Album Review – Kacey Musgraves’ ‘Pageant Material’

Kacey Musgraves Pageant Material

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.

Grade: 9/10

38 thoughts on “Album Review – Kacey Musgraves’ ‘Pageant Material’

  1. Raymond June 25, 2015 / 11:17 am

    What amazes me is Kacey showing great music. This album has me thinking who realistically get CMA Album of the year nominee. Kacey and ZBB for sure but who else Reba I guess we are tunning out of time. Maybe Ashley Monroe and if Maddie & Tae deliver maybe Traveller. Josh are u guys gonna review Canaan Smith or Ashley Monroe. Also when can I expect ranking of mainstream artists. Jist curiois

    Like

    • Josh Schott June 25, 2015 / 11:22 am

      Canaan – Maybe, it depends on time. Ashley – Definitely. I have no idea when I’m going to do the rankings. The plan was June, but I didn’t expect so many releases. I expected it be slower and instead we got buried in releases to cover.

      Like

      • Raymond June 25, 2015 / 11:28 am

        I was curious cause well. I need to get my list together. Who do you think of mainstream albums will get the nominations

        Like

    • Zack June 25, 2015 / 11:25 am

      I personally thought Canaan’s was lackluster. There’s really nothing atrocious on it, but there’s hardly anything that sticks out either. I will say that “Bronco” was an excellent song though but the next best song is just “ok” IMO.

      Like

  2. Zack June 25, 2015 / 11:21 am

    Wow you sure had a lot to say haha! I liked this better than her debut, which admittedly I didn’t care for. My favorite track was “Are You Sure” with Willie Nelson, as well as “This Town”, and “Miserable” (btw, spot on comparison with Bobby Bones there Josh!). The lackluster efforts like “Biscuits” and “Family Is Family” really just feel like recycled tracks from her mainstream debut. Overall, I’m leaning towards a light 8/10. I agree that no matter what your take on Kacey is, that this album is truly an important one, as it proves that you don’t need commercial success if your music truly carries some substance. It may be true that the only reason she’s so noticed right now is because of the exposure of her top ten hit, “Merry Go Round”, which truly goes to show that there are people out there who are craving more music like this and just don’t know where to find it

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Cobra June 25, 2015 / 11:57 am

    I felt in terms of her talent and vocals, it was definitely a step forward. In terms of songwrting, it didn’t feel quite as inspired to me though as STDP did. I felt Cup of Tea was a carbon copy of Follow Your Arrow, thoigh without the guts that FYA had.
    This was a good album, helmes by a talentes woman determined to make real country music, and that really elevates the album to better than average.

    4/5

    Liked by 1 person

    • Noah Eaton June 25, 2015 / 6:55 pm

      I too thought “Cup of Tea” was the album’s low point lyrically, along with “Biscuits” and “Somebody to Love”. I’d consider the high points “Fine”, “Are You Sure”, “Dime Store Cowgirl” and to a somewhat lesser extent “Late to the Party”.

      I’m surprised “Good Ol’ Boys Club” was singled out as a highlight in the interview. I actually thought it was one of the weaker cuts. Honestly, I doubt we’d even be having the whole Big Machine/males on Music Row conversation if it wasn’t for that sole “gear in a big machine” line. The rest of its lyrics are mostly boasts about how she’s an underdog and that she’s going to do things her way even if it means going down in flames. It just came across as underwritten to me.

      Like

  4. Derek Hudgin June 25, 2015 / 11:59 am

    I love the western feel in “High Time.” The whistles and production make it sound like a great old western/cowboy tune. My favorites from album are “Good Ol’ Boys Club” “Fine”/”Are You Sure” and “Pageant Material.” I loved hear Kacey expand herself a bit more on her registry and content.

    Overall, I like this album better than her first, personally. I probably would have given this an 8/10 had I reviewed it. This is a great album!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Lee June 25, 2015 / 12:02 pm

    I thought this was a step back for her. Yes it has clever lyrics but are so similar to her last album-no real growth. It sounds pretty and is definitely much better than a lot of stuff coming out right now but I expected more from her. Wish she changed up the topics a little and would record a few solo writes. Not hard to have great songs w/ great writers. Want to get her own real voice in some future songs. Loved hearing Willie make a cameo.

    Like

  6. Scotty J June 25, 2015 / 2:24 pm

    Is the Thursday Hodgepodge no more? That is the best feature on this site and the one I most look forward to but has disappeared lately.

    Like

    • Josh Schott June 25, 2015 / 2:54 pm

      It’ll return next week. It took a two week break because we had to catch up on all of the album releases, in addition to mid-year posts.

      Like

  7. Noah Eaton June 25, 2015 / 6:48 pm

    This is roughly equal to “Same Trailer Different Park” (which I gave 7/10) to my ears; arguably a tad better.

    To start, I know I’ve went off a number of times about how I consider “Same Trailer Different Park” one of the most overrated albums of the decade so far (which I absolutely stand by that assertion when you consider exactly how much special treatment she got around its release which is unprecedented for a debut among female country performers)…………………..and much of it came down to how safe, samey and undercooked a number of tracks were, along with some juvenile throwaways like “Stupid” and “Step Off”.

    But I think what most explains the notable divide between my good-but-not-great conclusion on that album and the “ZOMG, Musgraves is the new savior of country music in the making!!!!!” among most of the critical press and message boards related to country music…………………comes down to two things.

    Firstly, the lyricism came across as more clever than it actually was on paper. It absolutely worked on “Merry Go ‘Round” and I still consider that one of the best debut singles in all recent memory, but in the case of “Follow Your Arrow”, “Silver Lining”, “My House” and the two aforementioned weakest links, there just wasn’t depth to the lyricism nor edge in the production to justify what got jotted on paper.

    And secondly, we didn’t get a lot of “me” on that album. It was predominantly “you”. I didn’t pick up much of an emotional connection or intimacy to the material at hand. And one can still absolutely deliver when focused on the second or third-person narration, but you’ve got to have some real populist chops to really make it work in the third person especially………………and I didn’t see enough of that on her debut major-label album.

    *

    Now going into this album, the lead single, “Biscuits”, admittedly left me fearing a hackneyed and tired album as a whole in that it smacked as cutting board leftovers from the sessions of her previous album…………..but we didn’t necessarily get that with “Pageant Material”.

    I know, straight-up, that arguably the single biggest criticism this album is going to get will be how laid-back it sounds when her personality is decidedly anything but laid-back. But I’d argue it actually works more often here, because I want to see her differentiate from that “country music rebel” tagline much like Eric Church constantly finds himself tangled in, and show you don’t have to try too hard to show that. You just make the music you want to make, and not so much feel the obligatory need for F-bombs every other line and references to alcohol and cannabis.

    “Dime Store Cowgirl” is easily her best single since her debut because I actually view it as the positive, warm flip-side of her debut. There’s an innocence underlying the lyrics that is articulated so well by Musgraves’ sweet delivery and bright production……….reflecting on the youthful naivete of chasing dreams. And she absolutely nails it because you feel this unmistakable intimate connection with the material. She also achieves this with “Fine” and the secret duet that follows it.

    I also really connected to “Late to the Party” because the concept is engaging and entertaining and its wry but sprightly delivery gave the album some needed vim. And while I can see why “Die Fun” is going to be one of the more polarizing cuts here, I personally found more to enjoy from that.

    However, while I think there are surefire signs of artistic growth across this album, some of the familiar issues I had with “Same Trailer Different Park” carry over into this album as well. Again, there are a handful of songs that I neither felt any sort of personal connection to nor are as clever as they are made out to be on paper.

    “Cup of Tea” is probably the most obvious offender to my ears in that it smacks as “Been there, heard that!”. But I was also let down by the complete lack of perspective in “This Town”. There’s no point of view, there’s no characters. We have already seen her tackle the theme of small-town disillusionment in spades with “Merry Go ‘Round”. Why bother returning to that well when you’re not going to fill that pail up to the fullest? And while I appreciate the growing attention being directed at Music Row’s homogenized, rigid cadre and can also fully understand the sentiment, “Good Ol’ Boys Club” didn’t impress me necessarily with some clunky lyricism that also bogged down “Biscuits”.

    Also, once again, the production does get notably samey after a while. Much of this can be attributed to the fact her key choice collaborators are Luke Laird and Shane McAnally: of which both are among the most established and omnipotent names in mainstream country music. I still contend that the sooner she chooses to shake up her songwriting and production team, the better she’ll be. Still, Laird and McAnally, to their credit, actually provide a generous dose of pedal steel and banjo to a number of tracks…………..which go a good distance in keeping the album from gravitating too closely to Adult Contemporary. They do help give the light production enough hickory flavor.

    *

    In the end, I’m giving “Pageant Material” 7/10.

    Is it “Album of the Year” material? No, it’s not. But I instantly agree it’s better than what I was expecting; especially saying a lot in that I wasn’t excited about this album beforehand. With this, she has done enough here to convince me even when she’s quite unlikely to become a major mainstream star or radio staple, she’s here to stay and deserves to be taken seriously as a force to reckon with in country music and her best days are still ahead of her when she decides to ditch Laird and McAnally.

    Like

  8. Stew June 26, 2015 / 10:54 am

    I believe the Duet with Willie Nelson was a cover of one of his older tunes. Good album though I really enjoyed “High Time.”

    Like

  9. Amanda November 22, 2015 / 7:10 pm

    Kacey is my hero, the reason I want to be a country singer. I think it’s awesome how she loves and respects traditional country music. This album is neo traditional country at it’s finest. I couldn’t be prouder of Kacey. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.