The most revealing line on Kacey Musgraves’ 2013 major-label debut wasn’t the oft-quoted bit in “Follow Your Arrow” in which the country singer advised listeners to “kiss lots of boys, or kiss lots of girls, if that’s something you’re into.”
Nor was it the part of “Merry Go ’Round,” her sharp investigation of Podunk ennui, about how “Mama’s hooked on Mary Kay, brother’s hooked on mary jane and Daddy’s hooked on Mary two doors down.”
Instead, it was the next line in “Merry Go ’Round” that showed where the singer was coming from: “We get bored, so we get married / And just like dust we settle in this town.”
Heed that “we.” Though she’s been hailed countless times as a kind of smirking outsider come to save country music from itself, Musgraves in “Merry Go ’Round” is singing from well inside the genre’s psychic core. In a song about settling for what you know (as opposed to what you want), it’s the “we” that devastates.
It’s also what makes me think lots of people are misunderstanding Musgraves’ excellent new album, “Pageant Material,” which came out this week and quickly ascended to the upper reaches of the iTunes chart.
In some ways a textbook follow-up to a wily breakout record, “Pageant Material” is chock full of songs about maintaining one’s individuality in the face of pressure to conform.
“You can’t be everybody’s cup of tea / Some like it bitter, some like it sweet,” she sings in “Cup of Tea,” “Nobody’s everybody’s favorite, so you might as well just make it how you please.” “Biscuits,” a song she’s said grew out of a lyric originally written for “Follow Your Arrow,” rephrases the same sentiment in folksier language: “Just hoe your own row and raise your own babies / Smoke your own smoke and grow your own daisies.”
Yet rather than taking aim at the Nashville establishment -- the supposed small minds demonized in a recent Fader cover story that ran under the idiotic headline “Kacey Musgraves Is Making Country Music Good Again” -- the songs on “Pageant Material” seem addressed to those who’ve hijacked Musgraves’ matter-of-fact progressivism.
Again and again she proudly reminds us of her down-home roots, as in the gently chugging “Family Is Family” -- “They own too much wicker and drink too much liquor,” she sings -- and “Somebody to Love,” in which to “wrangle with religion” is merely to be alive.
In “Dime Store Cowgirl,” about the singer’s wild ride over the last two years, she even makes use of one of the oldest cliches in the roots-music songbook: “You can take me out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of me.”
And this all comes after the line that opens the album in “High Time,” a gorgeous Tex-Mex number with tart strings and creamy pedal steel. “It’s high time to slow my roll,” Musgraves sings – not exactly the call to arms expected from “a figurehead for a generation overhauling country’s whole approach,” as Rolling Stone recently described her.
If she’s looking to overhaul anything on “Pageant Material,” it’s the reductive view some coastal elites hold of her native flyover country.
Take “This Town,” a sort of lighter-hearted sequel to “Merry Go ’Round” in which she reveals the overlooked value of a burg so tiny that “everybody got real happy when the grocery store got beer.” It’s a place, she adds, too small to lie, too small to cheat, too small to be mean.
“Around here we all look out for each other,” she sings, casting a net wide enough, one presumes, to include the out-of-control junkie that Musgraves’ grandmother refers to in the song’s spoken intro. So much for Mayberry.
“Family Is Family” takes a similar tack. And though Musgraves talks in the title track about not being Miss Congenial, the album’s rather prim arrangements hardly suggest an outlaw hellbent on upsetting the apple cart.
Some observers, of course, hear that old-fashioned sound -- spare, warm, mostly acoustic -- as a repudiation of the boisterous, hip-hop-attuned vibe that permeates music by Nashville stars as ideologically varied as Luke Bryan and Sam Hunt. (Tellingly, that Fader article conflates the two singers in its race to discredit “Musgraves’ glitzy opposites.”)
But guess who co-produced “Pageant Material” with Musgraves? Shane McAnally, also known as the guy responsible for overseeing Hunt’s synthed-up “Montevallo.” To my mind, that suggests that Musgraves -- who, don’t forget, toured arenas last year with Katy Perry -- is less interested in leading a moral insurgency than she is in simply expressing her viewpoint, however liberal (or conservative) it might be.
You get that from the handful of quiet love songs on “Pageant Material”: beautifully crafted ditties such as “Miserable” and “Late to the Party” that signal Musgraves’ happy alignment with commercial country’s bread and butter.
But you also get it from “Good Ol’ Boys Club,” which appears on the surface to be Musgraves’ kiss-off to the Nashville power structure. “Another gear in a big machine don’t sound like fun to me,” she sings in a characteristically sly reference to one of Music City’s dominant record labels.
Yet the defining artist at Big Machine isn’t some witless water-carrier -- it’s Taylor Swift, country’s most effective disrupter.
You want a mascot? Find somebody else.