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Kacey Musgraves Faces Fame on ‘Pageant Material’

The country star’s sophomore album wraps good advice in retro-leaning countrypolitan sound

On March 16, 2023
Photo by Kelly Christine Sutton

Kacey Musgraves is standing in front of a glitter wall at the release party for her sophomore record, Pageant Material, at the stuffed-to-capacity Play, an LGBTQIA+ dance club, one of the few in Nashville. The audience wears plastic tiaras and sashes embla-zoned with the album’s title, and she’s up on the club’s catwalk, swimming in a fuchsia spotlight the shade of a feather burlesque boa. But it’s not Kacey who’s performing at her own album launch. 

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“The girls are backstage getting tucked and taped and teased, or whatever they do with those things. I don’t know what they do — magic,” she says, laughing. To present her latest collection of songs, she’s assembled her own pageant of sorts: a team of the best local drag queens, each one lip-syncing to a different song off her new album. She gives some heartfelt shoutouts to her team, and she can’t emphasize enough how much fun they had making this “retro western” record. Nearly welling up, she proudly informs everybody that they were able to put strings on the record — a sonic element she wasn’t fiscally able to add to her debut. “Enjoy yourselves. Please drink. I am,” she says, closing the event’s intro-duction with directives that may as well come printed on the album. 

During a performance of the title track, a queen pulls a fat joint out of the bejeweled bodice of her powder blue tulle ball gown while mouthing the lyrics: “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.” She doubles over and drops it low, throwing two middle fingers at the audience and swaying to the song’s jolly and undulating bassline. Much like any good drag, the song is a campy goad aimed at gender expectations and the narrator’s consistent failure to meet them, specifically in Musgraves’ experience of growing up around Southern pageant culture. She grew up in the small unincorporated community of Golden, Texas, which sits just under an hour-and-a-half by car east of Dallas, and her career in pageantry ended years before she enrolled in kindergarten. 

“My hometown is pretty famous for its sweet potatoes,” Musgraves said in a statement around the record’s release in June 2015, “and every year, they hold the Golden Sweet Potato Festival. They crown a Sweet Potato Queen and a Little Miss Tater Tot for little girls. I only competed for Little Miss Tater Tot once, when I was about three, and lost miserably to a girl in a sparklier dress.” 

Though it’d been well over two decades since she’d competed in her first (and only) pageant, it makes sense that pageantry was on Musgraves’ mind when she was penning her second record. Two years prior, she’d rocked country and mainstream music alike with her whip-smart major label debut, Same Trailer Different Park. The record used traditional country sonics to chronicle stories, characters and messages that challenged and questioned small-minded mentalities and convictions. The record was co-produced by Musgraves, who also co-wrote each song, and her matter-of-fact delivery of thought-stirring one-liners and clever wordplay drew her well-earned comparisons to one of her songwriting heroes, John Prine. Initially, some of the topics the record touched on — queer love, challenging tradition, weed — sparked some skepticism over the record’s acceptance in conservative-leaning spaces often vital to a new country artist’s success, like country music radio. But Musgraves would seemingly rather drop dead than compromise or water down her work in hopes of succeeding in a mainstream country market. Her obvious unwavering dedication to her vision right out of the gates won her a devoted following of fans who cherished her authenticity and ability to tell it like it is in a way no other country artist on the radio at the time seemed to be able to. Same Trailer topped the country charts, won her two Grammys, including Country Album of the Year, and took her on tour around the world. Suddenly, Musgraves was a star, thrown into a whole new stratosphere of pageantry. In a foreshadowing moment during an interview with the Washington Post for the press cycle of her debut, the writer describes her tearing up unexpectedly when the topic of fame comes up. “Fame freaks me out,” she explained. “Do you just wake up different? I don’t know how to scale it back if it gets too crazy.”

With all of its tracks co-written (save for the Willie Nelson cover) and co-produced by Musgraves, Pageant Material is often both an exploration of that fear from the other side of fame, and a celebration of maintaining your realness in any environment that threatens to diminish it. For insight, the songs routinely find us traveling alongside her to the small-town Bible Belt world of her roots, mining them for lessons, warnings and insights on how to stay grounded. In contrast and compliment to its themes, the album’s sound takes more than a few pages from the sweet and polished sound of ’70s countrypolitan. Also referred to as the Nashville Sound, countrypolitan is defined by its pop palatability. The subgenre was first developed in Nashville in the ’50s by the head of RCA Records' country division with an explicit goal of being commercially successful. Designed to not only succeed with a country audience but to cross over to pop radio, the sound prioritizes tight, consistent song structures, contagious melodies and hooks, smooth transitions and lush sonic elements like robust strings sections and arrangements layered to perfection. Countrypolitan achieved its intended goal — the sound dominated the country charts throughout the ’70s and into the early ’80s and routinely crossed over, with hits from Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Glen Campbell, Bobbie Gentry, Connie Smith and countless others falling under the Nashville Sound umbrella and landing on the charts. It’s curious, then, that a sound so tailored toward commercial performance would be such an influence on an album that’s largely about going against the grain and staying true to who you are — but Musgraves’ songwriting has always thrived best in the midst of some thematic tension, and she brilliantly bridges the gap. Within that tension, she bounces between an earnest heart and a campy wink. At times, she leans right into pure, unadulterated country kitsch — the sound of rhinestones, red boots, Dolly Parton and the sweet yellow gingham print table cloth at a Southern picnic. The next second, she employs the record’s glossy shine the same way that she uses the image of a pageant to define and amplify everything she’s not: The sound often acts as a sort of omnipresent foil character to the down-to-earth narrator telling it to you straight. 

The album’s first single, “Biscuits,” perfectly straddles this line. The video could just as easily be broadcast on the fuzzy television at my country music-loving grandparents’ farm as it could be broadcast during an interlude for an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race — and be equally well-received. In it, Musgraves performs peppy choreography and sings to a purple fiddler puppet in front of a saturated, sunny background set made of hay bales and a fake red barn while a clean-cut, western attire-clad motley crew throws a hoe-down behind her. The idea for the song first started taking shape during a writing session for a hit from her first record, “Follow Your Arrow,” with Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark. A behind-the-scenes clip for “Biscuits” (appropriately titled “Biscuits: The ‘Baking’ Of ”) features one of Kacey’s team members off-camera realizing they caught the very moment of the song’s inception on tape a few years back. The footage shows the three baby-faced writing partners gathered around a living room coffee table in a deep brainstorm, pouring over their laptops and guitars. 

“Mind your own biscuits, you know?” Clark poses. 

“MIND YOUR OWN BISCUITS — GOD!” Musgraves erupts. 

“That’s another trailer saying right there,” McAnally says. “Mind your own biscuits and… and life will be gravy,” he sighs, clearly not aware he casually just uttered the hook to a hit off an album that had yet to be conceived. While the line didn’t quite find its place  in “Follow Your Arrow” — a song about doing whatever the hell you want, since people are going to have an opinion on it either way — “Biscuits” is a perfect sequel to the track; it’s what the narrator of the first song might say next to the naysayers and judgment-casters. In multiple interviews around the album’s press cycle, Musgraves referred to the track as “just plum country fun,” and, while it really is that simple, it also contains some sound advice. The songwriters (appropriately, Musgraves, Clark and McAnally) double down on packing a relentless string of charming country truisms (or “trailer sayings”) in the majority of the lyrics: hoe your own row, raise your own babies, smoke your own smoke, grow your own daisies, mend your own fences, own your own crazy — you get the idea. While “Biscuits” might radiate wholesome in every possible way, Musgraves told Rolling Stone that her label requested she edit the line “Pissing in my yard won’t make yours any greener,” subbing out the first word with “spitting” to make it friendly for radio. 

“People are going to choose to be offended by something, no matter what,” Musgraves told a writer for the Sunday Times. “These things I’m singing about, I see how they would be considered controversial to some people, but to me they just aren’t, and to my generation they’re not. So it’s a little hard for me sometimes to take that moniker of being ‘controversial,’ but there are probably worse things I could be called.”

In this sense, she embodies what, at its core, Pageant Material is all about: incessantly and unapologetically doing you, and letting the rest roll right off your back. Album opener “High Time” was one of the first songs written for the new record, and one she knew instantly would be the first track and tone-setter for the album. Its immediate and grand vocal harmonies feel like a tasseled velvet curtain lifting to reveal the stage in a suave Southwestern night club. It mixes glamorous vocal layering, rich strings and swaggering guitar riffs with more laid-back elements like hand-clapping as percussion and lackadaisical whistling, both inviting you to kick off your shoes and enjoy the show, while also offering you a luxe carpet to place your bare feet on. At this point in Musgraves’ musical career, listeners might expect a song entitled “High Time” to be explicitly about a certain substance, and the relaxing tune is certainly filled with its share of wily shoutouts to the green stuff. But the lyrics are also filled with a desperation to escape the pressure of fame and to reconnect with herself (“Been missing my roots / I’m getting rid of the flash”). The track leads into “Dime Store Cowgirl,” a personal narrative with verses centered on Kacey’s rise, where she lists all the surreal experiences she’s been able to enjoy since her last album: having her picture “made” with Willie Nelson (who’s featured later on the record), staying in the same hotel that Gram Parsons died in, seeing the White Cliffs of Dover, falling in love with the Palm Springs trailer park where she shot the cover for her debut album. The chorus is a promise that, despite all the new experiences, she’s still the “girl from Golden,” and the song’s title is a term she proudly identifies with. 

“There’s a funny story behind it. I used to sing super-Western swing, yodeling or whatever, in this group [called The Buckaroos] where they would mentor younger kids to get out of their shells and sing old Roy Rogers songs they’d literally never know otherwise,” she told FADER in 2015. “We would wear cowboy hats, and I would want to wear mine kind of cocked-back, retro, like Dale Evans, pin-up cowgirl kinda style, and this girl I would sing with would wear hers down really low, low as possible, Terry Clark style. And right before we were about to go sing somewhere, her mom came up to me and said, ‘Don’t you wear your hat like that, you’re just gonna look like some dime store cowgirl!’ I’d always had that floating somewhere in the back of my brain."

After pledging to stay grounded, Pageant Material’s biggest weapon against a rampant ego or inauthenticity is the steady presence of family, friends and loved ones — the kind of people you can let loose and be yourself around. On “Late To The Party,” a gentle, swooning ballad and brief foreshadow to her smash love album, 2018’s Golden Hour, the narrator is fine to miss most of a party in favor of savoring some one-on-one time rolling a joint and getting ready with their lover. “This Town” opens with a sneaky voice memo recording of her Memaw, her grandmother Barbara Taylor, who was an ER nurse and passed away in December 2013. In the audio, Taylor enthusiastically shares a story from her time in the ER where one of the patients “got real belligerent” and “bit one of the nurses.” In a behind-the-scenes video for the song, Kacey shares the sassy song’s sound  is “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” meets Bobbie Gentry, and tears up about including “a little part of her” in the album. “Family Is Family,” a bouncy, cheeky tune with the same energy as someone rolling their eyes and throwing their hands up in the air in exasperation,  is a celebration of familial ties (even when they might drive you up a wall half the time). Even her younger sister Kelly, a photographer, makes an appearance on the record in the form of the record’s album art. (She also did the covers for Same Trailer Different Park and Golden Hour.)

Pageant Material makes it crystal clear: keeping folks around who see, covet and make space for who you are is key — but just as essential is staying as far away as possible from the people who don’t. “Good Ol’ Boys Club,” is a bold middle finger at the many exclusive, male-dominated spaces in the music industry that constantly gate-keep, refuse to evolve and favor connections over merit (“When did it become about who you know and not about how good you are?”). On “Miserable,” she laments about a negative friend who seemingly seeks out misery, while pulling the narrator along with them and always promising the opposite. The gentle, tender “Cup Of Tea” feels like a descendant of Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors” (even beginning with the line “maybe your jacket is a hand-me-down”) and advises listeners against people-pleasing at the cost of losing yourself. Kacey’s wise-beyond-her-years warnings continue in the final track, a haunting and weepy duet with Willie Nelson. It’s a reimagination of his song “Are You Sure” off his 1965 album Country Willie: His Own Songs, in which he asks a loved one if their surroundings are what’s best for them or reflective of what they want: “These are your friends, but are they real friends? Do they love you as much as me?” Though generations of country music apart, Musgraves and Nelson’s voices merge as though they were divinely designed to sing together.

Pageant Material is a stunning, retro-leaning Country Western album with updated pop flourishes that sounds fresh to modern ears but easily can stand up and play ball with all the country greats that inspired it. It’s a seamless listen from start to finish that wound up delivering on all the promises Kacey Musgraves’ smashing debut on the scene inferred, and then some. But it’s also more than that: It’s a road map back home to yourself. It’s a book of bona fide damn good advice. It’s a glamorous little room you can enter to relax, let your hair down, light a J and get back in touch with who you are — should life find you too wound up in all the pageantry. 

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Amileah Sutliff

Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, editor and creative producer and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.

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