|Mercury Nashville | discogs.com|
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In my Superlative Albums I Wrote About in 2017 list, Pageant Material was awarded the City Boy Blog for Smuggest and Most Patronising
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Ah, country music. The bane of every self-identified eclectic’s existence.
No other genre is so segregated: if the cliché is to be believed, the men sing of beers and trucks and pretty girls, while the women sing of murdering their abusive husbands. For every bequiffed doubly-denimmed frat bro there is an equal and opposite bloody-handed revolver-toting cowgirl. (Repeat offender Carrie Underwood is pencilled in for a future writeup.)
There is little genealogy to speak of here. We can trace centuries of development effected by classical music, which later begat jazz, which itself spawned rock, whence came what we now know as pop music, but country seems to have skipped it all. It is the direct descendant of Elizabethan lute balladry; an evolutionary crocodile: never changing because it has never needed to. As far as archetypes go, the solitary gentleman wooing his lady suitor with a personalised serenade is an enduring one.
So here is a genre of pleasant simplicity and simple pleasure, a genre that extolls the virtues of living civilisation-adjacent. The kindness and honesty of complete strangers. The clarity of knowing exactly where you stand. The rough resourcefulness of homecooked meals and homemade furniture. The room and the time to think and breathe, far away from such distractions as bright lights and cityscapes and electricity.
A month or two ago, when I published an exhortation to dump all the obfuscatory proclivities associated with modern pop music and the surrounding complicities, I completely overlooked a genre that already has. On offer, you can find an abundance of wisdom nuggets (biscuits??), washed down with the cooling tea of sincerity, served with a hearty side of down-to-earth grits, whatever the hell they are.
Whiskey-smooth and pleasingly polished, Kacey Musgraves is exactly what we need: relaxed, focused, unfettered. Pageant Material coaxes a clear-eyed sweetness from her Texas twang, slipping by with the serenity of complete confidence in oneself and one’s abilities. It is a refreshingly minty julep oasis in an inhospitable wasteland of racism and cows; a beacon shining through the dusty gloom.
When our queen and saviour the mighty Beyoncé passes by, exquisite roses bloom and blossom in her wake. Plainest water transforms to richest wine upon grazing her lips. Though she does not operate at the same continuum-warping magnitude, Kacey enjoys her own special power. At the merest brushing of her guitar strings, hackneyed platitudes are somehow fresh and new again.
In that same article, I wrote about the use of cliché, noting the Sideshow-Bobbesque knack for repetition as a means of restoring drained meaning that the inestimable Radiohead have deployed to meteoric effect and critical acclaim throughout their prodigious career. It took much screaming and wailing and gnashing of teeth to get them there. On Pageant Material, however, Kacey effortlessly sails through her charmingly agrestic couplets. “Mind your own biscuits / And life will be gravy,” she promises. To her, family is family: “They might smoke like chimneys / But give you their kidneys.” And should you need another song reminding you to be yourself, Kacey has you covered.
“You can’t be /
Everybody’s cup of tea /
Some like it bitter, some like it sweet /
Nobody’s everybody’s favourite /
So you might as well just make it how you please”
It isn’t until the final track of the album that she lets on that country life is not all cookouts and rodeos and hoedowns. To a wistfully bucolic chord cycle, Kacey lies:
“I pick those tomatoes we grew off the vine /
They look out the window just killing time /
I reach for the phone just to make sure it’s on /
And I’m /
I put on my makeup for no-one at all /
My heels on the hardwood echo down the hall /
I open the wardrobe, put my face in your clothes /
And I’m /
I try to sleep, I just lie here awake /
I’ve stopped counting sheep, now I just count the days /
‘Til you’re back in this bed I remake every time /
And if they ask, I’ll say I’m /
That rustic friendliness does not extend past pleasantries. Out in the wilderness, there’s nobody to really talk to. There are no distractions. There’s nothing to do.
But for Kacey, that is a price worth paying. At heart, she’s just a dime store cowgirl. And from her smile, another truism once again rings true:
“You can take me out of the country /
But you can’t take the country out of me”