The Southern adage “Don’t get above your raisin’,” memorialized as a song title by Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs in 1951, has long been a guideline for country artists. It even dictates their choices in pronouns: always the humble “we,” never the immodest “I.” And like many things in life, it’s more strictly enforced on female artists. But Kacey Musgraves‘ 2013 major-label debut, Same Trailer Different Park, was gloriously provocative. On the album’s two best songs, “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Follow Your Arrow,” the 26-year-old critiqued life in small towns like the Texas one she couldn’t escape fast enough, and endorsed weed, girl-on-girl kissing and politics one could only describe as liberal. Her strategy, she told a reporter, was “to push buttons [and] scare off the people who are going to be scared off.”
There’s a touch of retrenchment on her follow-up, Pageant Material. “Maybe for a minute I got too big for my britches,” she sings in “Dime Store Cowgirl,” a plain account of her last two years. To prove her fealty to Nashville, she mentions Willie Nelson, the rodeo, “my hometown” — it’s just a pickup truck shy of being bro country. For anyone who loved her for being disruptive, it feels like her first dishonest step, an apology to the industry she had blown raspberries at.
But everywhere else, this is an even better album than her last, with more consistency and variety. And Musgraves still excels at chiding Southern tradition. “High Time,” a mellow anthem for those with dubious glaucoma diagnoses, pairs Nashville strings with pro-pot innuendo doubled by the line “Let the grass just grow.” Like “Merry Go ‘Round,” the prickly views of small-town life in “This Town” and the title track (“I’m always higher than my hair”) won’t be adopted by any chamber of commerce. Thematically, those songs trace back to “Merry Go ‘Round,” while the be-yourself motifs of first single “Biscuits” and the pro-promiscuity, pro-divorce “Cup of Tea” reinforces “Follow Your Arrow.”
Musgraves does have a weakness for bumper-sticker platitudes (“You can’t sail if your anchor’s down”), so it helps that she finds new corners of her tender voice, while large doses of banjo and steel guitar balance music that tilts toward the folk side of country. Although the social-commentary songs will draw the most attention, she doesn’t need rebukes to make an impression.
Through to the surprise bonus track, the album holds strong: “Late to the Party” is a lightly swinging song about the joy of commitment, and “Family Is Family” counts the ways in which relatives are annoying (“They own too much wicker,” a great line) but settles back into the fold. It’s easy enough to love Pageant Material if you don’t agree with Musgraves’ views on social issues, but let’s be honest: it helps if you do.
This story originally appeared in the June 20 issue of Billboard.