Having lived through death, prison, homelessness, and drug epiphanies, Margo Price is well equipped with country music’s subject matter — but treats it without sentimentality on this new release.
Earlier this year, in a round of interviews to promote her third album, which was ultimately delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, Margo Price announced her intention to publish a memoir. On the face of it, that seems a little presumptuous. It is, after all, just four years since her debut album, “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter,” which unexpectedly crash-landed in the US country Top 10. She garnered comparisons to Bobbie Gentry and Loretta Lynn, and was placed in what’s been dubbed the “outlaw country renaissance.” The latter is a loose collection of artists reanimating the unbiddable spirit of ’70s albums by Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard, which numbers Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell among its participants, a position further cemented for Price by a duet with original outlaw Willie Nelson.
Capturing Personal Experiences Without Sentimentality
Her early breakthrough came not via the country establishment, but when she was spotted by Jack White and signed to his Third Man label. White’s endorsement helped her pick up an audience outside of the Nashville’s Music Row mainstream. Her Top 10 success was achieved without the aid of a hit single, a rare state of affairs in the world of country. Price, who ended up signing with another indie label, Loma Vista, wrote a song, “That’s How Rumors Get Started,” about that uncertainty in her career. A bittersweet, Fleetwood Mac-like ballad, it became the title track of her new album, which has a new sound, drawing on Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen. “There’s no one occupying that space right now, and so many people that are trying to do the return-to-the-roots thing, going for the authenticity card,” she says. “It’s hard to write as great as [Petty and Springsteen] did.” Her experiences fuelled the resentment detailed on the title track of “That’s How Rumors Get Started” and “Stone Me.” Her insistence that she “almost went broke from paying my dues” is one thing fuelling the lyrical angst that fills the album.
Price’s life could provide the lyrics of a country song. Her experiences were duly poured into her debut album, and evidently still haunt her. Elsewhere on “That’s How Rumors Get Started” she sings: “If it don’t break you, it might just make you rich;” on “Twinkle Twinkle,” over a rough-hewn riff with a distinct hint of Led Zeppelin in its DNA, adding, darkly, “You might not get there, and on its way it’s a bitch.”
“Ah, he just got a co-write on a song I was trying to write about him”
Relationship turmoil is a big theme. On the fiery “Letting Me Down”, Price howls over a twin-guitar riff about a lover she can’t seem to let go of. On “Stone Me,” she sings about standing her ground in an argument (“Call me a bitch, then call me baby/You don’t own me”). She says it’s partly about her husband and collaborator, Jeremy Ivey: “We’d been in a fight. I was on the road, I wrote the words and texted them to him. Without asking, he wrote a melody and he sent it back, and I was like, ‘Ah, he just got a co-write on a song I was trying to write about him.’ ” (Price also says she took inspiration from “a hack blogger that trash-talked me on a lot of forums.”)
To get the classic sound she was going for, Price recorded in LA instead of Nashville, putting together a band that included Benmont Tench of the Heartbreakers and bassist Pino Palladino. Price was nervous at first about working with those studio aces. “But once they all started playing,” she says, “it was one of the best ideas ever.”
“I won’t forget what it’s like to be poor; I could be there again, that’s for sure”
Elsewhere, there’s fear that success might be fleeting — “I won’t forget what it’s like to be poor; I could be there again, that’s for sure” — and concerns about the impact of fame on Price’s marriage and her absence from her children’s lives. These are topics she writes about sharply, with a noticeable lack of sugar-coated sentimentality. This is no mean feat when your subject is missing your kids.
To further shake things up, Price recruited her friend Sturgill Simpson to produce. She’s known Simpson for a decade, ever since he and her husband worked together at a Nashville grocery store (they both got fired) and Simpson was playing in a band called Sunday Valley. Simpson — who left country music behind last year to make a rock LP and an anime film to accompany it — was open to taking risks. “I valued his opinion because he won’t sugarcoat things,” she says. “He’s going to tell you exactly what he thinks when he thinks it. That’s probably why both him and I kind of get put on the naughty list at times.”
Lately, things are looking up: Price has been practicing outdoors with her band, and she’s hoping to play her songs at a drive-in. “If I can get a date reserved,” she adds. “I know all the corporate bloodsuckers are already on top of all that.”
But she is clearly not hidebound by Nashville’s oft-noted conservatism, and its firmly held ideas about what is and isn’t permissible. She could probably have got away with the material that leans closer to mid-’70s California than Tennessee, and possibly “What Happened to Our Love?” and “Prisoner of the Highway,” their gospel organ and backing vocals evoking the music made 50 years ago on the fault line between country and southern soul. But not “Heartless Mind,” which feels more evocative of new wave, or the second British Invasion of the early ’80s than anything else. It’s a bold step, but it works: its siren-like synth and tense rhythmic pulse are an unexpectedly appealing backdrop for Price’s voice.
Primarily, though, Price is interested in gospel music and the drama it injects into her songs. The churchly melodies and jubilant harmonies of the Nashville Friends Gospel Choir lend momentum and road-dog romance to “Prisoner of the Highway,” about the sacrifices you make as a touring musician.
After this surprise effort, it will be interesting to see where her musical career takes us next. Key tracks are “That’s How Rumors Get Started,” “Stone Me,” and “Letting Me Down.”