(Photo by Alysse Gafjken)
YOU CAN GET IT READING about her working in just about every minimum wage menial job available and living in unheated dumps where sometimes the rats were bigger than possums. You can get it hearing about campus life as a new college student, switching from communications to theatre and dance, with Spanish, but never to health. “Many of the girls, including me, lived on a steady regimen of diet pills and cigarettes, while others binged and purged, using vomiting and laxatives.”
You can get it reading about a multigenerational farming family being forced off the land in the 1970s financial crisis and one branch ending up in very small-town Illinois, never really reconciling with the loss or letting go of the meaning. And that includes when she later moved to Nashville carrying a desk and small lounges on the back of a truck. “Everything I had was worn, but I valued the sentimental.”
And you get it hearing about how her first mushroom trip convinced her that music was the route out, including from the kind of day/night/everyday drinking that landed her in jail and then hospital, about to have her stomach pumped before she was legally entitled to vote, let alone drink.
Matter of fact, I’ve got it right now. Having yet another visceral reaction to something in her memoir, Maybe We’ll Make It, reinforces the notion that experiencing her through some physical means – a record, a CD, a book, a show – is the best way to really grasp Margo Price, singer, songwriter, country music rebel and traditionalist, mother and wife, and full-bodied consumer of life.
The one thing that can’t be shaken though, reading about her life so far – with the book ending at what was the turn of her career in 2016, a decade into it, with the release of Midwest Farmer’s Daughter – is the question of how the hell did she survive living this life?
Price laughs, not really sheepishly. “I guess a little bit of luck and stubbornness.”
“I left out a lot of the rollercoaster ride as it started, when more fun and bigger things were happening,” she says, while keen to remind us that the rollercoaster has had a lot of highs. “I think eventually there will be a collection of stories from hanging out with heroes and just crossing paths with people that I really admire and have been inspired by.”
Wouldn’t we all, with our famous friends! She laughs at this, this time a little sheepishly. “Not name drops.”
Fair enough if she did though: we probably need a whole separate book for just the name drops she could rustle up from the past decade that has seen her produce Tanya Tucker, befriend and work with Willie Nelson, Mavis Staples, Mike Campbell of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, Jack White, Lucinda Williams …. anyway, you get the picture.
The thing about the people she’s been able to work with, on stage or in the studio, is that it tells you something about respect: not just hers for them, but the respect her peers and predecessors have for her work, her work ethic, herself. It’s something that was missing in that first decade or so in the industry, something which looks not just ignorant but almost criminal in retrospect (and in truth, at the time too).
You may want to smack some people along the way who couldn’t hear it or see it, stuck in their ways. Hell, she wanted to smack some of them along the way. Does she feel it still, now that she has that attention and respect, or does she just not care either way?
“Just being able to follow my passion, live my dreams and not wait tables, that’s all I was over looking for,” she says. “I always joke with friends and peers, ‘see you on the long climb back to the middle’. Music has been oversaturated in a lot of ways and it devalues what we do, but I know it’s still one of the most sacred things that we have on this godforsaken planet and I know that it’s still important work, but you do have to work hard to keep going.
"That was part of writing the book: I’m hungry to do all the things that I want to do. Life is moving by me so fast.”
(Photo by Alysse Gafjken)
And sometimes, even as it moves fast, it doesn’t make things that different. Price is well aware that when you’ve been at rock bottom and then success, some financial security, a functioning relationship, arrive, it doesn’t mean your problems have gone away, or can be fixed. More than that, she doesn’t pretend that it does: the book detailing her recurring bouts of insecurity, deep fractures that occurred in her relationship with husband and collaborator, Jeremy Ivey, the toll of drinking, the loss only ten days into his life of one of her children.
As good as she is feeling now, three albums later, is this book a reminder that you are always just a bad stretch of luck from the shitter?
“I actually feel like I sorted so many things out in my head, and just processed a lot of things as I was writing it, as I was editing it, and then when I went in and recorded the audio book. Even when I listened to the audiobook – I just finished it yesterday: I had a full week’s but I was nervous to listen to it honestly – it’s been such a good way for me to show myself a little mercy and look at it, in a way, from an outsider’s perspective,” Price says.
“Like I was saying, success doesn’t fix all of your problems, in a lot of ways it can amplify them: money and fame don’t always bring out the best in people [she chuckles]. You still have to wake up with yourself every day.”
And she is ok with that, with herself.
“There was a lot of stuff I wasn’t sure that I was going to put in the book that ended up going in there that wasn’t, maybe, so becoming of myself. Then I started thinking back to my first album, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, and why it resonated with people, and I think it was because it was vulnerable. If I can portray to everyone that I’m actually not the badass strong person everyone thinks I am all the time, but I can still dig down deep and find the strength to keep going, then maybe they will be able to do that.”
Forget self-deprecating, in parts of this book she’s self-lacerating, and even that is softening just how frank and hard Price is on herself. She doesn’t spare some of the jerks and exploiters, the ignorant at labels and the self-serving at radio, but just as with that first album, no one gets it as hard in Margo Price’s book as Margo Price herself.
When Midwest Farmer’s Daughter came out, the question was how much of this was her, because many people doubted first of all that you could do that much and be upright, and secondly that you would willingly bear that to the world. Now with the book and an accompanying new album – Strays, out in January – that emerges from the same creative well, we realise pretty much all of it was her. None of that is easy to do in private, let alone in public.
“For a long time I wasn’t talking about it in my art, and I would sit around and talk about my struggles in my problems with my friends or family. Being able to be that brutal with myself, was really freeing, and it was the same with the book,” says Price. “I’m sure that there are people, I know that there are people out there, who gossiped about me and who have said things, and I have some skeletons in my past. Just being able to write them and write my own story, take control of my own destiny, and take fault for my own mistakes, it feels really empowering, really freeing.”
Where does the strength come to deal with our judgement? Or is that it a lot easier than dealing with her own judgement?
“For a long time I was really a people pleaser, and that’s because of the way I was raised,” she says. “There are a lot of things I even kept out of the book about my childhood that were just too personal. I’ve kind of grown this protective shell in a lot of ways and as you see how easily I was hurt at times through my 20s and through my 30s, the older I get the less I care and the less mental real estate I want to spend on it.,”
Not that she is exactly hiding from the world and its opinions, especially her social conscience, engagement on sexism and racism, and activism on behalf of the working poor.
“I just had people yelling at me on the Internet so much and it’s because I like to poke the bear,” Price grins. "I like to make trouble and sometimes I get a bit, and sometimes there are repercussions. But for the most part I am a little desensitised by it because, aw shit, we’re all going to die and not everyone is going to like me.
“Great art always provokes conversation and really strong feelings and so if I am polarising to some people, or if I am controversial, then so be it.”
On Thursday: in part two of this interview, Margo Price talks about her new album, Strays, drugs, drink, and a combination too disgusting for words. “You’d be surprised, they are actually so good.”
The memoir, Maybe We’ll Make It, is out now. The album, Strays, will be out January 13.