Published On: Wed, Mar 8th, 2017

Margo Price – New Artist Showcase

“If you live long enough,” Nashville songwriter Margo Price tells Henry Yates, “you’re gonna go through times that try who you are and test your will to live. I just happen to write about mine…”

Margo Price

Margo Price is justifiably wary of the Next Big Thing tag, and finding it hard to swallow her status as the toast of Nashville, given that all but one of the city’s labels passed on last year’s debut, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. Triumph, it seems, takes some getting used to when your proclivity is for tragedy. “I’d started thinking,” Price admits, “that we’d had so much bad luck before, that nothing was ever going to go right.”

Give Margo Price six minutes and nine seconds, and she’ll give you her life story. As the opening track of Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, Hands Of Time is a blow-by-blow account of her 33 years, with a honey-sweet vocal that can’t hide the horrors beneath.

Price agrees that it “lays it all out there” – the childhood in rural Illinois, derailed when her family lost their farm; the alcoholism; the men; the early missteps in the industry, epitomised by the incident when Price’s drink was spiked by predatory record execs. “I was really naïve at the time,” she reflects, “and I never should have let myself get to that situation where I was alone with two men I didn’t know very well.

But that was also a turning point, where I realised I can’t trust everybody. Usually, people have an ulterior motive. They want something. “It’s sad that sexual favours are exchanged to get places,” she considers. “It’s not just in the music business. It’s an ugly world out there.” At 25, Price married the guitarist Jeremy Ivey, with whom she formed the nucleus of Nashville nearlymen Buffalo Clover.

The couple’s pregnancy with twin boys in 2010 hinted happier times were to come, but tragically, one twin died from a rare heart defect two weeks after birth, sending Price – a long-time depressive – into a tailspin that led to three days at Davidson County Jail. “That was definitely the bottom,” she says. “The very bottom, there.”

Things might have played out differently, she reflects. Price was an outdoorsy child, a sometime cheerleader and a promising student, but music won out after a trip to Nashville in the early millennium.

“I remember my guidance counsellor discouraging the whole process. She just said, ‘That’s not a wise career path’. I’d been gone for five years, seven years, and people would ask me, ‘When do you think you’re gonna move back home and have a normal life, because the music thing isn’t really working out for you?’ There was a long path to finding some footing in the music business.”

Price was into her 30s when she scraped together the funds to record Midwest Farmer’s Daughter at Sun Studios. Is it a better record for her relative maturity? “Definitely. From 18 to 30 was a huge growing period. I did a lot of living in those 12 years. Y’know, I think that if you live long enough, most likely, everyone’s gonna go through hard times that really try who you are and test your will to live. I just happen to write about mine.”

Shopping the completed album across Nashville, Price collected 30 rejection slips. “I knew the record was great,” she says. “I didn’t know if it was because I didn’t fit the physical mould, or because it just wasn’t in the cards for me to be successful. I did kinda lose the faith. Some of those rejection letters stung. A lot of Nashville labels knew me from Buffalo Clover and they were like, ‘Yeah, we’re aware of what Margo is doing, we’re not interested.’”

It took ex-White Stripe Jack White – in his capacity as founder of Third Man Records – to spot what others could not. “I think Jack just liked the honesty of the record, and the fact that it wasn’t commercial country,” Price reflects. “Being on Third Man has just been such a departure from everyone else I’ve known in the music business. They’re really kind, thoughtful people. They’re not the jerks I’ve been running into for the past 10 years. They’re just super-open to letting me be myself.”

Being herself, we suggest, seems like a priority for Price. She nods: “Yeah. That’s the number-one thing I tried to focus on with this record. So many people are worried about being cool and putting on a mask.

I just didn’t have any interest in doing that. The thing that makes country music something I connect with is that you can tell a full story in just one song, and talk about the grittier side of life. I always loved George Jones and Bobbie Gentry, Waylon Jennings and, of course, Loretta Lynn.”

Her unflinching lyrics mean Price’s fans feel a sense of intimacy. “It’s odd when people come up and say, ‘Oh, I feel like I know you.’ Most of the people who reach out to me, I feel like they connect with what I’ve said. I recently met a woman in the street in Austin. She told me she’d had twins and lost both of them. Then she got a terrible illness, and she already had four other kids at home.

And she said she heard my music and decided to start living her life again. Those moments make it gratifying that I was honest about what I’ve been through. I think a lot of people are too prideful to say, ‘Look, I’ve dealt with depression and failure’. But that’s what makes us human.”

Beyond her fanbase, Price’s opinions – often highlighting the gulf between male and female expectations in modern America – have seen her dubbed as outspoken. “I think it’s very torn here right now,” she says of the post-election national mood.

“I feel like everybody’s emotions are running so high, and everybody’s so easily offended. Y’know, I’ve spoken up about things that are going wrong. And a lot of people want to tell me that I should not have an opinion, and just sing the songs and kinda shut up. It’s like they don’t realise that freedom of speech is as American as apple pie.

“The one thing we have to hold onto is that we have that freedom to say what we want and to voice our opinions,” she continues. “I think it’s really frightening that people are scared to do so, and that other people want to tell you to shut up. Because all we have is our words. I’m not gonna use violence to get people to listen to me, but I certainly think I can have an opinion, and when I get told that I can’t, it frustrates me even more.”

Which issues are most pressing to you right now? “I don’t think a lot of things are fair for women in this country. As much as we want to say, ‘Y’know, look at these other places where they treat women worse.’ Well, we still have a pay gap. There’s still a lot of things that women aren’t considered equal in. Y’know, it’s almost like we’re second-class citizens, but nobody’s talking about it. Nobody talks about that women make 78 cents to the man’s dollar, doing the same job.”

Darn That Stream
Given that Midwest Farmer’s Daughter reached #10 in the US Country album chart – even without a Hot Country hit single – you’d imagine that Price herself is solvent for the first time. Not so, she says.

“In fact, it’s very hard to make money as a musician nowadays. I just realised the other day, I’ve had over a million streams on a couple of my songs on Spotify, but when you look at my album sales, it doesn’t reflect that. People think, ‘Oh, they must be doing so well.’ But everybody streams music and nobody buys anything anymore. It’s very hard. But the plan was never to make a million dollars.”

Indeed, on Hands Of Time, Price cites her ambition as simply to “make something last”. And with early songs of this calibre – and a second studio album chalked up for release in the spring – you suspect this questing songwriter is an artist for the ages.

“I only have the ambition to put food on my table and to make great music,” she decides. “And I’m not going to sacrifice my image or my art to become a superstar, y’know, go the pop route and try to appeal to the masses. Because I think the masses are poisoned right now, anyway…”



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