On Kacey Musgraves' second major label "Pageant Material", she makes no bones about who she is, right from the opening tune. From the sly "smoke a joint and lean back" referencing opener "High Time" she is wearing her devil may care attitude front and center. And yet this devil is quite centered - immediately following is one of this album's high water marks "Dime Store Cowgirl." It is as much a statement of purpose as a compliment to everything else on this album. Musgraves is all about intelligent, well read country music. Key word - country - music. She is not interested in turning herself into another Shania Twain, strutting onstage to canned pop beats with a cheap slide guitar thrown in as an afterthought. Nor is she interested in trafficking in Miranda Lambert style country rock glitz. The one lyric sums it up perfectly "I'm happy with what I've got / just 'cause it doesn't cost a lot doesn't mean it's cheap." On track after track, she is out to prove that less is more. What's better, her razor sharp wit that was on fine display on Same Trailer, Different Park is still around and has only gotten sharper with time. On the title track, she manages to skewer pageant culture from a variety of angles, including a few smirk-inducing lyrics, such as "I'm always higher than my hair." And while it may have a specific focus, there are some hidden gems - see "I'd rather lose for what I am then win for what I ain't." Sure, we all would love to be winners all the time, but she asks here, really... what kind of winner are you if you won by faking who you really are? This "know thyself, love thyself" ethos is suffused through every track on this album. At times you could almost call this disc "Follow Your Arrow: The Journey." Not a bad thing, mind you.
And when she isn't preaching the aforementioned message, she takes a pause to deliver the mind your own P's and Q's one-two punch of "This Town" and "Biscuits." Neat combo of tunes, and that "Somebody's mother knows somebody's brother knows somebody's..." couplet from "This Town?" Just try reciting it even once without flubbing it or getting your tongue tied in knots. Once done dispensing this sage advice, she drifts right back into devil may care mode with "Die Fun." This is one of the album's weaker moments, if only for the fact that so many songs exist about living fast and dying young. If nothing else, Musgraves manages to make that well trodden ground sounds a little bit removed from the many other variations on this theme that one can find in popular music. On her previous album, her kiss-off tunes were more romantically inclined. This time, she turns her ire to the establishment itself with the cutting, brutal "Good 'Ol Boys Club." One might say her success speaks for itself - including whatever strides one could say she has made as a woman in country music and for women in country music. Even if it has, she stands strong and makes a confident statement, which mixed in with the rest of all this album has to offer, helps to add variety.
She dials up the romantic side a little bit more this time around, from both sides of the spectrum. There is the empty-bed-for-2 weeper that closes the album "Fine." And on the flip side, there is the adorably sweet "Late to the party." It's not every swooning ode to a significant other that manages to make the listener wistful, but she manages this even with a song whose lyrics are so awestruck in love...really, simplicity works best, and here nothing says it better than "I'm never late to the party if I'm late to the party with you." She follows through with "Somebody to love" - a lament on the desperation of trying to find someone, anyone, and the rather extreme lengths people will go to in pursuit of that goal. Once again, another apt filtration of her "Keep it simple, stupid" message.
Kacey Musgraves has pulled off a hat trick in the current age of bro country domination - she has managed to make a country album that refuses to be anything but that, and yet still sound informed, modern, and intelligent without ever pandering. One could argue she is for women in country what Jason Isbell is to men in country. Sure, there is always a time and place for glitzed up, fluffy country pop. If you're looking for a meal with more nutrition, however, Pageant Material is right up your alley - don't miss it.