By Eleni P. Austin
Country Music has always been a musical genre that championed conservative standards. “God, Guns, Family And Country” seemed like an unspoken mantra, (or “motto,” since mantra sounds suspiciously foreign). Even though Country songs have traditionally focused on lyin’ cheatin’ drinkin’ and fightin,’ family values have always been an underlying theme.
Back in the ‘60s, even as he made in-roads into the insular Nashville music community, Willie Nelson still felt like an outlier. He formed a loose collective with several like-minded singer-songwriters including Tompall Glaser, Waylon Jennings and Waylon’s wife, Jessi Colter. Aptly named The Outlaws, they released one record, Wanted! The Outlaws, in 1976, that introduced some grit, swagger and Rock N’ Roll to Country music.
If there was a 21st century counterpart to the Outlaws, it would have to include Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton and Margo Price. As much as Willie, Waylon, Tompall and Jessi eschewed the big hair, spangles, sequins and rhinestones from that ‘70s era, Jason, Sturgill, Chris and Margo seem to reject the bro-tastic, beach party, sugary Pop/Country music that currently tops the charts.
Last year, it seemed like Margo Price burst out of nowhere with her solo debut, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. In reality, she had been paying her dues in Music City for nearly 15 years. Margo was born in 1983 in the small town of Aledo, Illinois. She grew up on her family farm and spent her childhood playing in bean fields and corn fields. Her family was greatly affected by the agricultural crisis that hit in the mid ‘80s and actually lost their farm. Her father had to take a job as a prison guard.
As a kid, she sang in her church choir and learned piano. She always exhibited an affinity to music, receiving her first guitar at age 13. Detours into dance and cheerleading earned her scholarship to Northern Illinois University, near Chicago. Ultimately, she decided to pursue a career in music. Dropping out of school, she made her way to Nashville.
Initially, she checked in with her Great Uncle, Bobby Fischer, a songwriter who penned hits for Conway Twitty, George Jones and Reba McEntire. After playing her nascent compositions for him, he advised Margo to get rid of her TV and any outside stimuli and just write. So that’s what she did. Working odd jobs to make ends meet, she concentrated on getting songwriting credits on Music Row. Things turned around a bit when she met songwriter and musician, Jeremy Ivey. The pair clicked professionally and personally.
After a scary (Harvey Weinstein-esque) experience with a would-be manager, Margo and Jeremy pulled up stakes and relocated to Colorado. They settled in a campground outside Boulder, and earned their keep busking in the streets. Around this time, she and Jeremy connected with multi-instrumentalist Matt Gardiner, bassist Jason White and drummer Dillon Napier. Recruiting Amaia Aguire on Keys, and returning to Nashville, they formed the Country-Soul band, Buffalo Clover.
In 2010, Margo gave birth to twin boys, Ezra and Judah. Born with a rare heart defect, Ezra only lived two weeks. His death sent Margo into a bit of a tailspin. Attempting to self-medicate, she ended up in jail for a weekend, following a drunken misdemeanor. That served as a wake-up call. She fully embraced motherhood, cut way back on the alcohol, and concentrated on honing her songwriting skills.
The adage “write what you Know” is corny, but effective. Margo knew pain and heartache and some poverty, (she and Jeremy spent one cold winter with their space heater on the bed under their blanket), so that’s what she wrote about. The couple sold their car to finance time at the venerable Sun Records recording studio. They emerged three days later with her first solo effort, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. Somehow, it came to the attention of Jack White, and he signed her to his Third Man label.
A solid debut, it drew comparisons to Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, even as Margo insisted her influences were less distaff and included songwriters like David Allen Coe and Tom T. Hall. Musically, the melodies harked back to traditional Country. Lyrically, the songs were rich and nuanced.
The opening track, “Hands Of Time,” offered A pocket history of her rural beginnings and musical aspirations, “This Town Gets Around” lays out a withering treatise on the shadier aspects of the music industry (and touched on her encounter with that would-be manager who spiked her drink). “The Weekender”is an unvarnished account of her brush with the law, following Ezra’s death.
Critical acclaim was swift and effusive. Commercial success quickly caught up, as the album debuted at #189 on Billboard’s Top 200 and vaulted into the Top 10 on the Country chart. Pretty soon Margo and her band the Price-Tags, (which includes her husband Jeremy on bass), were the musical guests on “Saturday Night Live” and “Later…With Jools Holland.” She played the Glastonbury Festival in the U.K. and the eclectic Bonaroo Festival back home.
Despite extensive touring, Margo and the band promptly returned to the studio and recorded 12 new tracks for her newly released sophomore effort, All American Made. The first three songs get the album off to a rollicking start.
Sweaty organ notes and twangy guitar open “Don’t Say It.” A Country-Soul work-out, it whips up a heady brew of jangly guitar, raucous keys, boomerang bass and a ricochet rhythm. Here Margo’s vocals shift from a girlish purr to an caustic growl as she lays down the Law; “Don’t count your money ‘til it hits the bank, don’t clear your throat if you’ve got nothing to say/If you drink all day, don’t say You love me when you treat me this way.”
“Weakness” accelerates a traditional Western Swing rhythm, layering tart pedal steel, swooping fiddle and sprightly piano. Trenchant lyrics acknowledge her quixotic behavior might be her undoing; “Sometimes I’m Virginia Woolf sometimes I’m James Dean, sometimes I’m my only friend and my worst enemy/My right hand never knows what my left one’s gonna do, but I never meant to cause the harm that I have done to you.”
Meanwhile, “A Little Pain,” explores the downside of achieving one’s dreams. Over a kick-drum beat, walking bass lines, a swoony string section, cascading pedal steel, strident piano and wily guitar licks, she concedes, “When I come home I gotta leave, my reality is only make believe/Someone said it’s one or the other, but I’m working like a mother.”
These opening tracks might give the impression that All American Made is a light-hearted romp, and certainly the World could use some easygoing music about now. But Margo never lets herself off the hook. In fact, the songs here dig deeper, managing to salt empathy, pathos, gravitas and humor into the mix
A trio of tracks, underscore the ongoing (seemingly never-ending) inequality between the sexes. “Pay Gap” is a loping, South of the Border charmer powered by sparkly dobro, Conjunto accordion and rippling mandolin. The arrangement is bookended by a slow-waltz chorus. But scathing lyrics offer this excoriating take on wage disparity; “No matter your religion, no matter your race, no matter your orientation, no matter your creed and no matter Your taste, and no matter your denomination/We’re all the same in the eyes of my God, but in the eyes of rich white men I’m no better than a maid, to be owned like a dog and a second-class citizen.”
“Wild Women” evokes comparisons to Kitty Wells’ epochal hit, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels” and Loretta Lynn’s “Honky-Tonk Girl.” Slippery pedal steel notes lap over salty fiddle, supple guitar and a Jack-Rabbit rhythm. Cogent lyrics shine a spotlight on society’s unrealistic expectations; “Riding down the highway and running through the night, it’s hard to be a mother a singer and a wife/But all the men run around, and no one bats an eye, I don’t want this trouble, but it’s all I ever find.”
Finally, “Nowhere Fast” is a Bluesy lament that tries to reconcile life as a working musician with the demands and responsibilities of motherhood and marriage. Quavery mellotron laps over sinewy guitar, descending piano notes and icky thump percussion. Chasing her dreams requires a delicate balancing act that fathers and husbands never face. An expansive Guitar solo folds into the shimmery arrangement like an aural chiaroscuro.
This album simply crackles with succinct songcraft, but the stand-out track is “Learning To Lose,” a duet with the Outlaw King himself, Willie Nelson. The lonesome melody is accented by plangent acoustic guitar, fluttery strings, high lonesome pedal steel and a laid-back groove. The pair commiserate over life’s inequities; “Everywhere I turned the cards were stacked against me, and I wondered was it bad luck or design/And all the things I’ve had to do without have been a blessing, but sometimes a blessing is a curse in disguise.” Willie rips a gut-bucket solo on his trusty stead, Trigger, and longtime compadre Mickey Raphael adds piquant harmonica fills that are equal parts wood smoke and honey. Like Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night,” this song is an instant Country classic.
Both “Heart Of America” and “Do Right By Me” recount the ‘80s agricultural crisis that subsumed small family farms. The former is anchored by a shuffle rhythm, sun dappled acoustic guitar and willowy pedal steel. The lyrics touch on the devastating loss Margo’s family endured that resulted in the creation of Farm Aid.
The latter is a blustery Country-Gospel amalgam that features call-and-response backing vocals from the McCrary Sisters Quartet. Margo knew early on that a rural existence wasn’t for her; “I knew I had to get away, so I left that one-horse town, ain’t much for a girl to do but get knocked-up and settle down/The only dream some people have Is to win the lottery, if you don’t do right by yourself, do right by me.”
Other interesting tracks include the acerbic “Cocaine Cowboys” and the potent emotional inventory of “Loner.” The album closes with the title track. Written during the Buffalo Clover era, it includes snippets of speeches from Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon and Martin Luther King, Jr. The instrumentation is spare, just jangly acoustic and reverb-drenched electric guitar. It touches on political corruption and asks tough questions; “…I wonder if the President gets much sleep at night, and if the Folks on welfare are making it all right/I’m dreaming of that highway That stretches out of sight, it’s all American made.”
A huge Tom Petty fan, she dedicated the record to him on what would have been his 67th birthday. Wholly apropos, since they feel like kindred spirits.
Margo Price may never fit the mold for mainstream Country music. Unpolished, and rough around the edges, she seems ready to take on the Nashville establishment, one record at a time.
(Margo Price will play Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace on Saturday, March 3rd, 2018).