Kacey Musgraves’ ‘Pageant Material’: Album Review
It’s not too often you’ll see a country music star grace the cover of the beyond-hip style bible that is The Fader. But Kacey Musgraves isn’t like many contemporary country music stars. For one, she is both traditional and progressive. Traditional in the sense that she celebrates what made the classic country of George Jones, Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings so vital in the first place: a rebel heart, a savage wit and the sliding twang of guitar. And by virtue of being a woman with an open mind who refuses to pander to conservative social mores, she’s progressive in ways that make the current climate of country radio reveal itself to be particularly antiquated and even toxic.
Musgraves’ work consistently chafes against the tired tropes that the Nashville-country radio matrix continues to make money on, and subsequently she has been cited — and burdened — by listeners and critics outside of the Nashville bubble as country’s great hope for the future. Her major label debut Same Trailer, Different Park showcased fearless, ambiguously witty songwriting that was unintimidated by the inevitable pearl-clutching from music that explored drug use that wasn’t alcohol or sex that didn’t happen in the back of a pick-up. Boosted by the melancholy and poignant “Merry Go ‘Round,” the breakout success of Same Trailer led to high expectations for follow-up Pageant Material, which was released by Mercury Nashville today (). But Musgraves easily carries that weight by crafting a deeper, more versatile and richer collection of country rockers.
Through the first four songs, she walks the razor’s edge between a classic style and modern convention, from lead track “High Time,” which is expertly composed and gorgeously broken-in, to the heartfelt and poppy future smash “Dimestore Cowgirl,” then on to the folky, antisocial love-ballad “Late To The Party.” The twangy, mandolin-riddled title track closes out that opening stretch by taking aim at the gender issues in country music that seem to always swirl around Musgraves’ music.
“Paegent Material” isn’t subtle, but subtlety isn’t needed. Musgraves wastes no time in pointing out the shitty double standards and expectations heaped on women in her world: “I ain’t pageant material / I’m always higher than my hair/ And it ain’t that I don’t care about world peace / But I don’t see how I can fix it in a swimsuit on a stage…Sometimes I talk before I think, I try to fake it but I can’t / I’d rather lose for what I am than win for what I ain’t.” Look no further than the album’s cover, Musgraves in profile wearing a tiara, expressionless with a thousand-yard stare, to underline the track’s larger themes. But even with such on-the-nose observations, Musgraves’ wit is sharp as ever, and she delivers those lines with humor and verve.
Following that centerpiece is the searing “This Town,” a tumbling, dirty piece of storytelling that offers listeners the grungy flip side to the small town life so regularly celebrated on country radio, and it further emphasizes that Musgraves refuses to let her songwriting become confined to one persona. Through the rest of the album, on tracks like the soaring, moonlit “Somebody to Love,” the glib, hilarious singalong “Family Is Family” and finally the glorious kiss off “Good Ol’ Boys Club” (in which Musgraves sings “And if I end up goin’ down in flames / Well at least I know I did it my own way”), she’s continually working through and perfecting what she loves about country music.
For fans of the genre that are looking for a sound beyond the braindead bro-downs from acts like Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney and Canaan Smith, Kacey Musgraves is bringing back a rapier wit and rebel streak embraced by generations of artists and listeners. Pageant Material makes it very easy to fall in love with country music all over again.