Artist To Watch: Margo Price
Lots of people live through hard times, but few get as many good songs out of it as Margo Price. She has survived her share of trials and tragedies, but the Nashville up-and-comer understands that the best country music transforms such tribulation into triumph. On her solo debut, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, out in March, she never whines about her lot, nor does she sound self-absorbed. Instead, her tough-minded songs emphasize the lessons she has learned, the wisdom she has gained, the strength she has found to keep on keepin’ on.
But damn, Price has been through the wringer. She lays it all out on Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, starting with opener “Hands Of Time,” which details one tragedy after another until the run of epic bad luck sounds insurmountable. Her father loses the family farm. She shacks up with a married man. She gets robbed by one manager, exploited by another. She gets crushed in the wheels of the Nashville music industry. She goes to prison. She loses a baby. “All I wanna do is make a little cash, ’cause I’ve worked all the bad jobs, bustin’ my ass” she sings, and the cold pragmatism of the goal is as jolting as the hard clarity of her voice. “I wanna buy back the farm, bring my mama home some wine, and turn back the clock on the cruel hands of time.”
It’s taken Nashville a while to catch on. Price has been a local fixture for more than a decade, playing open-mic nights before starting a few rock and soul bands. But she didn’t find her voice until she embraced country music, and even then it took her a while. But now, after years on the fringes, Price emerges as a road-hardened heroine on “About To Find Out” and “Hurtin’ (On The Bottle).” She nurses a broken but unvanquished heart on “Since You Put Me Down,” and recounts an eventful weekend in real-life prison on “Weekender.”
It’s all true, of course, but what’s more important than truth is the way she turns it into bold country music. Price has a powerful voice: rough around the edges like Loretta Lynn, but soulful like George Jones. She has a knack for plainspoken poetry that recalls early Lucinda Williams, back when she was still driving gravel roads around the Deep South. But Price possesses a wryness all her own, presumably cultivated during countless nights on cramped stages at half-empty honkytonks trying to keep the attention of half-drunk audiences.
Price recorded Midwest Farmer’s Daughter at the legendary Sun Studio in Memphis, then sent it around to every label big and small in town. No one bit, until the folks at Jack White’s Third Man Records heard it and signed her as the label’s first country artist. Especially after the success of Simpson, Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Kacey Musgraves, and other left-of-center country singers, Price is poised to be the biggest Nashville breakthrough of 2016, with a fierce and fiery no-fucks-given debut that tweaks country’s hard-drinkin’, hard-livin’, hard-playin’ conventions.
STEREOGUM: How long have you have you been playing the songs on Midwest Farmer’s Daughter?
PRICE: A couple of them I’ve had hanging around for three or four years. “Hurtin'” was written quite a while ago. It was a single we put out. “Since You Put Me Down” was written a couple of years ago as well. And then I guess the rest were written within the last two years. We recorded the album last February, but I’ve been playing music and pursuing this crazy career for about 12 years or so. They say it’s a five-year town, but I’ve been here for 12 or more.
STEREOGUM: That’s something that comes through on the album, especially on a song like “This Town Gets Around” and “Weekender.” You describe some very hard times, but it’s clear that you gained some wisdom from those experiences.
PRICE: I really wouldn’t have it any other way. If things had happened really easily right off the bat, I don’t know that I would have been as proud of my work. I’d be stuck singing stuff that I didn’t want to sing. I was still learning how to write, and I had no idea how the music business worked in any shape or form. So it really has been quite the learning experience.
STEREOGUM: Country music seems like it does that kind of thing very well. Is that what attracted you to the genre?
PRICE: I grew up listening to country music. I’m from a really small town and everybody there drives trucks. They’re all farmers. It was the ’90s, so it was a little better back then than it is now, with Garth Brooks and all that stuff. I got into folk music and was doing solo acoustic singer-songwriter stuff when I moved to Nashville. I go out and do the open-mic nights. They went well, but I felt like it would be a lot easier to get people to listen to me if I had a band. And then I got into the Kinks and the Stones, so I started trying to play rock ‘n’ roll. But it seemed no matter what I did and what kind of song I wrote, we always got classified as country because of the way my voice sounds. One of the last albums I made with Buffalo Clover was intended to be a soul record, but everybody categorized it as “alternative country.” No, there are horns on there! Also, I’ve got a great uncle who lives here in town named Bobby Fischer, and he has been here for decades writing for all the greats. He wrote for Conway Twitty and George Jones and Tanya Tucker and Reba. I tried to go in a different direction because I didn’t want to do what my family was telling me to do. So I went to the extreme and tried to play rock ‘n’ roll, but it didn’t always come off.
So it just seemed like a natural thing to do to go back to square one. I love to listen to traditional country music. That’s where I get a lot of inspiration. But you don’t want to regurgitate something that somebody else has already done. Maybe some traditionalists would say this isn’t country, but I think the album is a good mix of a lot of things coming together. A lot of that is my band and what they’re doing behind me. I wrote “Hands Of Time” by myself with just a guitar, but my drummer and my bass player did something that makes it really special to me. If I had had the songs to record the album a year earlier, it would have turned out completely different, because I might have hired session musicians. But I ended up finding all these guys who love the music and aren’t as concerned with collecting 50 or 100 bucks after every gig.
STEREOGUM: Tell me about recording at Sun Studio. Why did you want to make this album in Memphis rather than Nashville?
PRICE: There are so many great spaces to record here in Nashville. There are home studios everywhere you look, right on our street, and I’ve recorded at a lot of studios in town over the past decade. But I’ve always felt like an outcast in Nashville. I was traveling through Memphis on my way to Texas, and we did the Sun tour and I met the engineer there, Matt Ross-Spang. We just clicked immediately. Memphis has this underdog thing going, and I really related to that. There’s just a grit to Memphis that is unique. Recording there felt really natural, so I’m happy we did it. Also, everybody at the time was going to Muscle Shoals. That was the thing to do. I just wanted to do something completely different. I wanted to chart my own path.
Matt Ross was there engineering at the time, and he knew we didn’t have a huge budget. But he gave us a great deal and he worked his butt off to make sure we made the best record. I want to go back there and make my next one. There are so many great little spots around town, like Ernestine & Hazel’s. I love the jukebox in there. And they just opened up the Sam Phillips Recording Studio, which was supposed to be his opus but it didn’t do as well as he thought it would. Of course, he recorded some amazing people there, like Etta James, but it didn’t do that well. It’s been shut down for a long time, but they’ve restored it. It’s just really cool to see things coming back alive in Memphis. I hope it continues.
STEREOGUM: How you ended up on Third Man?
PRICE: After I recorded the album, I started reaching out to all sorts of Americana labels. I’d been talking to major labels, too. But it just seemed like nobody wanted to commit to anything. I heard through the grapevine that Third Man was interested in what I was doing, and my friend told me I needed to send them my record. This is after I had literally been through the gauntlet with every label in town. So I thought I’d give it a shot. It just seemed like a very natural progression of things. Third Man is so creative and weird. Even their office is different. It’s not like going up to one of the major labels and sitting down in a room that looks like a hotel. I immediately felt at home, and everyone was so nice. Plus, they didn’t want me to change the record. They’ve been nothing but kind to me. I don’t know where I’d be if that hadn’t happened. I might be in Memphis.
STEREOGUM: But there does seem to be a sea change happening in Nashville right now, where a lot of acts that might have been ignored by the mainstream are getting a lot of attention, like Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton.
PRICE: There have been some good things going on here, but for the most part it looked pretty dismal in terms of real music. Now it seems that people are really hungry for something different. I wonder if maybe this isn’t the natural progression: Things are bubblegum, candy-coated for a while, and then things change. If you don’t have that side of the coin, you can’t appreciate real music when you hear it. You can’t have mountains without valleys. There are all kinds of analogies for it, I guess. But I think genuine music and genuine art always have the capacity to do great things. It’s amazing to see someone like Chris Stapleton win CMAs and blow everybody away. He just seems so genuine and honest, and it makes me really happy that I never compromised what I’m doing to fit with the mainstream. I’ve seen people do that. My husband and I had the opportunity to write some stuff for other people. We both tried it. I think it lasted about two weeks, and we both felt ridiculous. It just didn’t work for us. I’m not knocking anybody who does that kind of music. There’s obviously an audience for it. But it didn’t feel right to me, so I couldn’t make myself do it.
STEREOGUM: The songwriting on this album really does sound very personal, very autobiographical, very lived in. Is that why you chose “Hands Of Time” as the opener?
PRICE: We went back and forth between that and two other tracks. “Hands Of Time” is really long and it’s not necessarily straightforward country. Some people think you can’t start out with something that’s not fast or catchy, but the folks at Third Man really pushed me to put that as my first song. I wrote it all by myself, and it lays out very honestly how my life has been thus far. It’s my favorite thing on the album. I love how it turned out, so I’m glad it ended up kicking things off. I felt like if you can get through that, then you’re going to enjoy the rest of the album. And it’s all true. Really the whole album ended up being sort of a concept album about my life. I didn’t intend to do that when we started off, but after I listened to the whole thing, I realized that’s how it turned out. It’s about different years and different time periods I’ve had in my life.
STEREOGUM: That song lays out so much bad stuff you’ve been through. What is it like to sing it every night in front of an audience?
PRICE: I’ve sung that song for a couple of live crowds, but because the album’s not out yet, I haven’t wanted to play it every night. I do it when I feel like the crowd is attentive and not drunk and when I feel like they can handle it. It’s not really a song that I can play for just anybody. Sometimes you’re on the road and you’re playing some honkytonk and it’s late and everybody’s half in the bag. But when I do get a chance to play it, it can be very emotional. I have to channel that emotion and that energy so I can focus on delivering it. I can’t think to deeply on it because … well, there have been times when it was hard to get all the words out.
STEREOGUM: It’s impressive that you can write a song like that without sounding like you’re whining or wallowing or exploiting these tragedies. It’s almost triumphant in a way.
PRICE: For a long time I struggled with a lot of things, and it really is easy to feel sorry for yourself when something bad happens. There’s a quote I love from Mark Twain, and I’m paraphrasing here, but it goes something like, Being a martyr carries a multitude of sins. Other people have been through hard times as well. That’s what I’ve learned the longer I’ve lived. Everybody has been through something really traumatic. So you just have to keep going. “Hands Of Time” was a kind of therapy for me. It felt good to get it out and look at everything pragmatically and say this is what happened and this is where I am now.
STEREOGUM: And it sounds like you can turn those experiences into something good. You can make country music out of them.
PRICE: Exactly. It’s the fodder for a really good song. There have been other things along the way, like trouble with the law, but if I can at least get a poem out of it, then it doesn’t feel like such a band way to spend my life. Not that I want bad things to happen. It’s going to be interesting now that some things are going well. We’ll see what I have to write about.
STEREOGUM: Do you feel like things are picking up?
PRICE: I’ve been an underdog my whole life. So this is different. I really do believe in the album. I knew when I made it that I was going to be proud of it and hopefully it would do something. It’s been an uphill climb for the past twelve years, but you get these glimmers of hope every now and then that keep you going. You have that one little thing on the agenda, and when it’s over you’re like, What’s next to look forward to? So this is a complete change, and it’s so nice. I’m not used to feeling so much happiness all at once.
Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is out 3/25 via Third Man.