That’s How Rumors Get Started (Loma Vista Recordings)
The ridiculousness of the very idea, let alone the reality, of the original “outlaw country” movement was that the artists so labelled – by their own publicist, who knew a good hook when she saw one, but who also could see the truth in front of her – were steeped in the traditions, the stories and the truth of country music.
Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Jessi Colter, Tanya Tucker, David Allan Coe, Mickey Newbury, some kid called Johnny Cash, and others, had grown up with the music, lived its vicissitudes, been its protagonists and antagonists (oh yes, especially its antagonists, said the suits of Nashville), played with earlier rebels – like Buck Owens – and always saw their music as country. That they drew on other styles – rockabilly and rock, gospel and pop – in some ways didn’t change the essence of their music at all.
To have them as outsiders, to force them to break away – in some cases to run across half a dozen states - for the freedom to choose what they recorded and how they did it, said everything you needed to know about the narrow thinking of the establishment. To have them then outsell “approved country” artists (the original Outlaws compilation, featuring Jennings, Nelson, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser, was the first million-selling country album ever) said everything you need to know about the stupid thinking of the establishment.
That 50 years later there’s another outlaw country movement - designated as troublemakers by the establishment; the artists choosing to be outsiders for freedom and sanity – is proof that it’s not only music styles that are cyclical, there’s also the rampant idiocy of people who judge music by its width not its depth.
Margo Price, who after two albums on the non-establishment Third Man label, is releasing her third on the still off Music Row Loma Vista Recordings (home to the likes of Iggy Pop, Australia’s Skegss, St Vincent and Soccer Mommy) and Sturgill Simpson, who produced this album, have been two of the leading “outlaws”, despite making albums which drew on some of the best elements of 100 years of country, and not incidentally sold very well and earned ultra-establishment Grammy nominations.
Both also tell truths that are sometimes must be even harder to say than to hear, like substance abuse, jail and dealing with death up close and personal, or, as on this record, the fear of losing your relationship through mistake or misjudgement rather than misbehaviour.
And both have now made records which threw the genre tiles in the air and let them fall where they may, broadening the scope of country but also not running away from interests elsewhere.
That’s How Rumors Get Started draws freely from ‘70s rock and pop for its melodies, has a synth-propelled ‘80s pop moment which might accompany someone’s need for speed and crunches its guitars in chunky metallic mode (two styles which bring to mind Simpson’s last album), and it rises righteously in moments of gospel (which Price has said is likely to be the style of her next album).
But Price roots everything in a natural country mode, making the lines between genres indistinct so that the rousing southern blend of Hey Child can simultaneously sound like The Band and Jessi Colter, and the slow-dance teardrop of What Happened To Our Love touches both Dolly Parton and Wilco, before suddenly taking off like the Rolling Stones at their holiest.
Even Gone To Stay, which opens with a country-rock shuffle that suggests beardy men in wide denim and coke spoons, finds Price offering a melody that feels as homespun as a 1950s sitcom, before it resolves in a honky tonk bar.
So it’s not easily slotted into a box, because it doesn’t stay in one place long enough to be. It doesn’t pretend to be classicist with its instrumentation or plugged into this year’s sound, preferring instead to punch cleanly in the production but make sonics secondary to the experience.
It’s not even easily identified as political or angry, two words which work as insults if your label job is about the spreadsheets, because even though Price remains as capable of pungent lines as ever (the twin critiques of exploiters and resisters in the music industry – Twinkle Twinkle and Stone Me – are brutally sharp) and is conscious of how she, like many Americans, is but one medical emergency, one bastard act of Congress, away from poverty again, she confuses the issue by couching some of her hardest lines in the softest tunes.
There’s a sense of American music telling American stories, with sympathy and empathy rather than myth and dishonesty. That it comes off comes down to good writing – it has to – not “appropriate” behaviour. What madness that that still makes you an outlaw.
Ah well, she’s in good company.