Who needs hip-hop-spun Top 40 country when you have Kacey Musgraves and her stylistic approach to realism? She’s not necessarily here to be the savior of modern radio—she has yet to chart a notable follow-up after her Top 10-plateauing hit “Merry Go Round”—but, of course, that notion isn’t completely lost on her. After 2013’s perfectly coiffed debut full player Same Trailer, Different Park (featuring such characters as a down-on-her-luck waitress wanting more in “Blowin’ Smoke” and a girl simply provoking a sense of self-worth and universal love in “Follow Your Arrow”), Musgraves seems to take a huge leap back from the cheeky portrayal of small-time life, in favor of more smoothly concocted whirlwinds and analog production. Her sheepish grin is still very much a part of her story (as on “Family is Family,” “Biscuits,” the western-swing “High Time” and the plucky “Cup of Tea”), but 2 years can certainly have a profound effect on an artist.
Kacey continues to own her own crazy, too: her songwriting signifies her depth of understanding and reach into the very soul of country’s tapestry. “Somebody to Love,” “Miserable” and “Die Fun” project a particularly rough-cut outline of herself; it’s staunchly Loretta Lynn in lyrical brashness and Patsy Cline proclivity for authoritative nuance.
There’s a through line of self-examination, a component to which she only hinted on Same Trailer. On Pageant Material, she unfurls herself and her inner thoughts in what could be perceived as a “concept album” in many regards.
“You can me take me out of country, but you can’t take the country out of me, no,” Musgraves jams on her new single “Dime Store Cowgirl,” a jangly adornment that centers her own evolution into the wider scope of the world. The title track, too, is an essential commentary on her public persona and the fascination with female feuds. It was in 2013—when she received her first-ever Female Vocalist nod at the CMA Awards—Musgraves became the target of click-bait headlines and misinterpreted intentions. When Miranda Lambert notched her fifth consecutive Female Vocalist statuette, the camera panned to Musgraves and captured her resting bitch-face moment. Many saw it as a rebellious signifier that she had better places to be, but that wasn’t the case at all. “I ain’t pageant material. I’m always higher than my hair, and it ain’t that I don’t care ’bout world peace,” she professes, “but I don’t see how I can fix it in a swimsuit on a stage. I ain’t exactly Miss Congenial. 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.”
Pageant Material also scratches and digs behind the curtain of Music Row, only heard in hushes and whispers on her debut. Targeting the “Good Ol’ Boys Club,” she pokes and jabs the “big machine” and what her male counterparts do (or not do) to get ahead in a fickle, ever-evolving industry. It’s no secret the men have an easier time getting radio airplay. It’s a well-documented standard that playlists are healthily stacked against females and female-voiced singles. #SaladGate, as it is known, stopped the internet in its track in recent weeks, as radio consultant Keith Hill advised programmers on how to better their business bottom-line. “If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out,” he proclaimed in a recent issue of Country Aircheck.
It’s even more than fitting that Musgraves would be the one to pop the bubble and succinctly call out the very machinations that have hindered her breakthrough. “When did it become about who you know and not how good you are?” she ponders, before launching into the hook. “Don’t wanna be a party of the good ol’ boys club. Cigars and handshakes, appreciate ya, but no thanks. Another gear in a big machine. Don’t sound like fun to me.” Lambert and Carrie Underwood have both championed young female talent in their own ways, but neither have dared to write a song about it. Musgraves crafts a song that is honest: she’s neither bitter nor angry. She’s simply stating facts.
The smokey “This Town” (a Same Trailer-style snapshot), the sweet, love-strewn ditty “Late to the Party” and the waltz-y closer “Fine” (a sleepy, longing proclamation) are squarely sufficient on the vivid, wide-encompassing reel Musgraves has created. Not particularly memorable, these three equally-solid tracks give her a reprieve from her higher and more exquisite, powerfully detailed and earthy tales. That’s not to say her rawness and glass-shattering subtlety aren’t present; she leans into her back pocket of emotion, curling around the lyrics with a more seasoned vocal. There’s a marked difference in Musgraves’ delivery: more polish, more confidence, more perception of life, love, loss, heartache and recovery. Same Trailer, Different Park did an outstanding number on her own belief in herself and how she sees the industry, but Pageant Material (while not quite hitting the bulls eye as comfortably and unapologetically) does it’s best to ramp up the personal scrutiny through a delicate lens of fame.
Must-Listen Tracks: “High Time,” “Good Ol’ Boys Club,” “Dime Store Cowgirl,” “Pageant Material,” “Somebody to Love”