacey Musgraves
Golden Hour 5 Years Later: A Complicated Classic

If Golden Hour was a human, they would barely be old enough for kindergarten. But Kacey Musgraves’ third original studio album, released on March 30, 2018, has already graduated to classic status.

The story behind the album has likewise enshrined itself among American music lore. After charming public radio hosts, progressive country fans and Willie Nelson with her dry humor and cannabis habits, plus a Christmas record to boot, the talented Texas-born country singer was ready to test some new waters, so she famously began trying out psychedelics, and her third eye was forced open.

She then went into the studio with collaborators Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk to record an experimental pop country album that, perhaps as a surprise to them all, became one of best pop country albums ever made. And, later, in a rare moment when the Grammys got it right, Musgraves took home the trophy for Album of the Year.

Pulling from disco, Americana, psychedelia, pop and soul, the album uses unexpected elements like AutoTune, synthesizers and syncopated basslines to create something we had never heard before. Musgraves didn’t just “go pop”—she created a new bridge between pop and country, stretching over an ocean of other American musical styles. Banjo met beats, and nothing was ever the same.

The release of Golden Hour helped launch a whole western-meets-whimsy movement. While the resurgence in country stoner vibes isn’t all due to Musgraves (hi Margo Price!), Golden Hour helped popularize the aesthetic and usher in a campy subculture that’s feminist and queer-friendly. The rise in cowgirl culture also helped pave the way for country crossovers like Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” and outspoken collectives like the Highwomen.

Not only did Golden Hour signify a shift in music culture, but it also told a somewhat magical love story.

Yet, it’s impossible to listen to Golden Hour now without considering the fate of that love story. Musgraves and her onetime husband are no longer together. Listening to Golden Hour after learning this changes the whole experience.

Written in the afterglow of falling in love with fellow country singer Ruston Kelly, Golden Hour traces every stage of a relationship, from past flames dying out and the inbetween days to the first “Butterflies” with a new person and ensuing bliss. In 2018, it was so easy to imagine Musgraves living happily ever after with her person. How could the artist who wrote “Oh, What A World” and “Love Is A Wild Thing” be anything but?

But Musgraves and Kelly divorced in 2020. It doesn’t matter why, but it’s impossible to un-know this. The love burning at Golden Hour’s center didn’t last. This doesn’t invalidate the experience of the album, but it complicates it.

In some ways, the honeymooning Musgraves is frozen in amber.

We will forever be able to go back to that version of herself, the one who after feeling out of place among prissy southern girls and aching for “Somebody To Love” on Pageant Material finally found an equal, someone who stole her “heart” instead of her “crown.” Her love story with Kelly is perfectly preserved on Golden Hour. The tale unfolds across the excitement of “Butterflies,” the simplicity of “Love Is A Wild Thing” and the warmth of “Golden Hour.”

But it’s helpful to keep in mind that Golden Hour isn’t all rainbows and sunshine. There are storm clouds, breakups and anti-heroes, which is one reason why it’s timeless. The LSD-infused one-minute “Mother” is about Musgraves missing her mom. And the hit “High Horse”—even though it’s a high-flying jam—is about a certified buzzkill.

There are songs for both good times and bad. In fact, there’s one for both: “Happy & Sad” is about wanting to hold onto joy a little longer, even as darkness sinks in.

While reflecting on a celebrity breakup is part of the experience of listening to Golden Hour in 2023, it should still be personal. The best art takes an individual experience and makes it universal. Golden Hour brought millions of fans into Kacey Musgraves’ neon-lit barnyard, and it’s not just because they liked the vibe of a weed-smoking cowgirl. It’s because these songs, like so many others in her catalog, are simple but effective. They melt into your brain like a piece of candy fading into the hot sidewalk. Listening to Golden Hour is the sensation of “I’ve felt these feelings before, but I could never have described it so perfectly, even though the vocabulary was there all along.”

Still, after the disintegration of the relationship that inspired it, listening to Golden Hour can often be really sad. Like, “If a relationship this beautiful crumbled, how is there any hope left for the rest of us?” But it’s more complex than that. Golden Hour was reminiscent of love’s highs and lows even before Musgraves’ marriage fell apart. “You got me smiling with tears in my eyes,” she sang on “Happy & Sad.” She has reminded us over and over that joy and grief go hand-in-hand more often than you’d expect.

So don’t mourn love’s expiration just yet. Even if you find yourself in heartbreak’s way, Golden Hour will be waiting when you’re ready to dance again. You even have Musgraves’ blessing, as she told Zane Lowe in a 2021 interview: “[T]he magic of Golden Hour does not have to die with that relationship. It can live on and I will relate to it again.”

Ellen Johnson is a former Paste music editor and forever pop-culture enthusiast. Presently, she’s an editor and freelance writer. You can find her tweeting about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson and re-watching Little Women on Letterboxd.

Listen to Kacey Musgraves’ Daytrotter session here.

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