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Why it’s a big deal that Kacey Musgraves won album of the year at the CMA Awards

Kacey Musgraves, center, and Ian Fitchuk, far left, accept the album of the year award form Little Big Town's Kimberly Schlapman, Karen Fairchild and Jimi Westbrook at the CMA Awards in Nashville. (Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Award show presenters typically try to keep a straight face before they announce the winner — but on Wednesday night, the four members of Little Big Town couldn’t conceal their excitement as they read the envelope at the Country Music Association Awards.

“And the CMA Award for album of the year goes to . . ." Karen Fairchild trailed off. Then she smiled. “For all the little girls writing songs out there, ‘Golden Hour,’ Kacey Musgraves!”

In the audience, Musgraves looked stunned — while some predicted she could win the tough category, the odds weren’t exactly in her favor. She hugged her grandmother, then made her way up to the stage.

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“Wow. This is really, really crazy timing, because I just realized this morning — it sounds like a lie — 10 years ago today, I moved to Nashville,” the 30-year-old Musgraves said, as she thanked her husband, Ruston Kelly, along with her management and record label. “Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian, my two co-producers, made this record with me, and we poured everything we have into this. And I’m so proud of it. It’s inspired by just this beautiful universe, all of you and just most of all, love.”

While Musgraves’s win is significant for her career (“Golden Hour,” which has sold about 107,000 copies since its release in March, is now back near the top of the all-genre iTunes charts), it’s also a big deal for the industry. As you may know, country music has received a lot of backlash in recent years for its very visible gender imbalance. Women only make up approximately 10 percent of the songs played on country radio; streaming playlists and festival lineups are also skewed male. Even the CMA Awards were spare on female nominees, with an all-men entertainer of the year category for the second consecutive year.

Fairchild’s pointed dedication to “all the little girls writing songs out there” wasn’t just a fun aside — she has been vocal about the challenges women face in the genre. The comment also brings to mind Carrie Underwood’s recent interview with the podcast “Women Want to Hear Women,” in which the superstar confessed she doesn’t know what to say to young girls who want to be country singers.

“What do you tell them? What do you do?” Underwood asked. “How do you look at them and say, ‘Well, just work hard, sweetie, and you can do it,' when that’s probably not the case right now?”

Now, Musgraves certainly gives them some hope, as she was the only woman nominated for album of the year; she beat out Chris Stapleton’s “From A Room: Vol. 2,” Thomas Rhett’s “Life Changes,” Keith Urban’s “Graffiti U” and Dierks Bentley’s “The Mountain.” All four men see much more airplay than Musgraves, who has received virtually no country radio support since her 2013 debut album, “Same Trailer Different Park.”

And while some wondered whether that would have an impact on her chances, clearly it didn’t matter. She’s now the sixth solo female singer to win album of the year in the 52-year history of the CMAs, joining Miranda Lambert (who won twice), Taylor Swift, Lee Ann Womack, Patty Loveless and Anne Murray. Solo male artists have won the prize 37 times.

Not only does Musgraves’s victory help prove that albums can be competitive without radio play, but it’s a lesson to Nashville artists who want to take chances. “Golden Hour” is a country album, though it incorporates everything from pop to disco. Backstage after her CMAs win, Musgraves told reporters that going into making the record, she was facing a crisis of confidence, and wasn’t sure what she wanted to do next. She decided to work with a new group of producers and “find that thing that made my soul really happy again.”

“I just started imagining this land, musically, where it was possible to keep these elements of country music that are really intrinsic to my music, like pedal steel, banjo,” she said. “But I wanted to explore this new frontier for myself with kind of electronic elements. And it’s a big mixture of a bunch of different things."

While certainly a risk, it paid off — although it may not be traditional enough for radio, the album got near-universal critical acclaim. Musgraves has also found more crossover opportunities outside Nashville, as she was the opening act on Harry Styles’s arena tour this past summer. She’s racking up more celebrity fans, from Reese Witherspoon to Katharine McPhee to Kendall Jenner, who wrote on Twitter, “I die for her!”

And although Musgraves’s path might not be the blueprint for everyone, her success — and CMAs win — is an inspiring sign of progress.

“I think this album has reached well beyond country music, and also I wanted it to give people that do love country music something too,” Musgraves said backstage. “I didn’t want to leave that behind, I wanted to take it with me.”

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