In every track on Kacey Musgraves’s sophomore album Pageant Material, there are one or two lyrics that would look great embroidered on a pillow or hanging as a decorative cross-stitch. Some are punny (“Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy”), some are suggestive (“I’m always higher than my hair”), and others are just plain old clichés (“You can take me out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of me”). But while a lesser country star would have trouble pulling off that kind of down-home wisdom, Musgraves—with her earnestness and Opry-ready voice—wears it well.
In 2013, Musgraves released her debut album Same Trailer, Different Park. Its lead single “Merry Go Round” was a blunt and heartbreaking look into the dynamics of small-town life that gave her the kind of real-life country cred that even a wildly successful artist in the genre like Taylor Swift would be incapable of. In the catchy and inspirational “Follow Your Arrow” she famously told her fans to “kiss lots of boys, or kiss lots of girls if that’s something you’re into.” It was the best album of that year for many reasons, but the pride with which she shared her opinions was one of the more notable ones.
Pageant Material, for the most part, ditches the overtly progressive messages of tolerance that made STDP such a surprise. Musgraves, having already established who she is and what she believes, has created an album that’s all about what she’s good at: country.
The album opens with “High Time,” a not-so-subtle ode to herbal relaxation that’s pulsing with the kinds of harmonies and instrumentation you’d find in a Willie Nelson album from the ‘70s. Its blending of classic sounds and new ‘tudes is the perfect re-introduction to Musgraves as an artist, and a reminder that she has some of the best songwriting partners (of any genre) in the business. And, oh my goodness, all that Spanish guitar! There was so little (I think maybe none?) in STDP, but it’s all over the place on this album.
Spanish guitar aside, the best tracks have one thing in common: sincerity. Whether singing about always being a small town girl in “Dimestore Cowgirl,” lamenting a sad sack of a former love in “Miserable,” or convincing us that she’s doing fine in, uh, “Fine,” Musgraves is (forgive my cliché) singing from the heart, and we feel it break, mend, and break again right along with her. Drama-free delights like “Biscuits” and “Cup of Tea” make her seem like the old friend you go to for advice—someone you can always trust. And even though you always learn something from her, I don’t think she’d ever call herself wise.
Pop is a genre for characters, but country is one for real people—and honesty is what makes Musgraves such a treasure. Her new album’s single moment of insincerity can be found in its title track: “I ain’t pageant material,” she sings. But there she is on the album cover, wearing her crown.
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