Kacey Musgraves insists she's not "pageant material" in the title track from her second major-label effort: "And my mama cried/When she realized/I ain't pageant material."
I'm not sure I believe her.
Oh, sure, her forthright nature ("Sometimes I talk before I think, I try to fake it but I can't") would probably be a liability in an honest-to-goodness beauty pageant ("I ain't exactly Miss Congeniality"). But in the metaphorical pageant that is the world of country music, Musgraves is indeed a contender, and a formidable one at that (as her Best Country Album Grammy nod in 2013 proved).
Now she's back with an old-school country album that embraces many of the genre's most familiar themes—some of which glory in the goodness of small-town America … and others that glory in some choices decidedly more problematic than Mom and apple pie.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
"Dime Store Cowgirl" finds Kacey Musgraves sweetly identifying with her roots: "It don't matter where I'm goin'/I still call my hometown home." On "This Town," she salutes her hometown again, bragging, "We finally got a flashing light, they put it in last year." She sings the praises of the institutions that make the town what it is ("VFW/A good Mexican resataurant/ … Got a Methodist, a Baptist and a Church of the Nazarene"). That all leads up to this assessment: "This town's too small to be mean." And that's because everyone knows everyone else's business ("Too small to by lying/Way too small to cheat/Way too small for secrets"). In Kacey's cagey view, that "too small" reality seems both a virtue and a threat.
"Somebody to Love" is a tender song about the paradoxical hopes, dreams, foibles and vulnerabilities we all have. "We're all hoping, we're all hopeless/ … We're all lost and we're all hurting/And just searching for somebody to love." Musgraves describes humanity's spiritual condition as somewhere between angelic and devilish: "We're all good, but we ain't angels/We all sin, but we ain't devils." She also notes our propensity to listen poorly in religious conversations ("We all wrangle with religion/We all talk, but we don't listen"). Near the end, she says, "We all wish our best was better/Just hopin' that forever's really real."
"Family is Family" says that no matter what our family's weird quirks or moral failings may be, they're still family: "Can't live with 'em or without 'em/ … When it's all said and done, they're the only ones that you got."
"Pageant Material" cleverly critiques whatever connection supposedly exists between bikini-clad pageant participants and their social causes ("And 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"). Elsewhere, Musgraves says she values authenticity and honesty ("I'd rather lose for what I am than win for what I ain't").
"Late to the Party" says the best thing in life is being with someone we love. "Miserable," in contrast, finds her saying she's not going to stay with someone who only focuses on negative things. "Good Ol' Boys Club" suggests we should be judged on our abilities instead relying upon influential people to pull strings. "Cup of Tea" wisely insists that no one can please everyone. "Are You Sure" (a hidden track duet with Willie Nelson after the last song) involves a woman asking her ex, who's at a bar, whether the time he's spending with his drinking buddies is really better than being with her.
One of the more complex songs on the album is "Biscuits," which rightly cautions against judging others harshly ("Nobody's perfect, we've all lost and we've all lied/ … The holiest of holies even slip from time to time/ … Mend your own fences and own your own crazy"), but …
It also suggests that it's never our place to question someone else's choices ("So hoe your own row and raise your own babies/Smoke your own smoke and grow your own daisies/ … Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy"). Musgraves also assumes most folks have made some pretty bad moral choices: "Most of us have cheated, the rest of us have tried."
"Somebody to Love" hints at a desire to be good … later: "We're all trying to get to heaven, but not today." Similarly, "Die Fun" puts a hedonistic, self-destructive spin on an old cliché: "'Cause we don't know when we're done/So let's love hard, live fast, die fun." The song asks, "Do we really have to grow up?" then answers, "If we never do, then so what?" Drinking references turn up too.
Musgraves is one of several newer country artists openly embracing marijuana. Album opener "High Time" seemingly plays on that reputation, delighting in pot-infused double entendres. "It's high time/To slow my roll/Let the grass just grow and lean way back," the song begins. "I've been too low, so it's high time/ … Been all wrong/Just wanna feel alright."
"Late to the Party" also alludes to smoking marijuana when Musgraves implies she and a significant other are tardy because they've been tokin' ("Just say we're almost there, we ain't even in the car/You're rolling one for two and I'm still picking out my shoes"). Besides, she says, "by the time we get there, everybody will be drunk." "Pageant Material" claims, "I'm always higher than my hair" and says "The only crown is in my glass." "Family Is Family" references relatives who smoke and drink, including some who might be distributing alcohol to youngsters prematurely ("They're there for you your first year, they give you your first beer"). "Fine" deals with a woman pining for her lover's return ("I've stopped counting sheep, now I just count the days/'Til you're back in this bed that I remake every time").
A couple of mild profanities ("d--n," "h---") turn up.
Twenty-six-year-old Kacey Musgraves at times sounds like a old soul recounting a lifetime of homespun country wisdom. She's got a storyteller's eye for detail that, when matched with her fragile-yet-country-strong voice, makes for compelling narratives.
*Except … *
Except when she insists on indulging an utterly contemporary embrace of issues such as smoking marijuana and as well as country's penchant for pilfering pleasure in the moment with no regard for the consequences tomorrow. In those moments, Musgraves doesn't sound like a wizened old soul at all. Instead, she sounds exactly like all the other voices in our culture saying the same thing.