Cindy Mabe, president of Universal Music Group Nashville, has written a letter to Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr., expressing her dismay that Kacey Musgraves’ new album, star-crossed, will not be eligible for country album of the year for the 64th annual Grammy Awards, to be held Jan. 31.
The decision was made last week during the Recording Academy’s annual screening committee meeting, where submissions are reviewed to make sure they are placed in the appropriate category. Members of the screening committees can reject recordings if they do not feel they fit into the genre, though they remain eligible for the all-genre album of the year category. That is what happened to star-crossed, according to Mabe, who writes in her letter, which was obtained by Billboard. Billboard has also independently verified the committee’s decision.
“This decision from the country committee to not accept star-crossed into the country albums category is very inconsistent and calls into question the other agendas that were part of this decision,” Mabe writes.
Star-crossed was released Sept. 10, under a new joint partnership between UMGN’s MCA Nashville imprint and pop label Interscope Records. The album debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart and No. 3 on the all-genre Billboard 200. Musgraves’ previous albums had been released solely by Universal Music Group’s country division.
Of Musgraves’ six Grammy wins, two have come in the country album category— in 2014 for Same Trailer Different Park and in 2019 for Golden Hour, which also won album of the year that year. Five of her six wins are in country categories.
In a letter dated Oct. 10, Mabe says cites Musgraves’ previous wins and also lays out why she believes the committee’s decision is wrong in a follow-up to an undated conversation she says she had with Mason.
“As a prime stakeholder in country music, I would really like to frame what’s happening in our genre right now and help you and the Grammy’s [sic] fully understand the importance of Kacey Musgraves to country music and why this decision is so much more than an entry point for an awards show. Taking her out of the country category actually does harm to a format struggling with change and inclusivity overall,” she writes.
Mabe goes on to write about country music’s ongoing struggles to become more diverse and asks that it not be narrowly defined, as she recalls one of country music’s bleaker recent chapters. “The numbers speak and are a matter of public record with women making up only 10 percent of all country airplay. This year alone country music has been mired in the controversy surrounding one of the formats biggest artists, Morgan Wallen, who used a racial slur and grew fans and audience from it. THIS IS NOT ALL THAT WE ARE. Under the surface are the artists that change it all and they are led by the example of Kacey Musgraves.”
Mabe, who never mentions that Interscope is a partner on the project, then dives deep into the numbers and sound of the album. According to the description for eligibility for best country album, the album must contain “51% playing time of new country recordings.” If rejected by the committee, it is eligible for album of the year and could be recommended for another category, such as pop album of the year.
Mabe writes: “Sonically, it’s got more country instrumentation than Golden Hour which won Country Album of the Year in 2019. To compare Golden Hour to star-crossed, both albums were produced by Ian Fitchuk, Daniel Tashian and Kacey Musgraves. Both albums were mixed by Shawn Everett. On Golden Hour, Ian, Daniel and Kacey wrote 7 of the 13 songs and on star-crossed they wrote 11 of the 15. Both albums complete each other with Golden Hour telling the story of falling in love and star-crossed telling the conclusion of the breakup. There is no departure in sound from these two projects. This album was consistently classified as country throughout it’s [sic] metadata and overall labeling across the DSP accounts and partners. star-crossed appeared on every major country playlist of every DSP.”
She further accuses the members of the screening committee of playing politics. “The idea that a handful of people including competitors, who would benefit from Kacey not being in the country category, are deciding what is country only exacerbates the problem. The system is broken and sadly not just for Kacey Musgraves but for our entire genre because of how these decisions are made for music’s biggest stage. Building roadblocks for artists who dare to fight the system is so dangerous and against everything I think the Grammy’s [sic] stand for. But that’s where we are today.”
The genre screening committees are made up of country professionals and artists and should not be confused with the nominating reviews committees, which have been disbanded by the Recording Academy. The screening committee meeting happen before the first-round ballots go out. Nominations will be announced Nov. 23.
Mabe doesn’t ask for the album to be reconsidered, but asks that Mason consider the long-term ramifications of the decision. “I haven’t slept all weekend because I’m really sad for our format. I’m sad for fans of our music and the ramifications of how we’ll continue to define success in country music,” she writes. “This short-sided, biased decision will send ripples throughout our format to continue to insure [sic] that the message is sent that country music can only be for the limited few that enjoy the same perspective.”
The Recording Academy did not immediately respond to request for comment, nor did Mabe’s representative.