"I'm not exactly Miss Congeniality," Kacey Musgraves sings with youthful but knowing country candor in the title tune to her outstanding new album Pageant Material.
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Building on the uncompromising lyrical tradition that distinguished her Grammy-winning 2013 major label debut, Same Trailer Different Park, the Texas-born singer offers spin after spin on themes of family, smalltown life and restless romance that have long been staples of country music. But as attractive as her music is — from the effortless country lilt of her singing to the gentle arsenal of strings, twang and folkish charm adorning the new album's 14 songs — Musgraves is a subtle rebel.
The storylines champion a human level of imperfection that ring out any sense of false sentimentality. What is left is often humorous, frequently plain speaking but, above all, astonishingly real. So, no, congeniality is not the name of the game on Pageant Material.
As was the case with Same Trailer Different Park, Musgraves is nothing short of masterful when it comes to turning a phrase. "Just because it don't cost a lot don't mean it's cheap," she sings of the hard-won pride pervading the travelogue time piece Dime Store Cowgirl. The uncomfortable rural confinement of This Town is later revealed just as matter-of-factly when she admits her community is "way too small for secrets" ("What goes around, comes around at Friday's football game"). Best of all are the ways she outlines the bonds in Family is Family, a snapshot of a loyalty strong but jagged enough to outlast divorce, prison and perhaps even a medical emergency ("They may smoke like chimneys, but they'll give you their kidneys").
Musically, Pageant Material is assured but often very modest in presentation. Sure, the album opening High Time screams to be a single with its girl group snap, sweeping orchestration and prairie whistling, not to mention an appealing humility ("You don't need a thousand dollar suit to take out the trash"). But much of the rest of Pageant Material is scaled down in design, from the Beatles-esque riff that gently propels Miserable to the radio-ready love song Late to the Party to the lovely but longing finale waltz Fine.
Everything converges, however, on Biscuits, a country mantra embracing not the cheap pandering and contradictory sentimentality of modern Nashville, but a kiss off of sorts that suggests tending to your own affairs or, as Musgraves puts it, "hoe your own row." What that yields is affirmed in an absolutely golden chorus phrase: "Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy."
Such are the irregular but sobering snapshots of life offered by, as confessed in the liner notes of Pageant Material, the 1991 finalist for Miss Tater Tot at the Golden Sweet Potato Festival in Musgraves' hometown of Golden, Texas. The accolades then were probably meager. On Pageant Material, she gets the tiara.
Walter Tunis | Contributing Music Critic