MARGO PRICE KNOWS HER WORTH
By Norman Warwick
Now four years in the music spotlight, Margo Price (left) is not sure how to summarise the whole experience. ´I´ve been frustrated,´ Margo admits, speaking to Esquire magazine, via Zoom, about her experience with the mainstream country music establishment. ´She speaks of the racism, the sexism, the ageism and the gatekeepers that flag anybody. Those are kind of big topics to tackle but being willing to tackle big topics has always been seen as one of Price’s most wonderful calling cards. She does this through her music, on social media, and in interviews, but she clearly feels that she similarly vocal artists, have all too frequently been locked out of the genre’s awards shows and radio rotations.
´It’s like getting your name on the communist list,´ she says.
Mimicking the perceived industry response, she adds: ´Alright, you’re a troublemaker. We want to keep these ideals out of our organizations.´
In the years since, Margo has toured with the likes of Chris Stapleton and Willie Nelson, collaborated with greats like John Prine, and released a massively lauded follow-up, 2017’s All American Made.
She was a good friend with Justin Townes Earle, the successful musician son of country rocker Steve Earle who was named after his father´s friend, the late great Townes Van Zandt.
Sadly we learned the news of Justin´s sad death, at the age of only 38, just a few hours prior to posting this piece. Margo Price wrote: ´sending love and condolences to Steve Earle and the entire family of Justin Townes Earle… he was always kind to me and he’s gone too soon ´.
Of her several albums, That’s How Rumors Get Started, released in July, is perhaps her most, punchy, raucous, and rocking, work yet, so clearly the frenzied media debates about the right classification of her previously released music has not phased her:
´The idea of success and money will poison your creative process´, she says. ´I still look at myself like this outcast and an underdog.´
If anything, the attention has culled waves of disillusionment. Almost as soon as Price arrived on the scene she became a lightning rod in the ever-raging, and ever tiresome, debate over what constitutes real country music.
The tone of her first two albums — socially conscious folk rock with a honky tonk kick, says Esquire — has enjoyed a renaissance of late as artists like herself as well as Kacey Musgraves, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Chris Stapleton have all gained acclaim.
´I feel like everybody is trying to make a throwback country record right now´, she says of the crowding. ´I’ve been doing that for years at this point.´
Their creations, full of well-worn sounds and heaping amounts of soul, stand in stark opposition to the over-cooked nothingburgers that currently dominate airwaves. That sentence by the interviewer, and writer of this Esquire piece, seems to tell us right there what she thinks constitutes real country. In fact ´nothingburgers´ has just become one of my favourite pejoratives !
Madison Vain, author of the piece, is a writer and editor living in New York, covering music, books, TV, and movies; prior to Esquire, she worked at Entertainment Weekly and Sports Illustrated.
Each of Musgraves, Isbell, Simpson and Stapleton have, as too has Price, stood as ´heir apparent´ as the next saviour of country music, but none have been welcomed by radio programmers.
I feel like I ought to interject here, to say that BBC Radio 2 presenter Bob Harris has always, and did at the time of Margo´s break-through, and no doubt always will, champion artists who wear their heart on their sleeves and tell it like it is. I remember how he played the hell out of Price and Musgraves.
Nevertheless, Madison Vain laments the fact that Luke Bryan earned his 25th (!) No.1 cut this week with “One Margarita,” which includes the visual, “Tiki bars tik’n, pouring all weekend/Clouds ain’t leakin’ no rain.” That Price instead writes, beautifully, about topics like the gender wage gap and the plight of small-time farmers all but signed her airplay death certificate.
´It doesn’t bother me that they don’t like me, though,´ Price assured her interviewer ´I knew that going into it.´
Leaving the ´country´, then, was easy. And That’s How Rumors Gets Started is unmistakeably a rock n’ roll mission statement.
´Change is good,´ Margo says. ´When you do the same thing over and over, you’re going to get the same outcome. My goal is to transform´.
The up-tick in energy is immediately palpable as songs like Letting Me Down, a chugging kiss-off for someone who has a knack for inspiring disappointment, Heartless Mind, which shreds a selfish lover, and the soulful Prisoner Of The Highway—her howl at the call of a life spent on the road—leap out of the speaker.
´I went into the studio wanting to get out of that country realm,´ she explained to Madison. Pausing at her own video feed, she adds, with a laugh, ´I say that as I’m still wearing a cowboy hat´. Plus, she adds, ´I never wanted to fit in with any of them anyway. I’ll say whatever the fuck I want to say, and that’s that´.
Everything that followed, however, proved difficult.
Madison Vain tells us thatThat’s How Rumours Get Started is, ´without question, one of the best sets of music that 2020 will witness´. But as the new album loomed, Price found herself battling ´the baby blues´ after the birth of her new daughter, Ramona Lynn, and even the COVID-19 pandemic. Her husband, musician Jeremy Ivey, fell gravely ill this Spring.
´I really didn’t know if he was going to make it,´ she says, now on the other side. ´There were days when he just looked so bad´.
The hospital turned Ivey, who has cerebral palsy and is borderline diabetic, away each of the three times he appeared, claiming his condition didn´t warrant admitting. At the same time, Price was experiencing what she describes now as ´bad, blackout dizzy spells´ while her daughter, still shy of a year, kept getting sick.
´It’s really scary out there´, she says matter-of-factly. ´We don’t have a general practitioner and in times like this, it’s like, ‘why don’t we just have a regular doctor that we can go see?´
The album’s epic closer, I’d Die For You, which begs for better for all of humanity, wasn’t written in that moment, but it could have been.
“Everyone is struggling with healthcare and gentrification´, the singer says. ´These are very strange times´.
She then adds, ´Some learn hate that others teach´, quoting the song by way of explanation. ´That line has really been sitting with me lately. It’s the way the world has always been—and there are always going to be people that are good and are trying to fight it´.
For the first time in a long time, Price saw spring from her Nashville home this year. The last half-decade has seen her maintain a non-stop tour schedule, but as the outbreak of COVID-19 side-lined the live music industry, waylaying countless stopovers and shows, she was forced to stay put. Now on the winning side of several health scares, she’s found a modicum of peace.
´I’m missing the road´, she says. ´I am wishing that I could be working, but I’m enjoying everything that I can. I walk and run every day; I’m always seeing different flowers popping up´.
It’s a continuation of the sense of calm that enveloped the recording process of That’s How Rumors Get Started. A few months before getting in the studio, Price was surprised to learn she was pregnant with Ramona Lynn, her third child. The alignment of timing soon felt inevitable.
´I found myself really using it to my benefit´, she says. ´I knew that I was going to be really clear-headed. I knew that I was able to solely focus on growing a human and making music. I was home more, and I could focus on getting everything perfect´.
Price and her husband became parents for the first time in 2010 to twin boys, Ezra and Judah. But, as long-time fans will know, Ezra died of a heart complication just two weeks following his birth. Hands of Time, off Midwest Farmer’s Daughter meditates explicitly on the experience, but the sorrow, and the destructive tendencies that followed in grief, bleed throughout the rest of the LP too.
A loop gets closed, beautifully, with the release of a single, Gone To Stay, a swirling rumination on leaving her heart behind at home with her children while she sets out on tour. Price said she was inspired by fabled tracks like Bob Dylan’s Forever Young and Neil Young’s My Boy.
She recalls: ´I just kept thinking, ‘Okay, I have a son here. I need to write something for him.’ As I was finishing it, I got pregnant, and it became [a note] to both of my children´.
When it came to who was handling the sound board, Price called on Simpson, her long time friend and fellow musical shape-shifter.
The 42-year-old Kentuckian first made headlines in 2014 with his psych-meets-traditional country LP, Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, and he’s stayed there as his ensuing two albums—plus one anime film—ripped through a variety of rock and blues influences. His bona fides as a producer are equally compelling: Just peep the recent releases from Tyler Childers.
´There was no doubt we were going to make an album together´, says Price of eventually linking up, though it didn’t happen perhaps as early as Simpson might have hoped.
´He approached me about producing All American Made,´ she recalls. Feeling confident from having tested much of that set’s fare on the road, she declined in favour of placing herself at the helm.
That changed here. And that Simpson was so familiar with her songbook—the two first began playing shows together a decade ago—proved a win. Hey Child, a chest-thumping rallying cry for, as she says, ´people to get their shit together, in one way or another´, is nearly as old their friendship.
´That was our closer in our rock n’ roll band years ago´, she remembers. He asked her to work it in.
´Humour me,´ Price recalls Simpson saying. After initially resisting, its inclusion soon became obvious.
She says, with a laugh: ´Everybody in the studio was like, ‘This is a great tune! What’s up with this one?’ I’m like, ‘Ugh, it’s old—this old thing´.
For both artists, fame has proved its own sort of anti-muse; something to lash out at. For Simpson, it was strewn across 2019’s blistering Sound & Fury LP. For Price, it’s here, on the sauntering Twinkle Twinkle.
´We do definitely have some rants´, she says of their agreement on the topic.
´He didn’t have a manager forever. He’s like, ‘You need to do it. You need to fire everyone working for you. You’re going to save so much money.’ I was like, ‘I don’t know about that. What do I do when I have a question about something?’” His response? ´Just ask me. Every question, I’ll charge you a dollar´.
That’s one piece of advice she didn’t take. ´Well, I got a lot of questions´, she quips.
Price had initially planned May 2019 for release, but with her daughter arriving just a month later, she pushed it back to that fall, which, soon also became impossible as Price found herself between label contracts. Her last two releases came via Jack White’s Third Man Records, but she recorded her latest totally on her own before finding a business partner.
´I wanted to do what I did the first time around,´ she explained to Esquire, referencing the three-day session in which she laid down Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, unattended. Shooting off a flare gun in hope, she and her husband pawned her wedding ring and sold her car to foot that bill.
´I wanted to make my creative peace´, she says now, “and not have anyone from a label sitting there and giving me their opinion on songs or mixes. I just wanted to make a record, then find the best place for it´.
Affording studio time is, thankfully, no longer an issue, so in December of 2018, she decamped to East/West studios in Los Angeles on her own dime. And, inclined to stick with an indie, the set will through Loma Vista Recordings, home of St. Vincent, Iggy Pop, and the Avett Brothers.
As this spring dawned, so did uncertainty as tour dates were wiped out and Ivey fell ill. Margo moved the album once more, to July 2020, which is when it has, at long last, arrived. As concert halls remain closed and the pandemic still rages, the future for the industry remains shrouded in mystery.
But Price is resolute: ´I [feel] like, ‘I’ve got to get this out,’ no matter what happens, if I’m touring or if I’m at home, I’m still a writer and I’m still a musician. That’s never going to be taken away´.