An artist with drive and defiance, Margo Price is refashioning, again, what we think of when we think of country old and new.
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After getting Midwest Farmer’s Daughter in 2016 I refused to believe this was Margo Price’s debut, figuring no one sounds this formed and this good – and this mature - first time around.
She could be traditional country but was never hamstrung by it, able to give you Tammy Wynette directness with Dolly Parton prettiness in her voice, and spin out modern versions of truth-telling songs.
That would have been good enough but she took country into its neighbours, folk, soul and rock, without ever feeling like she was dabbling or escaping, but rather had you wondering what more she could do with all those ingredients. (The answer to which we found out with her next record.)
What’s more, Price had songs that you could sing to, get angry with and, yes, maybe cry to a little – songs that stuck.
Consequently, I spent a couple of days scouring the web looking for some independent releases, something, anything. I found nothing except the fact that this debut was not from some ingenue but a woman of 33 who had grown up in small town Illinois and moved to Nashville when she was 20.
“I was singing in bands and did a couple of things when I was around 20 but nothing was released by anyone. It wasn’t for lack of trying because I was definitely pitching myself,” says Price on the phone from her base in the “alternative” enclave of East Nashville.
“But when I first went to Nashville I didn’t really see a place for myself in the country music world because everyone that I saw looked the same, sounded the same. I couldn’t see myself fitting into that Barbie doll mould so I was singing in rock ‘n’ roll bands.”
She pauses and adds with a highly amused tone: “But people were telling me that it sounded like Dolly Parton fronting the Rolling Stones …it was not always easy to hide who I really was.”
That first album came out on the Third Man label of another northern escapee to Nashville, Jack White, and a second album this year, the even better All American Made, confirmed her place in the upper ranks of Nashville’s non-conforming genuinely country artists like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson.
This all sounds fine now but what stopped her becoming embittered and giving up in the 12 years before?
“I think in my mind I always knew that there must be some worth to what I was doing so I figured I would just make a record and some day, some way, someone would find them. That was enough to keep me going,” says Price, who co-writes and co-parents with her partner, guitarist Jeremy Ivey.
“Also, I’m just stubborn and I don’t like people telling me no and I don’t like being screwed over, so there was a lot of me that wanted to beat this town and beat the industry and prove that I didn’t have to sacrifice my art or who I was, or give up any of my integrity, to make a dent in the music world.”
That doesn’t endear you to everyone, especially when you write about some of those who challenged your integrity like former managers and publicists. But there’s a sense of ‘fuck ‘em, that’s not my problem’ about Price.
“By doing all those things, it feels good, I can sleep better at night,” she says. “But it did take me a long time to get here because I didn’t bend.”
The easy thing for those of us who have benefited by having her music is to say we are glad she did refuse to bend, but common sense – or at least commercial sense – says bend, give in, do what you have to get in the door and then maybe see what you can fashion in your image.”
These are of course famous last words, possibly even uttered by the likes of Keith Urban before they gave in completely and became corporate logo machines. Is it just stubbornness that stopped Price from doing that? Especially when she lost one child and took some ugly turns into drinking and self-punishment.
“I had seen people who gave up who had the talent but nothing made me happier than singing and I didn’t have a lot of other great skills. I enjoy working with children and I was teaching and choreographing dance but I knew that deep down I had suffered through a lot to ultimately sing and write my own songs.
“So yeah, it took a lot to say I’m going to wait and do some shitty jobs, I can sleep in some dirty places when we go out of town to play gigs, I can sacrifice having nice things to chase that dream and spend all my money to make the art.”
There’s got to be some of that defiance mixed with really knowing the struggle in the way she can imbue lines which sound like smart old fashioned country bits with the truth that those stories come from somewhere real.
Lines such as “Sometimes my weakness is stronger than me” and “I put a hurtin’ on the bottle, maybe now I’m blind enough to see” spring from someone who has been there, who isn’t joking when she says “I had a bottle of bourbon in my hand, not a bible”. (Incidentally, the bottle may be gone but the Bible hasn’t taken its place.)
“I’ve certainly lived more of a country song the most people,” Price chuckles. “I enjoy writing from the first person and it started as a way of managing my feelings. It wasn’t for anyone else to hear, it was just music because I wanted to make it, and I think that’s what can make something feel honest.”
Certainly different from getting four writers who have never met sitting in a room together in a Nashville office to find common ground and a common hit for some or other mouthpiece.
As Price says “sometimes it’s just nice to have some plainspoken, hard truth wisdom in a world of deception and lies”.
Speaking of which, after the Las Vegas shooting at a country music gig in October Price was one of the few, one of the very few, country artists to break ranks with the NRA line and speak frankly about gun control.
That’s not an accident from someone who grew up with guns at home and is as comfortable with them as she uncomfortable with their proliferation.
“I think my first album was very much my story, a concept record about my life so far and calling out the music business, but for the second album I didn’t want to make everything about my personal story and I was seeing so much of America and I thought I still want to call things as I see them,” says Price.
“I think for a long time people have been conditioned to not say anything for fear of not being played on the radio. Songs get banned because they challenge people to think and the powers that be don’t want people thinking. But we have a major situation going on in our country now and we need as many people speaking about love and kindness and truth as we can.”
There’s a sense on both albums of a collective spirit, an alternative to the familiar narrative in recent decades of countries like Australia and Britain, and of course the USA, that everything is about realising the self and that community is outdated.
This individualism over community thinking is not how Margo Price works. And that’s another truth in her songs.
“Being a mother is maybe why I feel like I have to live up to this moral expectation,” she says. “We have one chance to speak up and I sleep a lot better knowing that I am honest to myself.”
LISTEN TO MARGO PRICE
All American Made
Midwest Farmer’s Daughter