By Aprille Hanson
Modern country music tries to tell us who we are. People in small towns are supposed to party in cornfields, cuss on Mondays and pray on Sundays, drink moonshine, tear up a dirt road with a girl in painted on cut-off jeans riding shotgun who, if they’re lucky, which they always are, will get “some of that” before the sun comes up. Living in a small town is a redneck party so let’s drink up.
Thank God for Kacey Musgraves who never once tries to tell us who we are. In fact, she is quite the opposite. She uses her folksy, cute charm mixed with her tough Southern roots to explain reality, that our uniqueness should be celebrated. This honesty makes her the most real star in country music right now. Because of that, you won’t hear her on the radio, because life is just a party with a good back beat streaming through the stereo speakers.
In her sophomore album Pageant Material, Musgraves delivers a sound similar to her debut album Same Trailer Different Park. While some (very few, but worth mentioning) critics have scolded her for beating the same drum of celebrating our uniqueness, it just seems silly. Sure, songs like “Cup of Tea” and “Somebody to Love,” are along the same lines of her hit “Follow Your Arrow,” but so what. They are lyrically brilliant, real-life anthems. “Cup of Tea” points out real problems people have – “maybe you married the wrong person first … maybe you dropped out of college, but hey life goes on” and then the most perfect line, “we all have the right to be wrong.” It’s a bouncy tune, unlike the more contemplative ‘Love’ which hits on more thought-provoking realities including how we all “wrangle with religion” and how “we’re not cool, but man we’re trying.”
Ok critics, let’s chastise Musgraves for doing similar songs, but let’s let all the bro-country artists sing about beer, dirt roads and cutoffs in EVERY SINGLE they release. At least this compilation will go down as one of the genre’s finest now and years from now. Most critics thankfully agree that it’s a perfect album.
Hidden in the coal mine of what country music now is, you can find 14 gold nuggets on this album (including the unlisted cover “Are You Sure” with the man himself, Willie Nelson), all co-written by Musgraves and some other notable names like Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark.
Her first single “Biscuits,” is so charming, witty and downright fun, it’s a trip with a moral message – “Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy.” The best part of the song is when she gives her take on that old Southern bit of, “God bless your heart” : “Pouring salt in my sugar won’t make yours any sweeter / pissin’ in my yard won’t make yours any greener … I’ll just do me and honey you can just do you.”
Musgraves tends to shine best on songs that you can believe relate directly to her life. For instance, “Dime Store Cowgirl,” (which she was called by a pageant stage mom once according to her album “thank-yous”) chronicles the adventures she’s had with fame so far, but realizing she’ll always be the girl from Golden, Texas. And speaking of Golden, it’s small. It’s an unincorporated community in Wood County, Texas, known mostly for its sweet potato festival … and now Musgraves. She starts out “This Town” with a sound bite of her grandmother telling someone else how a “belligerent” woman actually bit a nurse to the point where you could see the marks from “all her teeth.” It’s an odd way to start a song, but perfect for this one, because as Musgraves explains, that no matter how big the town gets, it’s too small to be mean: “Way too small for secrets because they’re way too hard to keep.” The imagery is also really what small town life is – there’s a grocery shop or two, a Mexican restaurant, a Baptist, Methodist and Church of the Nazarene … drive through a small Southern town and yeah, this is pretty much what you’ll find.
A song surely to piss off most of the Southern belles is the title track to her album. In “Pageant Material” she explains how in the South, many girls are just expected to have this grace about them and, of course, compete in a beauty pageants. But for those of us who are just not pageant material, we now have an anthem, with a fantastic chorus that includes an amazing line: “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.”
The most telling part of the song though is this line: “God bless the girls who smile and hug when they’re called out as the runner-up on TV / I wish I could, but I just can’t wear a smile when a smile ain’t what I’m feelin’.” When Miranda Lambert was won the 47th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards, Female Vocalist of the Year honor, the TV showed the other nominees faces and while most smiled and clapped, Musgraves was caught stone faced. She caught hell for it. Clearly, she just felt disappointed, how anyone would and instead of slapping on a fake smile, she just sat there. It’s proof again that she’s a real person, not a “too big for her britches” star.
She’s not afraid to voice her true feelings and does so with wit and sarcasm on “Good Ol’ Boys Club,” explaining how she’s not willing to be a part of the “cigars and handshakes” and “another gear in a big machine” in the country music industry. While country duo Maddie and Tae attacked the notion of bro-country in a pop-country “Girl in a Country Song,” here is Musgraves going after the industry and execs. It’s what others are too afraid to do and say out loud, with lines like “Favors for friends will get you in and get you far / when did it become about who you know and not about how good you are.”
She takes a break on some of the bounce, but not the bite (just a little softer) on songs like “Late to the Party,” “Miserable,” “Fine,” “Die Fun” and the hidden “Are You Sure.” Musgraves told TheBoot.com that asking Willie why he never played the song live anymore led to the two recording it.
And I can’t forget to mention “High Time” because it’s also a great song … and I literally can’t forget it. It will get stuck in your head for days, but at least it’s a relaxing ditty about letting go of the flash of life and just celebrating some “high time,” however you want to take the reference.
I say all this to lead into the best song on the album, “Family is Family.” It’s a fun upbeat song that explains how your family might be in church or in prison, but family is family. The geniuses of Musgraves, McAnally and Josh Osborne on this song are just too much to handle with lyrics like: “They own too much wicker, they drink too much liquor / you’d wash your hands of them but blood’s always thicker” and “They’re there when you’re married, divorced and remarried / You fall out of touch, but then someone gets buried.” It’s just a testament to her ability to take the small observations in life and make them great songs. Because for many it’s true, “You might look just like ‘em, but that don’t mean you like ‘em but you love ‘em.”
Kacey Musgrave is not pageant material, but she just took the crown of country royalty and a sash that should say “perfect album.”