Margo Price: Diamond in the Rough
The rising Nashville star mines the bruising truth of her past for refreshingly real-life lyrics—songs that recall the best of what country music can be
photo: David McClister
You can get Margo Price’s life story in a number of ways. One is by sitting with her at an East Nashville café where, this being East Nashville, the place will be crowded with musicians both aspiring and established—among them the avant-pop guitarist Robyn Hitchcock, who will swing by to say hello. Price’s many tattoos, you can’t help noticing, lend her biography a kind of picture-book quality, the designs on her skin often illustrating the milestones she’s recounting. A giant buffalo skull adorning her left thigh, for example, commemorates Buffalo Clover, the now-defunct Nashville band she cofounded (“I joked that the name of the tattoo should be Buffalo Over, but it’s really pretty”). She points to the word BEAT, inked onto her left wrist: “I should’ve gotten beatnik, probably, but I was into reading a lot of Jack Kerouac and the beat poets. I have a music note on my finger that I traded a piece of weed for.” She laughs. “Some guy did it in his kitchen.” And then there’s her left shoulder, all but covered by a mystical-looking tree upon which three birds are perched. She pauses. “This one I got shortly after I lost Ezra,” she says. Ezra was one of the twin boys Price gave birth to in 2010; born with a rare heart defect, he lived only two weeks. “It’s called the Birds of Rhiannon, a Celtic symbol that I found in a book. The birds were said to wake the dead with their song, and they could lull the living to sleep. I’d rock Judah”—the surviving twin—“every night, singing him to sleep, and there were three birds in the tree, so it was like the three of us.”
photo: David McClister
But another way to get that thirty-four-year-old life story—the best way—is to listen to Margo Price’s songs. This is ideally done live—she’s a fierce performer, with a lemony voice that doesn’t just slice through barroom chatter but can silence it midsentence. Failing that, put on one of her albums: her highly acclaimed 2016 debut, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, or her latest, All American Made, which comes out in October. The sound on both is vintage country—Telecaster twang, smears of pedal steel—but not replica country; there’s no glaze of musical nostalgia, in fact no glaze whatsoever. Queue up her songs while you’re alone in your car, say, with no particular place to be, or wherever you’ve got space to focus not just on Price’s singing but on what she’s singing. Because the story Margo Price has to tell is an intense, turbulent one, a story rife with heartache and grit, and it’s one she tells true.
Here’s how she kicks off “Hands of Time,” her debut album’s lead track:
When I rolled out of town on the unpaved road
I was fifty-seven dollars from being broke
Kissed my mama and my sisters and I said goodbye
And with my suitcase packed I wiped the tears from my eyes
From here the song goes on to chronicle, with that same fifty-seven-dollar degree of granular detail, the full life and times of Margo Rae Price of Aledo, Illinois. It’s as close to memoir as you can get holding a guitar, the lyrics encompassing her father’s loss of the family farm, her grueling apprentice years in Nashville, her volatile romances with men and alcohol, even the devastation of losing a child.
The song’s mighty success—Rolling Stone deemed it the Best Country Song of 2016—might therefore seem counterintuitive. It’s not just autobiographical; it’s autobiography. The details Price provides aren’t like the list poetry that dominates country radio: cultural identity shout-outs to back roads, truck beds, cutoffs, and cold beer. They’re the particulars of her life. The way the song’s been embraced can even seem counterintuitive, at times, to Price herself: “It’s still so surprising when I see people singing along to ‘Hands of Time’ at my shows because it’s such a personal song,” she admits. “But there’s lines in there everyone can relate to. Like working shitty jobs, and not being able to know what’s happening in the future, and not being able to change your past. And everyone goes through losing someone.”
Margo Price is petite, with flowing blond hair and delft blue eyes and a nose bearing subtle evidence of the several times it’s been broken—most recently, and perhaps befitting the coauthor of a song called “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle),” via an alcohol-fueled collision with a belt buckle. She has a wry smile that often starts at the corner of her mouth, though on this particular morning in East Nashville, that smile is harder for her to muster: She’d missed Judah’s seventh birthday to perform at the prestigious Glastonbury Festival, in England, but as she was preparing to host a belated party for him, she got word of a close friend’s sudden death. Grief and maternal guilt hover close. While the grief is fresh, the guilt is long simmering. “I remember when I got pregnant, I had several peers of mine, women, who said to me, ‘Now that you’re pregnant, you’re probably gonna give up the music thing, right?’” she recalls. She lets out an acid laugh. “I was like, ‘I’m not crippled, I’m just having a baby.’
“No one ever asks that of men,” she goes on. “I’m sure that men who travel miss their children equally, no doubt about it. But it’s insane, the double standard. ‘Wild Women,’ on the new record, that’s totally what it talks about. Men can go out and do this, but for some reason it’s so edgy when a woman does it. And I’m still struggling with this. Emmylou Harris probably missed a birthday here and there—she had kids. I’m sure Loretta Lynn missed some birthdays. And it’s so hard because I feel so much guilt about it anyway, but I’ve got to put food on the table.”
Struggling to put food on the table, and bucking the chauvinism of the record industry (and the larger culture), have been hallmarks of Price’s long, slow rise toward country stardom. She was born and raised in Aledo (population 3,516), where her mother was a teacher and her father took a job as a prison guard after losing the family farm the very same year John Mellencamp released “Rain on the Scarecrow,” which lamented the tide of farm foreclosures. She got her first guitar soon after the eighth grade, and, aside from a digression into dance and cheerleading that earned her a scholarship to Northern Illinois University, that guitar’s neck pointed the way toward her future. She dropped out of college at twenty and, with those fifty-seven dollars in her purse, made the archetypal move to Nashville in 2003.
It wasn’t as crazy as it sounded. The singer Suzy Bogguss had made that exact Aledo-to-Nashville passage a generation earlier, and she’d climbed high on the country charts. Plus, Price didn’t just have family in Nashville but also family on Music Row: Her great-uncle Bobby Fischer is a veteran songwriter best known for cowriting Reba McEntire’s “You Lie.” “My mom kind of thought he’d just put the pieces in place,” Price recalls. “‘Oh, Uncle Bob, he’ll sort it out.’ I played a few songs for him, and he just sat there real quiet for a long time, and then he said, ‘This is what you gotta do. You gotta get rid of your TV, get rid of your radio, get rid of your computer. Just write. Just keep writing.’ It was his way of telling me my songs weren’t good enough. It broke my heart, but it was so true.”
Taking her uncle’s advice might’ve improved her writing but didn’t ease her life. She strung together paychecks however she could: waitressing, teaching dance, installing vinyl siding. She wrote songs and sang them wherever anyone let her. She happened into a few bad men—including a sleazy prospective manager who spiked her drinks, something Price alludes to in her song “This Town Gets Around”—and then a good one who happened to be married. His name was Jeremy Ivey, he played bass, and before long the two of them started a band. They drifted out to Boulder, Colorado, busking on the streets and living in a tent, before the cold shooed them back to Nashville, where they got married. But the cold remained a problem: “We were so poor we could barely eat,” she says, “and we couldn’t get heat because the gas company wanted a seven-hundred-dollar deposit or something.” They spent nights shivering beside a space heater, eating shoplifted sandwiches, and noodling on guitars. “There were times when we were like, ‘What other skills do we have?’”
Becoming pregnant, in 2010, snapped some things together, but losing one of the babies blew it all apart. She sank into a spiritual morass. “I was just unable to cope,” she says. “The hospital offered me therapy and pills, and I turned it down. I self-medicated with whatever was around.” Whatever was around tended to come from Main Street Liquor, and a wreck under the influence landed Price in the Davidson County jail. Imprisonment was a wake-up call, writ large, but while it exerted a kind of chiropractic readjustment on Price’s personal and artistic life (she pulled back on the drinking and mined the experience for a stunner of a song called “Weekender”), her career track stayed just as mired. She recalls playing a show in Macon, Georgia, for an audience of five people and a cardboard cutout of Kenny Chesney. Nevertheless, she persisted. “There was just something inside of me,” she says. “I’m just stubborn as hell.”
To record Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, she and Ivey sold their car and pawned her wedding ring to afford the time at Memphis’s iconic Sun Studio—a gamble that, for a while, looked headed for a bust. No one in Nashville wanted anything to do with the album. “It wasn’t just labels,” she recalls, frustration tightening her voice. “I couldn’t get a booking agent. I couldn’t get management. I couldn’t get a publishing deal. One of the labels said, ‘Yeah, we already have two girls on our label, so we’re going to have to pass on Margo.’” The one outfit that didn’t pass was one that, by most measures, shouldn’t even have considered it: Third Man Records, the indie rock label founded by Jack White. Midwest Farmer’s Daughter was the label’s first country album. Fueled by media buzz and critical praise, it debuted in Billboard’s country top ten, the first album by a solo female artist to do so without a hit single igniting its rise. The country music establishment had flipped her the bird; now Price got to flip it back. Within a few weeks she was performing on Saturday Night Live.
An NPR reviewer crisply summarized her music’s appeal: “What she’s putting out there is powerful and rings true.” (That NPR took heed of it sent a signal in itself, inducting Price into a circle of literary songwriters that includes Jason Isbell and her former bandmate Sturgill Simpson.) Peter Cooper, senior director of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and the author of Johnny’s Cash and Charley’s Pride, says Price’s story reminds him of the country legend Tom T. Hall. Hall was scraping by as a songwriter when his wife urged him to write from experience. The song that emerged, “A Week in a Country Jail,” was about precisely that: seven days Hall spent in a Kentucky jail. It became his first number-one hit. “What he found was that specificity was a nudge toward universality,” Cooper says, then pivots to Price. “She writes about experiences peculiar to herself, but when she flips those into song, they reveal something about ourselves. People respond to that depth and realness.”
The same depth and realness bleed into All American Made. The new album is a broader, more boisterous effort, with accordion fills and organ swirls and a gospel choir rounding out the arrangements (and Willie Nelson joining in for a duet), but Price’s lyrics and delivery remain grounded in experience, pebbled with real life. She revisits her father’s loss of the family farm on “Heart of America.” She breathes righteous fire on a song called “Pay Gap,” railing against inequity in women’s earnings, then confronts that more particular strain of sexism that “Wild Women” addresses, singing, “It’s hard to be a mother, a singer, and a wife / But all the men, they run around, and no one bats an eye.” But these lines, from “Do Right by Me,” can’t help but stand out starkly: “Some people climb a ladder ’til they end up at the bottom, spending all their precious time on money, fame, and stardom,” she sings. “But all I ever wanted was my own song to sing.” She’s got that song now, and many more with it. And those songs, like her tattoos, seem here to stay.
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