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Country's Kacey Musgraves Mixes Wit And Sincerity In 'Pageant Material'


This is FRESH AIR. Since her last album two years ago, Kacey Musgraves has won a couple of Grammy awards and become a symbol of country music rebellion. Rock critic Ken Tucker has listened to Musgraves's new album, "Pageant Material," and says it's less about rebellion than connecting to country music history.


KACEY MUSGRAVES: (Singing) They're there for your first year. They give you your first beer. When you get your heart broke, they're there for your worst year. Don't get you at all, but your apple don't fall too far from...

KEN TUCKER: Using pedal steel guitar and cleverly constructed lyrics, Kacey Musgraves builds her new album, "Pageant Material" with the fundamentals of a certain kind of country music. The subjects include family, heartache and loneliness, and the topics are sung in Musgraves's delicate yet strong voice. But there's a healthy self-consciousness to what Musgraves is doing. She always takes care to phrase her sentiments with amusing word play, precise rhymes and an artful lilt in her tone.


MUSGRAVES: (Singing) There's certain things you're supposed to know when you're girl who grows up in the South. I try to use my common sense and my foot always ends up in my mouth. If I'd walk the runway in high heels in front of the whole town, I'd fall down. And my mama cried when she realized 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. I ain't...

TUCKER: Musgraves is, at the age of 26, accomplished at a certain kind of earnest playfulness that goes against the grain of country music tradition. She threw an album launch party for "Pageant Material" at a drag show in a popular Nashville gay dance club. At the same time, she clings to her roots in Golden, Texas, population less than a thousand. In fact, the song called "This Town" begins with the voice of her late grandmother talking about a harrowing moment in her life as an emergency room nurse, which leads into a song about the habits and ethics of small-town life.


BARBARA TAYLOR: We had a girl that came in with a drug overdose the other day, and she got real belligerent and she bit one of the nurses.


TAYLOR: I mean, she bit. You could see every tooth. It took two or three of us to get her off of her. (Unintelligible).

MUSGRAVES: (Singing) We finally got a flashing light. They put it in last year. And everybody got real happy when the grocery store got beer. And last time the census men came a-knockin', we were busting at the seams. Oh, but don't you forget it, as big as we're getting, this town's too small to be mean. Big enough for a ZIP code, a VFW, a good Mexican restaurant, a beauty shop or two. Got a Methodist, a Baptist and a church of the Nazarene. Oh, but don't you forget it, as big as we're getting, this town's too small to be mean. Yeah, it's too dang small to be mean. Too small to be...

TUCKER: When you read about Musgraves, you tend to see stuff about how she's controversial or rebellious, or a welcome alternative to the macho, bro country trend. But with this album, I've come to think that the most significant detail in Musgraves's credits is that one of her first professional jobs was as a staff songwriter for Warner Bros. Chappell Music Publishers. Because what Musgraves is more than anything else on "Pageant Material" is a creator of country-folk-pop songs that are much more like the compositions of John Prine or Steve Goodman or Roger Miller than of outlaw country icons. Musgraves, working in collaboration with colleague hit-makers Luke Laird, Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, is making music that, far from being cutting edge, would be right at home on the great old cornpone TV show, "Hee Haw."


MUSGRAVES: (Singing) Taking down your neighbor won't take you any higher. I've burned my own damn finger poking someone else's fire. And I've never gotten taller making someone else feel small. If you ain't got nothing nice to say, don't say nothing at all. Just hoe your own row and raise your own babies. 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. Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy.

TUCKER: Tucked away at the end of this album is a bonus track, a cover of a Willie Nelson song that he released in 1965 called "Are You Sure." It's one of the most beautiful things Musgraves has yet recorded.


MUSGRAVES: (Singing) Look around you. Look down the bar from you at the faces that you see. Are you sure this is where you want to be? These are your friends. But are they your real friends? Do they love you as much as me? And are you sure this is where you want to be?

TUCKER: "Pageant Material" isn't a sustained great album. There are a few too many songs about how you should try your best, ignore people who put you down and be kind to each other. Going forward, Musgraves needs to expand the subjects about which she can be simultaneously witty and sincere. Because that combination of wit and sincerity - not rebellion or angst - is what makes her really interesting.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large at Yahoo TV. He reviewed Kacey Musgraves's new album, "Pageant Material." Tomorrow on our show, is there such a thing as a gay voice?


DAVID THORPE: Do I sound gay?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes, I think you do sound gay. Not as much as I do but...


GROSS: I'll talk with David Thorpe about his new documentary, "Do I Sound Gay?" which follows him around as he tries to sound less gay while wondering why it's even become an issue for him. We'll also hear from one of the people he consults, speech pathologist Susan Sankin. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: A previous version of this transcript misidentified Kacey Musgraves’ late grandmother as Barbara Musgraves. In fact, her name was Barbara Taylor.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.
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