When Kacey Musgraves showed up two years ago singing about drags of weed and same-sex smooches, she wasn’t necessarily plotting an insurrection. At the time, the soon-to-be country star said she simply wanted to “create the new normal.”
Musgraves’s sturdy second album, “Pageant Material,” finds the 26-year-old retrenching in her own brand of normal. Set to a series of svelte, mid-tempo country songs, she sticks to a message that’s both important and banal: Be yourself.
Because all of those small towns that have been glorified in all of those big country hits? They’re actually filled with petty, judgey, ornery, back-biting jerks. And those people should be ignored. “You can’t set sail if your anchor’s down,” Musgraves sings on “Miserable,” a new song about those who only seem to derive happiness from being just that.
But throughout “Pageant Material,” Musgraves hews so tightly to this theme, she might as well be stitching sassy truisms onto throw pillows. “Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy,” goes the hook of “Biscuits,” the album’s lead single. “I’d rather lose for what I am than win for what I ain’t,” she sings on the title track. “Nobody’s everybody’s favorite,” she shrugs on “Cup Of Tea.”
This folksy style of shade-throwing is both a fine art and a necessity in Nashville, an industry town with a low tolerance for boat-rockers and an allergy for game-changers. On Musgraves’s superb debut album, 2013’s “Same Trailer, Different Park,” she found smart ways to speak her truth, waltzing across the industry chessboard while projecting the image of a young woman following her own rules. Branded as a rebel, or at least an agent of change, she magnetized non-country listeners and won a couple Grammys in the process.
The biggest bomb Musgraves drops on “Pageant Material” is aimed directly at the Nashville cognoscenti through a song called “Good Ol’ Boys Club” in which she declares that being “another gear in a big machine don’t sound like fun to me.” It’s a winking jab at Big Machine, the record label that Taylor Swift calls home. “If I end up going down in flames, well, at least I know I did it my own way,” Musgraves sings.
This posture feels a little same-old, but we have to assume its purposeful. For starters, nine of the 14 tracks on “Pageant Material” were co-written by Shane McAnally, a songwriting assassin who helped launch Musgraves and Sam Hunt, two of country music’s most exciting new stars. As the brightest mind and sharpest pen on Music Row, McAnally doesn’t make many missteps. Maybe McAnally and Musgraves are simply firming up that “new normal” she once promised.
But if you listen to an entire country album wondering about its strategic intent, it means the music hasn’t really whisked you off your feet. And on occasion, it does.
Musgraves can still do dazzling things with her plain singing voice, and she knows how to sell a punch line with deadpan sweetness. “Family is Family,” a zingy ode to the unbreakable nature of blood ties, is filled with those kinds of laugh lines, for instance: “They own too much wicker and drink too much liquor.”
And because Musgraves’s singing rarely feels overtly performative, she often sounds like she’s reciting these songs to herself, perhaps in an attempt to better figure out who she is.
So who is she now? The album’s strongest cut, “Dime Store Cowgirl,” comes closest to answering. “It don’t matter where I’m going,” Musgraves sings. “I still call my hometown home.”
That might seem like faux-humility, but the song ultimately suggests that Musgraves doesn’t want to be a part of any narrative other than her own. Maybe she’s singing all this “be yourself” stuff into the mirror. And maybe she hasn’t figured out who that self is just yet. Do we ever?