Country music, where did you go wrong? It says something about the state of the genre when a breezy ditty about simply minding your own beeswax gets yanked from the radio. Kacey Musgraves didn’t hide her dismay at the end of “Biscuits”, the first single from her sophomore effort, Pageant Material, during her Bonnaroo set: “They just pulled that one off the fucking radio … whatever that means. Maybe they don’t like biscuits.”
Sure, the song’s chorus fails to check the boxes required of a modern country hit. Musgraves leaves out references to pick-up trucks, day drinking, and apple-bottomed girls in tight blue jeans. At first glance, it’s even cute: “Smoke your own smoke and grow your own daisies/ Mend your own fences and own your own crazy/ Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy.” Maybe its simplicity is even more dangerous than Musgraves’ breakout social justice anthem from her Grammy-winning debut, Same Trailer, Different Park. While “Follow Your Arrow” rallied for gay and lesbian rights in a no-drama zone (“Kiss lots of boys/ Or kiss lots of girls/ If that’s something you’re into”), “Biscuits” takes on our national obsession with publicly nitpicking everyone, from that manspreading dude on the train to Caitlyn Jenner. Funny how filling your songs with nuggets of common sense can now get a singer-songwriter labeled as a rebel.
Pageant Material adheres to the same winning formula of Same Trailer — almost too closely. Taken individually, the album’s 13 tracks serve as a master class on how to write a charmingly unique country song using smart metaphors that a fifth grader can grasp and that can make an octogenarian ache with recognition. Together, Musgraves and her dream team of co-writers (Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Luke Laird) draw from the well of folksy tales about letting your freak flag fly one too many times.
Take “Family Is Family”. Line after dysfunctional line shows off the writers’ wit (“They might smoke like chimneys, but give you their kidneys”) while Musgraves’ serene twang plays both coy and steely alongside a sighing pedal steel guitar. It’s a tall drink of water in country’s bro-tastic desert, but it rings formulaic by Musgraves’ standards. At least “This Town” breaks the mold from the onset, with a field recording of Musgraves’ late grandmother relaying a particularly harrowing snippet about a drugged-out hospital patient before the 26-year-old singer breaks into a Jim Croce-like patter about the joys and pitfalls of growing up in a teeny place.
After hearing her play it safe two albums in a row, it’s exciting to hear Musgraves tell Rolling Stone she’d like to shake things up next time, maybe with a “surf rock” album. But for now, saying the same thing over and over, even in fancy phrasing, is just another broken record.
Essential Tracks: “This Town”, “Biscuits”