In the past year, no one has been a better ambassador for country music than Kacey Musgraves. The Mineola native’s first release Same Trailer, Different Park was arguably the most critically acclaimed country album of the year, and perhaps the genre’s biggest crossover success since Taylor Swift. Even avowed country music haters appreciate Musgraves’ twangy tunes, and on her sophomore effort Pageant Material Musgraves doubles down on her trailer park aesthetic.
To compare Musgraves with the rest of country music is to find a real anomaly. As the rest of the genre focuses on the shallow — the suntanned legs and back roads — Musgraves dives deep into love, alienation and how they both interact in small-town life. On Same Trailer, Musgraves introduced her brassy, blunt broad identity with no compunction when it comes to telling the truth. On Pageant Material, Musgraves solidifies that aesthetic and boldly brings something fundamentally different to the table: authenticity.
In terms of sound, Pageant Material recalls George Strait, Loretta Lynn and even a little Johnny Cash. With heavy doses of Western swing, steel guitar and the occasional Tejano influence, Musgraves has created a record that actually sounds country, not like pop music that is pandering to Middle America with banjos and fiddles and trumped-up stereotypes about what “country living” is like.
For a woman in country music, maintaining an authentic voice can be challenging. Too often, artists are shoved into molds of their predecessors, the next Miranda Lambert or Martina McBride or whomever. Musgraves, with her trademark snark and uncontainable energy, is none of the above; she is Kacey Musgraves, a dime-store cowgirl with an unrelentingly fresh sound firmly rooted in country tradition.
The album’s title track, "Pageant Material," is the perfect ballad of honor for disaffected small-town girls, while also being country music’s boldest track in a long while. “I’m always higher than my hair,” sings Musgraves. “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.” Intertwining feminist politics and the unrealistic expectations of beauty and poise that women contend with, “Pageant Material” is a testament to Musgraves’ fierce commitment to her own voice. You like won't hear this track played on the radio between Florida Georgia Line and Sam Smith, and Musgraves just doesn’t seem to give a damn.
Though the establishment refuses to vaunt Musgraves to the superstar status that she deserves in this genre, she is one of few artists who is able to tell these stories in an authentic way. No one believes that Luke Bryan spends his weekends drinking moonshine from a jar in a cornfield, but Musgraves’ “Family is Family” transports you directly to your last family reunion, your own kin that “own too much wicker” and “drink too much liquor.” If you grew up in a small town, the lyrics of "Dime Store Cowgirl" and "This Town" play like a scrapbook of your own life experiences.
On “Good Ol’ Boys Club,” Musgraves tells a story that is unfortunately familiar to damn near every woman in the South, musician or otherwise. This plea that she, and other women, be judged on their merits and not who they know is perhaps the best example of Musgraves’ biting honesty and fierce independence on this record. She doesn’t want to be “another gear in a big machine” nor part of the “good ol’ boys club.” You’d be hard pressed to find a more pointed indictment of the male-dominated music establishment in any other mainstream genre, much less country music.
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Musgraves’ argument is as refreshing as it is rare. Who among her contemporaries is so directly criticizing the very people responsible for her success? Even though Musgraves is both a Grammy and ACM award-winning artist signed to a major label, she still refuses to shy away from this important criticism in her songwriting, stepping into the shoes of the trailblazing women of country music that came before her. For that, country fans should be grateful.
Let’s not kid ourselves and pretend that this kind of authenticity is not rare. Without authenticity and the artists who defend it, country music is nothing more than pop with a little twang. This is the fundamental struggle in country music, between pop-country and the outlaws, Nashville and Texas, Blake Shelton and the “old farts and jackasses.” Country music’s existence relies on this authenticity, even if it doesn’t always do a good job of recognizing that.
As much as country music insists on pretending that it is pop in order to pander to a newer, younger fan base, artists like Musgraves are those who differentiate this genre from the generic Top 40 sound. “If I go down in flames,” sings Musgraves, “at least I did it the right way.” Without this attitude and fierce, unrepentant voices like Musgraves' and Brandy Clark and Sturgill Simpson, country music will quickly drive itself into obsolescence. And deservedly so.