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Why Kacey Musgraves still can't get a country radio hit

The former Austinite keeps winning major music awards for 'Golden Hour'

By Emily Yahr The Washington Post
Kacey Musgraves performed two sold-out Stubb's shows in March, hot off her success at the Grammy Awards. [Erika Rich for Statesman]

The day after Kacey Musgraves triumphed at the Grammy Awards in February — winning four trophies including album of the year — her record label made a bold move: They sent one of her songs to country radio.

While this might seem like an obvious step after a popular artist has the biggest night of her career, it caused ripples around Nashville. Radio had been ignoring Musgraves for years. Could a Grammy sweep change that?

Chart-watchers closely monitored the progress of her single "Rainbow." When 53 stations added it to their playlists, MCA Nashville's vice president of promotion, Katie Dean, declared the label "optimistic." The piano-driven ballad, which urges a downcast listener to "hold tight to your umbrella" in hard times, steadily ascended the Billboard airplay and Mediabase charts.

Alas, last week, "Rainbow" fell off the country radio charts after peaking at No. 33 — a disappointment in a genre that places a high premium on airplay. (It's currently No. 28 on the adult contemporary chart.)

Of course, Texas-native Musgraves — who was nominated for two trophies at Wednesday's CMT Awards, where hosts Little Big Town called out the lack of radio play for female country singers — is the rare Nashville artist approaching superstardom without the support of country radio. Her Grammy-winning record "Golden Hour" (which also won album of the year at both major country award shows) has sold more than 200,000 copies; she tours the world and headlines sold-out amphitheaters; her reach extends far beyond country music, including a high-profile appearance at the Met Gala, a modeling contract with IMG Models and a guest judge spot on "RuPaul's Drag Race."

» RELATED: Post-Grammys success, Kacey Musgraves is ‘still the girl from Golden’

Still, her absence from country radio has confused fans and caused some introspection in the industry.

"The fact that country radio ignored what was album of the year, that's embarrassing," said Larry Rosin, president of Edison Research. "But I doubt very many people in country radio are sitting around embarrassed about it."

Industry insiders offered several possible reasons for "Rainbow's" stall on the charts. It didn't test well when stations did audience research. It's a slow song that doesn't resonate going into the summer season, when listeners crave upbeat hits. Others pointed out that the Grammy voters who lauded "Golden Hour" are a very different demographic from the radio programmers who construct playlists.

Then, one reason only brought up in the most hushed tones: Some country radio programmers claim that Musgraves hasn't been very friendly to them and didn't seem to care much about airplay — and although they insist their priority is playing the best songs, personal bias can seep into decision-making. This triggered a debate at the annual Country Radio Seminar conference in Nashville in February, where a few programmers admitted that they can't help but want to support singers who seem more enthusiastic about radio.

This prompted some eye-rolling from one attendee, who suggested that country programmers may have become spoiled by the genre's super-ingratiating stars, who make a special point to thank radio at every award show. "We are so used to every single artist being arms wide open. ... They're not all going to be lovely to deal with. If the music is great, you play it."

Musgraves declined to comment for this story. But she has been more openly critical of the industry's habits than most artists, who fear alienating programmers. "MASSIVE expectance on us to be extra accommodating, accessible, sexy, and kiss ass-y," she tweeted last year in reference to a Rolling Stone article about sexual harassment in the country radio world. "Maybe it's why you hardly ever hear me on the radio."

During an interview with Reese Witherspoon, Musgraves added, "I can be meeting the same radio station people or people in the industry as a male artist but there's an extra pressure on me to be accommodating or nice."

From the beginning, Musgraves' music was a challenge for country radio. Although her 2012 debut single "Merry Go Round" peaked at No. 10 and the follow-up "Blowin' Smoke" performed decently as well, her third single, "Follow Your Arrow," found resistance from programmers, with its references to marijuana and same-sex kissing.

"I just hate that people are scared of it," Musgraves told the Guardian in 2013. "But I don't want to be begging. I don't want to be at the mercy of country radio with it. It's gonna have its own life regardless, so I don't really want to ask their permission."

Her sophomore album, "Pageant Material," got little radio attention. When "Golden Hour" was released in March 2018, her label sent two simultaneous singles to stations. Despite Musgraves' insistence that she was ready to push for radio play "more than ever with this record," as she told Variety, neither "Butterflies" nor "Space Cowboy" managed to chart.

» RELATED: Reminder that Kacey Musgraves used to live in Austin

Nashville is now nearly four years into a debate over the bleak situation for female artists — which exploded into the open in 2015 when a ratings consultant advised stations to make women no more than 15 percent of their playlists. University of Ottawa professor Jada Watson recently scoured country radio data from 2000 through 2018 and found that Kenny Chesney, the most-played male artist, had more than 6 million spins on his songs — nearly double the amount given to Carrie Underwood, the most-played female artist.

It's not just a radio problem. Festival lineups and tours are dominated by men. The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative recently found that of the songs on the last five year-end Billboard's Hot Country charts — which measures sales, streaming and radio play — only 16 percent were by women. For 45 years, rosters at country labels have been only 30 percent of the artists are female, according to a Country Radio Broadcasters presentation; it concluded that as long as male artists dominated airplay and ratings remained strong, programmers had little incentive to change their strategy.

Publicists for Musgraves' record label did not return multiple requests for comment. But on Tuesday night, Cindy Mabe, president of its parent company, Universal Music Group Nashville, accepted the Billboard 2019 Country Power Players executive of the year award and spoke about how "there are no places for women's voices and stories and perspective in country music, the one place I sought complete refuge as a young girl growing up in North Carolina."

"It breaks my heart," she added. "Until we prove it wrong."