Country music is ripe for a civil war.
Over the course of the last few years, Nashville has segmented into two very distinct groups. On one side of the industry, there are the people who are willing to play the game, to sacrifice the classic core of the country music genre—ostensibly, deep and unusual storytelling—in order to sell records. This group is where you will find the “bro country” collective, “artists” like Luke Bryan, the Florida Georgia Line, Blake Shelton, Toby Keith, Billy Currington, Darius Rucker, Jason Aldean, and pretty much every male singer on country radio. These guys write songs (or often, accept songs from other writers) that extoll the virtues of drinking, driving trucks, and objectifying women. Said songs are usually hollow, derivative, and overproduced, but boy, do they sell.
On the other side, there are the outsiders, artists who are either directly challenging the sad state of modern country music by doing whatever the fuck they want, or artists who are trying to preserve the sound and storytelling of classic country. This group seems to grow every year, and at this point includes Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Ashley Monroe, Brandy Clark, Zac Brown, Eric Church, Will Hoge, Lydia Loveless, and Kacey Musgraves. An argument could even be made that Miranda Lambert is a part of this group, which is fascinating, considering the fact that she’s actually married to Blake Shelton. I wonder what those two fight about at home.
All along, we’ve had proof that the outsiders were the smart ones. They got the acclaim for their own material, but they were also smart enough to make money by selling pop songs to the country music establishment. For years, Stapleton made his name as a Nashville songwriter-for-hire, before finally releasing his own debut album earlier this year. Hoge grabbed a number one hit in 2012, when the Eli Young Band recorded his 2009 song “Even if it Breaks Your Heart” and released it as a single. And Brandy Clark and Kacey Musgraves cut their teeth writing songs for other people (including one another) before garnering attention for their own albums. Some of the outsiders, like Eric Church and Zac Brown Band, are even able to pass as mainstream country artists—though take a look at most of their lyrics and it’s clear that they aren’t playing the same game.
In recent years, though, it’s become increasingly clear that the outsiders aren’t content to sit on the margins while douchebags like the Florida Georgia Line destroy the sanctity of country music. Guns have been going off all over the place as of late. Zac Brown labeled Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind of Night” as “the worst song I’ve ever heard,” while Jason Isbell—on Brian Koppelman’s “The Moment” podcast—bluntly stated “It’s hard for me to look at what Luke Bryan does, or Aldean, and say that they’re making anything resembling art.” The shots have been fired in the form of songs, too. Eric Church’s last record included a spoken word monologue labeling the country music institution as the devil and the labels as “her pimps,” while Maddie & Tae—an intriguing new female pop-country duo—scored a number one hit with “Girl in a Country Song,” a scathing takedown of the bro country trend. Nashville, it seems, is being torn apart by its own identity crisis.
In 2013, following the release of her fantastic debut album Same Trailer, Different Park, Kacey Musgraves was immediately marked as a shining example of the country music outsider. Some labeled her an innovator, a progressive, a savior of a dying genre. Most of the attention was paid to her lyrics, which indicated an artist with enough charisma and attitude to stand her ground apart from the crowd. “Follow Your Arrow” was particularly notable, with Musgraves encouraging listeners to “roll up a joint,” “love who you love”—regardless of gender or race—and live life without regrets. Almost as surprising was “Merry Go ‘Round,” a heartbreaking pop-country tune that turned a lens upon the ignorance, hypocrisy, and sin of southern small town life.
Musgraves’ willingness to be herself and not pull her punches earned her a chart-topping country album, a Gold certification from the RIAA, and a pair of Grammy Awards. On paper, at least, it looked as if Nashville had embraced another outsider, and many wondered what that would mean for Musgraves’ next album. Would she double down on her acerbic turns of phrase and industry commentary? Or would she make a more anonymous record and fade off into a legion of faceless pop-country radio acts?
Interestingly, Musgraves’ follow-up to Same Trailer—entitled Pageant Material—is neither a “bigger is better” sequel nor a more watered down mainstream version of its predecessor. Instead, Musgraves avoids both of the easy routes, refusing to play up her status as a country music contrarian, and obviously passing on the option to make a record full of robotic Carrie Underwood-style power ballads. Pageant Material is a full-on traditional country music record, so packed with pedal steel moans, acoustic guitar strums, booming upright bass lines, lush vocal harmonies, and galloping rhythms that it doesn’t even sound like it belongs in the year 2015. You know how Taylor Swift abandoned country music to make a full-on pop album last year? Pageant Material is the polar opposite.
Song-for-song, Pageant Material is also as good as any record Taylor Swift has ever made, with the possible exception of Red. Same Trailer, Different Park was a triumph, but it stumbled once or twice over half-formed song ideas (most notably on “Blowin’ Smoke”). Pageant Material, on the other hand, sounds effortless and fully formed from first note to last. From “High Time,” the album’s infectious handclap-driven opener, to “Fine,” the lilting and heartbroken closer, no album this year has engaged me more completely on first listen.
Musgraves still has a few zingers up her sleeve, but she wisely opts not to turn every single song into a political statement or a rant about the state of Nashville scene. Instead, we get one song for each of those topics: “Cup of Tea” and “Good Old Boys Club.” The former is this album’s “Follow Your Arrow,” listing a number of circumstances that others might use to tear a person down (“Maybe your jacket is a hand-me-down/Maybe you slept with half of your hometown/In a world full of squares, maybe you’re just round”) before handing down the lesson: “You can’t be everybody’s cup of tea/Why would you want to be?” The latter is obviously directed toward the country music establishment, with Musgraves remarking that it “shouldn’t be about who it is you know/But about how good you are,” before stating that she’d rather be an outsider anyway. “I’ve always kind of been for the underdog,” she sings, matter-of-factly.
Both of these “issue” songs are strong, and they gel well with the Musgraves we met two years ago, but they’re actually among the albums weakest moments. For the most part, Pageant Material is more successful when it stays personal and small-scale. Case-in-point is “Dime Store Cowgirl,” a road trip anthem that humbly recounts Musgraves’ rise to fame. There are references to Gram Parsons and Willie Nelson (who actually appears on this record, in a bonus track duet of his classic bar life ballad, “Are You Sure”), as well as nods to the things she’s seen on the road—from Mount Rushmore to the stage at Austin City Limits. In the chorus, though, Musgraves vows that fame and success aren’t ever going to change who she is: “It don’t matter where I’m going/I’ll still call my hometown home.” A few of country and pop’s biggest stars would do well to remember a similar lesson of not forgetting their roots.
Just as stunning is “Late to the Party,” a sweepingly romantic slow dance about how, when you find the right person, one-on-one time is far better than group hangouts or drunken ragers with friends could ever be. The way Musgraves sings the chorus, kicking into head voice on the instant classic one-liner “Who needs confetti, we’re already falling into the groove,” sounds as timeless as the Laurel Canyon folk to which the song is indebted.
These two songs—”Dime Store Cowgirl” and “Late to the Party”—represent the very best of Kacey Musgraves, and show why she is an important member of the “good guys” side in the modern country music war. Her forward-thinking lyrics might be the element of her music that everyone talks about, but her sharp melodies, her ability to write songs that are simultaneously funny and sad, and her sweet and understated vocal delivery are what make her a truly great country singer/songwriter instead of a novelty act.
Those factors are what render dusky ballads like “Somebody to Love,” “Miserable,” and “Die Fun” so vulnerably gorgeous, but they also turn songs like “Biscuits”—this album’s leadoff single and current hit—into something deeper than just another country-pop rave-up. A line like “Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy” would have been clever enough to land this song on the radio with or without Musgraves behind the mic. But it’s because she doesn’t oversell the song vocally—particularly on the bridge, where she somehow manages to make the line “Pissing in my yard ain’t gonna make yours any greener” sound endearing—that “Biscuits” doesn’t just feel like it’s filling this album’s “radio single” slot. Like every other song on Pageant Material, “Biscuits” is completely a part of Kacey Musgraves’ identity—not something easy to do on a major label record with co-writes on every song.
Look, I’d be as happy as the next guy if Luke Bryan and the Florida Georgia Line were exiled to someplace where they wouldn’t be able to hurt anybody anymore. But if mainstream country music is doomed to continue circling the toilet for a few more years, at least we still have a small army of brilliant artists keeping the old traditions alive. At the end of 2013, when I blurbed Same Trailer, Different Park for my albums of the year list, I predicted that, in a few years, we would be looking back on that album as the birth of a star. Now, with the arrival of Pageant Material, I see that I was wrong: Kacey Musgraves isn’t destined to be a celebrity. Instead, she’s destined to become an underrated career musician, probably with a brilliant discography and a fiercely loyal core fanbase. And based on the other people living that kind of life in the country music world, I’d say Musgraves is right where she belongs.