Since the release of her critically acclaimed debut album, Same Trailer, Different Park (2013), Kacey Musgraves has filled an odd gap between country and mainstream music. Musgraves’ follow-up album, Pageant Material, continues where her debut album began, with Musgraves lyricising witty critiques of the social norms that define her small town upbringing in a folky southern drawl.
In “High Time,” a slow, Spanish-influenced guitar track featuring western-style whistling, the Texas-born singer-songwriter muses on her longing to return to her roots: “I’m gonna turn off my phone and go back to the old me.” Pageant Material is very much a reflection—and ultimate rejection—of her newfound way of life and stardom. the instruments are simple, the vocals bare and without effects, and the lyrics are more personal.
“Dime Store Cowgirl” sets the scene for the rest of the album. After name-dropping cities nationwide, Musgraves reassures herself that, “It don’t matter where I’m going / I’ll still call my hometown home.” Elsewhere on the album, the title song “Pageant Material” sees Musgraves contradict the so-called ‘changing the world’ premise that beauty pageants promote: “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 stage.”
When she’s not being straightforward with her lyrics, Musgraves’ clever approach to songwriting makes her work heavily reminiscent of fellow country star, Dolly Parton, whose lyrics convey a similar critical view on many social norms. Between the seemingly innocent lyrics there lies a much more serious and critical undertone. For example, the line “Grow your own daisies” in lead single “Biscuits,” is innocent enough, but when followed with, “Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy,” it becomes clear that it’s part of a much larger picture than the encouragement of an incessant weed.
Musgraves has perfected a brutal honesty when it comes to songwriting, and she seems right at home when ruffling Nashville’s feathers. That the line “Slow my roll” in “High Time” can easily be misheard as “smoke my roll” is testament to her brilliant knack for creating amusing mondegreens. She pushes listeners to take issue with her and what she sings, but in turn forces them to question why they are accusing her in the first place. As she poignantly says: “You can’t be everybody’s cup of tea/…But why would you want to be?”
Although her themes are fairly new in country music, Musgraves doesn’t stretch herself into any new boundaries vocally, instead relying on her lyrics to carry the songs forward. But even some of her lyrics occasionally err on the corny side (“You can take me out of the country / But you can’t take the country out of me”); some of the songs on this album seem like slightly reworked themes from her first album. For example “This Town” discusses the complicated drama that revolves within small-town circles. (something she previously visited on her debut single, “Merry Go Round”) Album closer “Fine” proclaims the exact same message as her earlier song “It Is What It Is."And self-love anthem “Cup Of Tea” is ultimately “Follow Your Arrow – Part 2”, but with much less conviction than the original.
While Pageant Material is at first listen a straightforward and honest country album, it distinguishes itself from other songs in the genre in a way that almost seems as though Musgraves is singing every other line with a knowing wink. And besides the aforementioned missteps, she has delivered another thought-provoking record that’s sure to successfully shock the southern sensibilities that dominate the country music genre.