To say Kacey Musgraves’ sophomore album was highly anticipated is an understatement. Musgraves burst onto the country music scene back in 2013 with her debut album Same Trailer, Different Park and became an instant critical darling with her more liberal attitude and themes. Musgraves numerous awards for the album, from the Grammys to the CMA Awards. In the process she also helped elevate her close friends, producer/songwriter Shane McAnally and singer/songwriter Brandy Clark, to new heights due to their heavy involvement in her debut album. I’m going to admit something I don’t think I’ve ever shared and that was my first impression of Musgraves back in the early summer of 2013. I had grown weary for years of new female country artists because most of them had model looks and sub par vocals. So I took one look at the album cover of Same Trailer, Different Park and made the assumption that this was just the case once again. As they say, you know what happens when you assume? It makes an ass out of you and me. Once I started hearing more talk about her and praise from music outlets, I decided to give her a listen. She proved me wrong and made me a fan.
Fast-forward up to 2015. Musgraves’ first single from her sophomore album underwhelmed me and on top of that there were murmurs that her second album would sound much like her first in terms of themes and lyrics. After all the same troika of Musgraves, Clark and McAnally were writing and producing this album too. This increasingly worried me and really made me dread the release of Pageant Material. I didn’t want Musgraves to have a big disappointment after making such a remarkable debut, especially since country radio has treated her so coldly. She’s brought so many outside names and outlets into the genre that would normally never touch it and I didn’t want to see her fail. So coming into listening to Pageant Material I was apprehensive and brought lowered expectations. I expected a step down. Instead I learned that I have to stop doubting Kacey Musgraves because once again she proves me wrong.
Pageant Material kicks off with “High Time,” a song with a breezy and carefree attitude. And really that’s what the song is about too. It’s about taking this attitude with life and trying to enjoy it as much as possible. I’m glad to hear Musgraves go into her higher register on this song and something I want to hear more from her. This is an easy-going song that’s easy to enjoy. The next song is “Dime Store Cowgirl.” It’s a self-reflection song for Musgraves, as she references moments throughout her life and career. Despite all of the fame and success, Musgraves says she is still a dime store cowgirl from Texas. This is a song that comes from Kacey’s heart and you can hear it in the song. I think it was a great choice to make this her next single to release to radio, as it’s down-to-earth vibe appeals to many listeners.
Once again we get to hear Musgraves go up into her higher register on “Late To The Party.” It’s a great vocal performance from Musgraves, as I felt like we didn’t hear enough of her voice on Same Trailer, Different Park. A softer approach suits her well. The lyrics are good, not great. The opening line about blowing up a phone is overdone and tiresome. The song also takes a little long to get around to its crux, but once it does I found myself enjoying the song. The album’s title track is about Musgraves growing up around pageants in the south and how young girls were always expected to be pageant girls. But as she explains, she just wasn’t pageant material. She couldn’t go up on-stage and fake a smile to win. As Musgraves says, “I would rather lose for what I am, than win for what I ain’t.” I feel like this is a subtle shot at country radio, as later in the album she takes a direct shot at it. It’s no secret she has struggled at country radio, but she doesn’t care and I don’t blame her one bit. This is one of the best songs on the album; as the instrumentation is decidedly country and the lyrics perfectly fit Kacey.
Musgraves sings about the small world of living in small towns in “This Town.” This feels like a less sinister version of “Merry Go ‘Round.” Both discuss how there are no secrets in small towns and how gossip can ruin a family name. This isn’t a bad song by any stretch, but it relies on a trope that Musgraves has covered enough now and needs to move on from. I could see this being a future single though, as “Merry Go ‘Round” was her most successful single at radio. This is followed by “Biscuits,” which I already reviewed. From my review: “I find the chorus line/hook of this song to be quiet hokey: “Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy.” It just feels so cliché and easy. It feels like something I could have come up with and I’m by no means a songwriter. I think the biggest thing I took away after hearing this song was as soon as it ended I said to myself, “This is it?” I will add that I have warmed up to the song a little actually. For some reason I find it more appealing when listening to the album as a whole. I can’t explain why. It still makes me hungry for biscuits and gravy though.
“Somebody To Love” grapples with the questions and concerns we all face on a daily basis. The song’s message is that we all make mistakes and we all face questions, but in the end we’re all just looking for love. The album as a whole I’m more impressed with Kacey’s vocals this time around compared to Same Trailer, Different Park. This song best exemplifies this, as the instrumentation is light and Musgraves’ vocals are front and center. Again I think this softer arrangement and approach suits Kacey well. Musgraves sings about how negative attitudes will ultimately hold you back on “Miserable.” She sings about how some people are only happy when they and/or the people around them are miserable. I like to think Kacey’s feud with Bobby Bones was fresh in mind when this song was written. Doesn’t the person who’s miserable in the song put you in mind of Bones? Maybe that’s just me looking at something that isn’t there. Anyway once again I like how Musgraves’ voice is focal point.
As listeners have figured out about Musgraves by now, she can’t resist a little bit of corniness in her music and that’s evident in “Die Fun.” There’s no problem with this, as that’s just who Kacey is. It’s something that’s part of her and something that will be a part of her music as a result. I call the song a little corny because of this line in the chorus: “So let’s love hard, live fast, die fun.” It’s just an overused platitude. The song is okay, but the theme is just a little overdone for me. The upbeat and fun “Family Is Family” is next. This is probably the corniest and hokiest song Musgraves has put out, yet I love it. This is the type of song where the corniness works, as it fits well when singing about the concept of family. I feel like Kacey nails what a family is about. Sure you may not always get along with your family and they can be embarrassing, but they’re still your family and they will always be there for you. On top of that the combination of the acoustic guitar and pedal steel makes for a great country sound.
While I enjoy many songs on this album, the one that stands out the most and the one I’ll remember the most is “Good Ol’ Boys Club.” Musgraves blatantly and proudly calls out the sham that is the current structure in the country music industry. As she sings, it should be about good you are, not who you know. It’s the exact opposite right now. This comes out right after Grady Smith revealed on Twitter that he talked to a record executive who confirmed this is the case in country music. You hear that fans of Thomas Rhett and Cole Swindell? You hear this Keith Hill? On top of this Kacey says she doesn’t “lose any sleep” over not being apart of this club and if she goes down in smoke, she doesn’t care. Damn I love this attitude! It’s perfect. This is one of my favorite songs of the entire year.
“Cup of Tea” is a little slice of countrypolitan about how you can’t meet everyone’s standards, so be who you want to be. Once again Kacey goes back to a theme she’s leaned a lot on, which is the message of be who you want to be, damn what others think. It’s a good message, but something that Musgraves needs to move on from in the future. It’s an easygoing song most can enjoy though. The final song on the album is “Fine,” which is about a woman who tells everyone she’s fine, even though she knows it isn’t the case. The word “fine” is one of the most complicated words we use on a daily basis, as most of the time it’s just a shield to cover up our true feelings that are complex and hard to explain. Centering an entire song on this word was a brilliant move on Kacey’s part, as it leaves a lot of room for interpretation. It’s an intriguing listen.
Oh did I say “Fine” was the final song? That’s wrong, as a hidden bonus track “Are You Sure” is the true conclusion to the album. And it features Willie Nelson! Now this is a surprise. The duo sing about questioning who you surround yourself with in life and if you really want to be at this point in your life. I’ve always wanted to hear these two together on a song, as I felt their styles mesh well. They prove me right here and I would definitely like to hear more collaboration songs from them. Capping the album off with a surprise duet with Willie Nelson is one hell of a choice by Musgraves and I applaud her for it.
I was worried Pageant Material was going to be a step back for Kacey Musgraves, but instead it was a refreshing step forward for the most part. She only fell into a couple of her familiar tropes a few times and even then the songs weren’t bad. I believe Pageant Material is even better than Same Trailer, Different Park because this album was much more cohesive. It has a clearer direction and I feel like Musgraves found herself. Without a doubt you can hear more of Kacey in this album, from a vocal standpoint and lyrical standpoint. On top of that the instrumentation is even better and more country. This isn’t one of the best country albums of the year and not Kacey’s best album possible (I think she can be even better than this), but it may be the most important. The impact Kacey Musgraves has made on not just country music, but music in general is palpable and she’s one of the keys to putting the country sound back in country music. Pageant Material comes highly recommended from yours truly. Kacey Musgraves proves once again why so many people respect and love her music.