Not Ms. Congeniality: Kacey Musgraves the country rebel

I decided against reviewing albums on Riffs, Beats & Codas because I’m not sure that people read reviews anymore or have any real influence on what people buy. Further, writers usually review albums when they’re new which leaves little time for albums to sink in. Periodically I hear a notable recording and decide I can’t keep it to myself. In that spirit, my favorite album of 2015 so far, and by favorite I mean the album I find myself revisiting most often, is country singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves’s Pageant Material. Her popular and acclaimed debut Same Trailer Different Park instantly established her as country music’s resident rebel and wiseacre. Though country is notoriously conservative and stubborn even the industry conceded to her debut album’s achievement awarding her various honors including Album of the Year from the American Academy of Country Music (ACM), Grammies for Best Country Song (“Merry Go Round”) and Best Country Album, and the Country Music Academy's (CMA) Best New Artist and Song of the Year awards for her ode to freedom and acceptance “Follow Your Arrow.” Country has become so bland that anyone not singing about partying and trucks in sub-Springsteen melodies stands out, and industry insiders know it.

                                                                      A contender for Best Album of 2015? Possibly. Copyright © 2015 Mercury Nashville.

                                                                      A contender for Best Album of 2015? Possibly. Copyright © 2015 Mercury Nashville.


But, rebelling on your debut does not a promising career make. What’s left once the novelty wears out? Surveying the title of her album and some of the song titles could easily suggest that she’s all too-willing to run her rebel image into the ground as the outsider-looking-in, but she surprises you at every turn. She refines the cheekiness of her debut without losing her edge. Musgraves is country-punk spiritually if not musically. Her spirit, and often her lyrics, matches the wit, humor, and insight of (formerly) young male punks like Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, and Nick Lowe but without their snark or profanity. Preferring spiced honey to acid she has mastered the ability to transform prized country tropes like home and family into vehicles for her personal values.

Like many outsiders to the white Southern culture commonly associated with country music she recognizes the hypocritical, conformist, judgmental, and intolerant aspects of Southern culture. Notably the way policing behaviors in the social realm undermines and contradicts the rhetoric of freedom, liberty, and choice in the political realm. This is one of the cruxes of the oft-cited cultural divide between Southern culture and the Northeast (i.e. Northern elite) and West Coast (i.e. “Hollyweird”). And as a Southerner herself she is uniquely capable of seeing through these elements and singing through them—as well as being heard. She empathizes with her targets rather than aiming to merely shoot them down. By doing so she humanizes the behaviors of the judgers, conformists, and enforcers locating these tendencies in vulnerability and fear rather than malice.

 Pageant Material is a fairly brisk album at 14 songs and 46 minutes. Each song is a clear-eyed sketch with an obvious, but not simplistic theme. Her economical approach reminds you of how over-padded most pop albums are. Musically brisk, melodically diverse, lyrically crisp, and emotionally dense Musgraves, and her collaborators, have assembled a compelling nominally country album using traditional tools (i.e. strings and pedal steels) and a few oddball ingredients.

 As a lyricist she covers a lot of territory. She knows that country girls who make it big are instantly perceived as big shots and traitors. She responds by declaring herself a “Dimestore Cowgirl” (“You can take me out of the country/You can’t take the country out of me”). This may sound like pandering, but if you listen she reminds you that she needed to leave her hometown (“Had to get away so I could grow”) in order to thrive. In this sense she is also a spiritual heir to the Dixie Chicks.  In “High Time” (ponder the title for a minute) she sings of her need to “To slow my roll/Let the grass just grow/And lean way back.”  I hear both a nod to listeners that she’s still a grounded person and a sincere reaction to post-fame.

 The title tracks lets you know that, “There are certain things you’re supposed to know/ When you’re a girl who grows up in the South.” She builds from this idea with humor and integrity noting: “My mama cried when she realized/I ain’t pageant material/I’m always higher than my hair/ 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/ I ain’t exactly miss congenial/Sometimes I talk before I think/ I try to fake it but I can’t /I’d rather lose for what I am than win for what I ain’t.” Buried in these funny couplets is a sincere and hard-won rejection of family expectations and “traditional” feminine values sung with playful but clear resignation.

 Affectionate but pointed insights and observations continue surfacing in her seemingly homespun anthems. She begins “Small Town” with two women gossiping about a drug addict with few teeth. She builds from there by reminding you that, “This town’s too small to be mean” since the reality is “…somebody’s mama knows somebody’s cousin/And somebody’s sister knows somebody’s husband/And somebody’s daughter knows somebody’s brother/And around here, we look out for each other.” Instead of sugarcoating things and rendering small towns in virtue she points out how tensions between human behavior and reality play out. Kindness and discretion aren’t always purely voluntary. “Family is Family” reminded me of some of the better episodes of the great sitcom Roseanne. She uses coded “white trash” language (‘em instead of them) and imagery like “They own too much wicker and drink too much liquor” to signify her country roots, but moves beyond this to more universal realities, “You might look just like ‘em/That don’t mean you’re like ‘em /But you love ‘em/Family is family, in church or in prison/You get what you get, and you don’t get to pick ‘em.” 

 Other solid songs like “Biscuits” (“Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy”) and “Cup of Tea” (“You can’t be everybody’s cup of tea”) are a little more on the nose about non-conformity but no less truthful. At her best she manages to employ the rebel persona to point out a range of behaviors, beyond the South. A person listening to “Good Ol’ Boys Club” could hear everything from a feminist rejection to a comment on white male privilege to an anti-corporate ode: “Don’t want to be a part of the Good Ol’ Boys Club/ Cigars and handshakes/I appreciate you but no thanks/ Another gear in a big machine don’t sound like fun to me.”

 Musgraves conveys a consistent persona in her songs but she possesses an emotional compass beyond social foibles. “Late to the Party” is a remarkably gentle, intimate love song. Under pressure to socialize with friends, she assures her mate “Never late to the party/If I’m late to the party with you.” On “Miserable” she soberly reminds a friend to get on with life and confront the emotional paradox neatly summarized as “You ain’t happy/Lest you’re miserable.”  She asks “Do we really have to grow up?” on “Die Fun” and says to hell with it all, “Lets love hard /Live fast/Die fun”; it’s her own “Born to Run.” Elsewhere she laments an unreliable lover on the waltz tune “Fine” and she and Willie Nelson, perhaps the quintessential country rebel generate genuine heat on the lovely duet “Are You Sure.”

 Musgraves who sings, plays and writes, is a bonafide country musician, and more. She makes the kind of music that people who “hate” country music might like if they listened more closely. Her debut album and its even stronger follow-up Pageant Material place her beside country rebels like Emmylou Harris, Roseanne Cash, k.d. lang, K.T. Oslin, Mary Chapin-Carpenter, and the Dixie Chicks.  They are boundary breakers who pushed expectations of women in country to the limit before transcending the genre entirely. Musgraves is too early in her career to leap towards pop or to become a “roots” musician which is what usually happens with country outsiders. I hope she sticks with country because she represents a vital sign of life for the genre that genuine rebels have a place; they offer something to aspire to for other musicians. Pop music periodically drowns itself in a sea of interchangeable conformists who generate immediate hits but fade from memory. When you listen to Kacey Musgraves’s clever songs you can’t unhear them.