Kacey Musgraves is one of the biggest and brightest country music stars today, emerging as one of Nashville’s boldest and most authentic artists. Musgraves released her sophomore studio album Pageant Material last week to strong acclaim and tracks that tread personal observations of a small town.
First bursting onto the scene back in 2013 with her debut studio album, Same Trailer, Different Park, Musgraves became an overnight success and country’s darling with healthy liberal attitudes and themes. On her latest record, the usually alternative-country singer is much more confident in its styling with being able to fuse mainstream with a 1970’s countrypolitan flair.
Much of Pageant Material is about personal tussles with the subject of perception versus reality. Is life really what it seems? Written entirely by Kacey Musgraves and produced by Luke Laird, Shane McAnally, and Musgraves herself, the record is by far one of the best this year.
Kicking off with the summery and unperturbed, “High Time,” Musgraves hits higher registers as she moseys along a 1950’s sound. With well-timed claps and carefree whistling, the track is the epitome of a country song and Musgraves brings it back full circle with its lyrics (“Ain’t got to be alone to feel lonely”). It is incredibly enjoyable and something to blast loud this summer.
The second track, “Dime-Store Cowgirl” could quite possibly be the best on the record. The self-deprecating tune is more precise as it tells the story of Musgraves’ life with bright eyes. She is still a “dime-store cowgirl” from Texas and takes listeners through enjoyable moments of her life and career. With such honesty and heart, it’s one that will greatly appeal to all.
“Late to the Party” is another track where listeners get to hear Musgraves hit higher notes. It’s soft and dreamy, and a sweet romantic love song with lyrics like, “Who needs confetti? We’re already falling into the groove.” The lyrics might seem cliché, but its beautiful, autumnal melody complements it most heavenly and feels like somewhat of a daydream where you can sway back and forth with someone you love.
The title-track of the record, “Pageant Material” is another song that gives us a peek into Musgraves’ life. Growing up around pageants in the south, the country crooner shares an honest and witty observation of how young girls are expected to be pageant girls. With frank sentiment, she sings how, “Life ain’t always roses and pantyhose,” and that she would rather “lose for what I am than win for what I ain’t.”
The fourth track, “This Town” features Musgraves’ grandmother (or ‘memaw’), Barbara Musgraves who passed away in 2013. With memaw sharing an anecdote about an overdosed hospital patient who had come in and bitten an attending nurse, Musgraves calls being able to use her late grandmother’s recording, a moment of “complete serendipity.” Centered on the idea of small towns, the track gives us an interesting glimpse into the world of small towns—one sheriff, no secrets, and how gossip can ruin a family name.
“Biscuits” follows and is one of the most fun tracks on the record. With Musgraves refusing to feed industry egos by placing authentic self-expression and assurance above all, this proves it really was the perfect first single for the album. It’s a sharply modern country track with simple strides of old-school country with lyrics like, “Mind your own fences and own your own crazy/Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy.”
As we hit the middle of the record, Musgraves slows it down a bit with “Somebody to Love.” In many ways, it feels like Doris Day’s “Que Sera, Sera” for a new generation as it grapples with realities we all face—at the end of the day, we are all looking for somebody to love (“We’re all patiently impatient/And just waiting for somebody to love.”) Beginning with just violin strings that feel almost like a lonesome heart atop a hill, Musgraves delivers a genuine, heartfelt track, impressing us with softer vocals amidst questions and concerns we face on a daily basis.
The eight track on Pageant Material is “Miserable.” Well, not really—it’s just called that. In fact, the song gives the record gravitas and sincerity. With a folksy feel, “Miserable” is somewhat haunting and guileless as Musgraves sings about how some people are only happy when they, or others are miserable. It seems cold, but proves a harsh reality and how negativity can hold you back.
“Die Fun” is exactly that—fun and light, and grabs life, for lack of a better word, by the nuts. This pop-track is different from the others on the album. While still mellow, it’s Musgraves at her best as she turns a shoulder to aging. Though it might not be an anthem for the “live fast, die young” and in this case, “love hard” lifestyle, it’s a charming track with easy-going melodies and ‘nighttime-bonfire-in-the-woods’ sort of spirits.
“Family is Family” is a hokey country track that might seem trite, but Musgraves manages to freshen it up with her attitude and vocals. Focusing on family once again, the country starlet sings about dysfunctional dynamics (“They might smoke like chimneys, but give you their kidneys”) but that the love and respect still exists no matter what. The combination of a pedal steel guitar and acoustic guitar feed into that 1960’s and 1970’s country show feel, complete with cardboard sets and performers in flannel and pigtails.
“Good Ol’ Boys Club” is a track that validates Musgraves as one of the best in her genre with this track. In an interview with Radio.com, the Texas native who is currently on tour, said the track is a universal message of becoming a self-made individual in an industry that constantly conforms. The track has a genuine country feel with its guitars and that matter-of-fact melody Musgraves so perfectly expresses.
In the similar vein of “Biscuits,” the second last track on the record “Cup of Tea” supports the self-assurance and confidence theme (“Maybe you still don’t know just who you are”). Integrating more of that countrypolitan flair in its melody alongside subtle whistles, Musgraves sings how we still make mistakes in life because none of us are perfect (“Maybe you married the wrong person first”).
The last track on the record, “Fine” is definitely more than that. With a merry-go-round feel, this amiable, melancholy track is a romantic and poignant love song. What’s interesting to note is that ‘fine’ is one of the most convoluted words we use on a daily basis and most times, we use it to protect what’s hard to explain. Focusing an entire track to this complexity with Musgraves’ point of view is nothing short of brilliant with its piano tinged lullaby feel. It’s an exceptionally striking, yet haunting song of a love lost—perhaps one we can all relate to. The track definitely positions Musgraves as a classic singer and songwriter.
And following “Fine” comes a hidden track care of Musgraves and Willie Nelson dueting on “Are You Sure”—one of Nelson’s more obscure songs. It is very country and will surely be a favorite by many in the duet category.
With the perfect amount of old-school country, Pageant Material delivers a fresh and genuine heartfelt sound with excellently produced instrumentation. At the core of it, the record itself is a catchy, tongue-in-cheek look at society, complete with hummable, infectious sing-alongs and pleasantly charming tracks. Showcasing more vocal range and following what’s true to her, Musgraves’ record of hometown loyalty and defiant self-assurance definitely stands out from the crowd, proving she is more than just ‘pageant material’.