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Album Review | Country

Musgraves gives nods to stars of yesteryear

CHRISTOPHER POLK/GETTY IMAGES/Getty

As the country music industry continues its fruitless debate of its female artists’ commercial prospects and merits, Kacey Musgraves’s new album arrives with a delicious bit of irony. It’s not only one of the year’s most anticipated releases, but also the most classic country record to emerge from Nashville in a long time.

Out on Tuesday, “Pageant Material” is a spirited wink and nod to yesteryear’s country queens and the homespun motifs that have made the genre such a powerful outlet for storytelling.

At 26, the Grammy-winning Musgraves is not a carbon copy of her predecessors, but rather works in a vintage and occasionally timeless vein of country songcraft. So much of “Pageant Material,” her second album on a major label, instantly makes an impression because its characters and the mundane details of their lives are relatable.

You don’t have to squint to connect the dots between Musgraves and the trailblazers who came before her. “Dime Store Cowgirl,” on which she swears that’s what she’ll always be no matter her fame, harks back to Loretta Lynn’s “Blue Kentucky Girl” and Dolly Parton’s “My Tennessee Mountain Home.”

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“I’m still the girl from Golden,” Musgraves affirms, referring to her Texas hometown, “best known for its sweet potatoes,” as Wikipedia points out. Both “Dime Store Cowgirl” and “This Town,” whose swampy soulfulness recalls Bobbie Gentry, are playful and poignant reminders of our roots and staying grounded in them.

With her slight but sweet voice, Musgraves has a way with a sing-songy chorus, many of which she co-writes with her frequent collaborators and fellow hitmakers Shane McAnally, Brandy Clark, and Luke Laird. Whether you take to “Biscuits,” the album’s first single, depends on your threshold for twee punnery: “Mind your own biscuits / And life will be gravy.” (I know, I know: Insert an eye-roll here, but that refrain really does get lodged in your brain after enough exposure.)

Perhaps the album’s most obvious spiritual bookend is Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley PTA,” both the finger-wagging ode to small-town hypocrisy and the eponymous album that spawned it in 1968. As heard on her first hits, “Merry Go ’Round” and “Follow Your Arrow,” Musgraves relishes the role of telling others to mind their own business (or biscuits).

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She believes life is best lived according to your own rules and pace. “Pouring salt in my sugar won’t make yours any sweeter,” she admonishes on “Biscuits,” another of her self-empowerment anthems that are a refreshing flip side to so-called bro country.

Musgraves clearly sees herself as an outsider and is savvy enough to play that up in song. While wearing a tiara and looking very much like a homecoming queen on the tongue-in-cheek album cover, she espouses all the ways she’s not pageant material on the title track:

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

While doubling down on acoustic instrumentation, “Pageant Material” also has a wistful pop sheen, closer in spirit to Glen Campbell than Carrie Underwood. Then again, Musgraves, who has toured with both Katy Perry and Willie Nelson, has been adamant that country might not always be her only genre.

“I love country music and want to continue making it, but most of all I just want to make good music,” she told the Globe early last year. I’m inspired by so many other things. I just want to appeal to music lovers.”

ESSENTIAL “Pageant Material”

Kacey Musgraves will perform as part of the
Outside the Box festival on Boston Common
July 17.


James Reed can be reached at james.reed@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.

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