Pic by Bobbi Rich
This is a story like many others. A young family in lockdown, looking at the world through glass or binoculars. It has crying, hiding, ratty clothes and generally going stir crazy. And that’s just the parents.
One of those parents tweeted: “Being in quarantine is kind of like having a newborn baby... you’re in survival mode. You wear pajamas all day long, your hair is dirty, you don’t know what day it is and you could cry at any moment for no reason. But it’s just a phase and all things must pass.”
So, Margo Price, fun times in Nashville?
“It’s been hard for my nine-year-old [son] and I am actually holding my [10-month-old] daughter right now,” she says as her daughter appropriately murmurs in the background. “We’re doing what we can to keep things as normal as possible, spending a lot of time outdoors.”
Price, whose partner is her guitarist and songwriting partner Jeremy Ivey, jokes that with pregnancy and then the recording of an album, “I’ve basically being quarantined for a year and half anyway”.
The fruit of that first part of the quarantine, her third album, That’s How Rumors Get Started, is due in May, and for those who had come to see the Grammy nominee for best new artist last year as a fresh take on country music, someone who sounded like Dolly Parton & Tammy Wynette, had the attitude of Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings, and the social consciousness of Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, there may be some shocks.
One song, Heartless Mind, is deeply immersed in an ‘80s pop sound, What Happened To Our Love is a blues song in a country shirt, and Prisoner Of The Highway might have you thinking of Waylon with a gospel choir and ‘90s bar band.
“I didn’t want to use the same players; I didn’t want to go to Memphis and use the same studio. I wanted to make a rock ‘n’ roll album, so I went to California and we found players who were going to give us that sound,” says Price, who co-produced the album with another country iconoclast, Sturgill Simpson, who followed his 2017 Grammy for best country album with an album that was, in his own words, “a sleazy, steamy rock’n’roll record”.
While the last parts of Price’s recording happened in a small studio in Nashville, a lot of the initial work was done at Los Angele’s East West studio where The Mamas And the Papas recorded California Dreaming, where Tom Petty recorded Wildflowers, parts of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds were done, and where Dolly Parton made 9 To 5. Which is not a bad summation of some of the influences.
As with Simpson – who had been knocked back by Price when he approached her to produce what would be her second album, All American Made - Price was able to make what might seem like bold decisions because she had already established herself as someone to trust, and importantly because she was independent, her first two albums being put out by the label run by Jack White of The White Stripes, this one financed by her before any label approached.
It’s a rare situation, one which probably has a lot to do with the fact that she emerged after almost a decade of playing, living (sometimes living quite hard) and establishing a sense of self, before her breakthrough and the accolades.
“I think I always wanted to do my own thing. I never wanted anyone to tell me what to do, which is what I told Sturgill. But I think that was ultimately why we were able to work with each other, because he understands that about me,” she says, leaving it unsaid that this understanding comes from the fact that he is not just like her but probably even more so.
Neither is shy about critiquing the president, a society which can crush the poor and powerless, or for that matter the industry. See, for example, Simpson’s protests outside the Grammys this year.
“I think there’s been a lot of people who pander for authenticity and you can never tell what the mainstream culture will swallow,” Price says. “When the underground starts becoming popular then people start copying that and you just gotta jump ship from the entire country scene for a while.”
To which you could add this from the new song Twinkle Twinkle, a pretty brutal explanation of making art in a not always receptive culture. “If it don’t break you, it might just make you rich/You might not get there/And on the way it’s a bitch.”
Such frankness isn’t always welcome of course. In another of the early singles from the new record, Stone Me, she addressed some of those who criticise her, or anyone who sticks their head above the parapet. “Love me, hate me/Desecrate me/Call me a bitch then call me baby/You don't know me/You don't own me/Yeah that's no way to stone me.”
And none of that feels throwaway.
“I just try to go with my gut, and think from my heart. Hopefully people see that most of what I’m doing is from a good place. I might not see eye to eye with everybody, and I definitely respect other people’s opinion, but maybe the thing that feels suffocating is that sometimes you want to be able to say more or do more,” says Price.
“But I don’t always say the right thing, so as you grow hopefully you know when to hold your tongue. And when to speak out.”
Sometimes it just has to be said?
“Oh yeah. Definitely when I made All American Made, nobody was thinking about making political records at that point. The timing of the [2016 presidential] election and all that gave more weight to those words and those songs, and even changed the meaning to some of them. I’m finding that even with this record.”
This is true when you realise that a line from the new album, “I'd rather stay home 'cause when I go out I wish I never did”, has a different resonance now.
“Oh definitely. And in that same song I say ‘I won’t forget what it’s like to be poor/I could be there again, that’s for sure.’ And now having been home for a year and a half and not having done any intense touring, I was really looking forward to it, really needing to, get back to work. But now everybody’s future looks uncertain.”
You have to wonder whether talented people who were already having second thoughts about a musician’s life before covid19 might now have a third thought and decisively say no, even if the romantics among us think that making and consuming art is the one thing left to us in our forced isolation.
“I think a lot of indie artists are going to be the ones that will really struggle,” says Price. “It’s already tough out there and with streaming songwriters get paid something minuscule. With the amount of money I paid to make my record, we’ll see how many people actually buy a physical copy.”
Who knows, maybe when this is over people well have a renewed appreciation for seeing and hearing music and might even, yes, pay for it, come out and see it done.
“When you are struggling to get by and you are on the bottom, and then become successful, it doesn’t mean that all your problems go away. Or that you are going to become content,” says Price. “But I would do anything right now just to play a show for people.”
Even in pyjamas.
A shorter version of this story first ran in the Sydney Morning Herald.