THE WORLD ACCORDING TO MARGO PRICE

  • Around this time in 2015, life looked a lot different for Margo Price. She’d yet to sign to Third Man Records, and her debut solo album, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, wouldn’t come out for close to a year. The thought of performing on Saturday Night Live was more pipe dream than possibility. Even the prospect of paying rent on time was, at times, hard to fathom.
          But now, as Price sits in a booth at East Nashville restaurant El Jaliciense, realized dreams are part of her everyday life. In a few hours, Price will head back home to finish packing for a string of dates on her Nowhere Fast headlining tour; at 3 a.m., she’ll hop on a bus headed for Indianapolis. Life has changed dramatically, and Price is doing her best to enjoy the ride.
          “I feel like people want to hear a Cinderella story, but in a way it kind of is, just to be able to buy a house,” she says, over guacamole and tacos. “I remember a time when, not too long ago, my husband and I were staying in a duplex over on Parthenon Avenue and we didn’t have money to pay the gas deposit, so we didn’t have heat all winter. We definitely spent plenty of time scrounging for meals. It feels good. I mean, I’m gone all the time and I miss my friends a lot, but my band mates are my friends. We definitely have fun while we’re doing it. It has been a whirlwind.”
          While attention snowballed for Price after the release of Midwest Farmer’s Daughter in March of 2016, that success was a long time coming for her and husband/collaborator Jeremy Ivey. Born in Illinois, Price, now 35, moved to Nashville at age 20, hoping, as so many who pack up and head to town do, to make it as a country musician. And like so many, she picked up odd jobs for a while, scraping work and rent money together while spending as much time as possible writing and playing music.
          During that time, she met Ivey, and the pair worked on music together, playing in bands and bars while trying to break into Nashville’s notoriously difficult country music industry. In 2010, they welcomed twins, Judah and Ezra, and after Ezra’s death from a rare heart condition, Price’s own physical and emotional condition began to deteriorate rapidly. She found a coping mechanism in alcohol, which eventually culminated in Price spending a weekend in jail, after getting a DUI. She sought help in therapy and began rebuilding, and songs began to pour out.
          It wasn’t much later that Price started work on what would become Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. The album, which she completed before shopping it around to labels in Nashville, was Price’s first proper solo effort, preceded by her work in bands including Secret Handshake and Buffalo Clover. It wasn’t until Third Man head Jack White got a hold of the album, though, that Price found a label that truly got what she was trying to do, and would let her do just that, no questions asked.
          By Midwest Farmer’s Daughter’s release in early 2016, there was already buzz around Price, at the time the lone country artist on a label known primarily for rock. The album, buoyed by the strength of single “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle),” received wide, rapturous acclaim, from Rolling Stone to The New Yorker. That initial success tumbled into an Emerging Artist of the Year win at the 2016 Americana Music Honors & Awards, a performance on Saturday Night Live, and a seemingly endless run of tour dates and festival appearances.
          On October 20, 2017, Price released her sophomore LP, All American Made, right into the thick of Donald Trump’s first year as president. The politically tinged songs on the album — “Pay Gap” and the title track among them — would take on heightened meaning as the political climate grew more contentious, with “Pay Gap,” especially, inspiring dialogue among fans and listeners that mirrors broader conversations about gender equity. Since that album’s release, Price’s star has only risen.
          Though the consistently prolific Price is already sitting on new material, she and her band are still touring behind All American Made. In May, she’ll play a trio of sold-out dates at Ryman Auditorium — no small feat for an artist who, just a few years ago, was hustling for opening slots at The 5 Spot. And while she’s itching to do something with that new, unreleased material (“I’m ready to move on,” she says with a laugh), she’s also enjoying the luxury of giving All American Made’s songs a little breathing room, something she wasn’t in as much of a position to do when touring Midwest Farmer’s Daughter.
          “It’s really fun to see how, after you take the songs on the road, how they progress with the band and how they work in the live show as opposed to how we did it on the record,” she says. “We’re always finding new ways to reinvent the songs to keep them interesting. ‘All American Made,’ the title track on the record, is very slow, and sometimes when we do it live I’ll sit down and play it on the keys by myself, or we’ll play a full band up-tempo version, which we ended up doing as our second song on [The Late Show with Stephen] Colbert. So, we try to breathe new life into them. We have two albums worth of songs and the EP [Weakness] and all the covers we know, so we never have to play the same show twice if we don’t want to.”
          On stage, Price commands audiences with her pristine, otherworldly vocals as much as she does her dry, between-song humor. Now a veteran performer, Price is the kind of artist who has fans hanging on every word and every note — there’s not a song in her set that doesn’t elicit a sing-along, including more serious tracks like “All American Made” and “Hands of Time.”
          “When I see people singing along to [‘All American Made’ and ‘Hands of Time’], or people really caring about those songs, it always kind of shocks me,” she says. “I didn’t write them to be sing-along kinds of things. But I think it’s always surreal when I see people singing along to either of those songs, enjoying the music and not putting so much of a, ‘This is political’ kind of spin on it. It’s just a song about what’s going on in the world.”
          Whether she set out to or not, Price has become one of the more respected (and analyzed) voices in socially conscious country music. “Hands of Time,” which chronicles the real-life experiences of losing her family farm and the death of her son, resonated both for its vulnerability and timeliness, as conversations about the struggles of rural, working-class Americans came to greater prominence in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. The increased focus on women’s issues — sparked, in part, by the Women’s March in early 2017 — focused a brighter light on All American Made track “Pay Gap,” too.
          “I think, just because of our political climate right now, if you say anything, it’s really blown up, like, ‘Oh no, she said something about the pay gap! Oh my god!’” Price says, laughing. “That’s just the history of how it’s been for women in country music. If you say anything that has any sort of opinion, then it’s going to be talked about, because women, for so long, have been almost treated like children, where it’s like, ‘Sit there. Look pretty. Don’t have an opinion. You are to be objectified, and we don’t care about what’s going on inside your head.’ I’m happy that I’m breaking down some of those molds.”
          Price is passionate about gender equality, particularly when it comes to women’s treatment and representation in both country music and the broader music industry. Midwest Farmer’s Daughter cut “This Town Gets Around,” which she and her band the Price Tags were performing live in the years following the album’s release, sets her real-life experiences of sexual harassment and discrimination to a Loretta Lynn-worthy arrangement. And “Pay Gap,” which Price performed on Conan in March, pulls no punches about the $0.79 women make for every man’s dollar (as of a 2016 report): “Pay gap, pay gap, why don’t you do the math? Pay gap, pay gap, ripping my dollars in half.” She also has plenty to say about the lack of women headliners at music festivals.
          “When you look at most festival posters, you can just call it before it even happens,” she says. “It’s three men’s names, huge at the top, and then underneath them, very small, it will be just a few women. Women never headline the festivals. It’s bullshit. I’m going to start protesting them next year and not doing them [laughs].”
          It feels appropriate, then, to sit down with Price on is Equal Pay Day, April 10, 2018. It’s a topic she’s not just willing to talk about in song, but in conversation, too.
          “You look at the Grammys last year and Neil Portnow’s (President of The Recording Academy, the organization responsible for the Grammy Awards) comments about women needing to step it up and do better … I mean, I don’t know,” she says. “It’s mind-blowing that it still goes on. But it’s because so many people don’t even believe that it’s true — men and women alike. They don’t even believe it’s a real thing. They think it’s something that’s just made up. So how can things progress when people don’t even believe it themselves? They say that the pay gap might close in 100 and some years. I’ll be dead.”
          Pushback from a certain contingent of fans is inevitable when an artist speaks her mind. That’s perhaps even more pointed when that artist plays country music, a genre often stereotyped (somewhat rightfully) as conservative. Price sees her beliefs as transcending any one political party, though, and her beliefs around gender equality, especially, apply to everyone, Democrat or Republican.
          “I’ve said this before, but I would have put out that song if Hillary was president,” she says. “People either love it or people hate it and they’re like, ‘I’m not your fan anymore.’ I posted a picture of a girl holding the words ‘the pay gap’ at the Women’s March, and I had hundreds of comments of people saying, ‘You’re a liar. You’re a bigot. You’re a man-hater.’ I’m like, ‘I employ all men in my band. I’m married. I have a son. I love men!’ My band is being paid less because I’m being paid less. We’re all being paid less as a whole because I’m the front of it.”
          Third Man Records co-founder Ben Swank credits Price’s razor-sharp takes on America’s social ills as integral to, though still only one part of, her significance in a genre that’s reluctant to champion artists who do anything that differs from a carefully focus-grouped norm.
          “These classic country ideals and progressive politics/lifestyle can live side by side, and, what’s more, when you throw it all together on stage with a front person as engaging and fierce as she is, you forget which side of the fence you’re on and just love the show happening up there,” Swank says. “That’s the power of real music and real artists in an increasingly distracted and divisive world: connectivity.”
          It’s probably (and sadly) no surprise that Price — whose brand of country takes its cues from Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson, with hallmarks of roots, rock, and soul seamlessly blended in — isn’t played on country radio, a format currently dominated by male, pop-leaning acts. That hasn’t stopped her from attracting legions of country fans, though — particularly those who feel alienated by what they hear when they tune in to their local station.
          “I think that Margo has shown within the local independent country scene that this thing can be done on an international scale and be done by your own rules and set of expectations,” Swank adds. “I think there can be a disconnect from ‘big’ country to this independent scene, and Margo has made clear you can make your own path.”
          The path she travels is getting better worn lately. In recent years, the fringe country and Americana made popular by Price and other acclaimed artists, like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson, has, in some ways, gone mainstream, as hordes of young hopefuls have flooded the genre — and Nashville — vying to be Americana’s next big thing. As a result, words like “outlaw” and “troubadour” are in the air again, particularly with music-industry marketing departments, eager to commodify real-life stories and struggles of working-class Americans and capitalize on the kind of success Price and her contemporaries struggled for years to attain.
          “[Outlaw] was something that was fabricated by the press to begin with,” Price says. “Most people are using that term when they actually grew up in suburbia and they’re ‘trustafarians’ whose parents probably gave them everything, and they never had to work a day in their life, and now they wanna play ‘outlaw’ music. So, everybody puts on the Nudie suit and puts on the hat and writes a drinkin’ song. ... People are gonna hate me [laughs].
          “The cause and effect of some people emerging that are more rooted and talking about day-to-day life in their songs, then everybody wants the story, too, of, ‘Look at what I’ve been through, and look at this.’ Obviously, I’ve had a story that a lot of people connected to, but it’s been frustrating at times, because I feel like people have focused on that. Sometimes it’s just like, ‘Well, is the music good? Do you like the singing? Do you like the playing?’ I’m glad that I’ve said everything that I did and that I got all the skeletons out of my closet, but now it seems like this whole epidemic of singer- songwriter-Americana everybody wants to be the next big thing.”
          In some ways, Price still is that next big thing, though she’d be the first to tell you that what may seem like “overnight” success to some is actually the result of a decade and a half of struggle, hard work, and more than a few doubts about whether it was all really worthwhile. “We’ve been looking for the unlocked door for 13 years, and when I found it, I fell down a vortex,” she says, laughing.
          For now, Price has new music on her mind. One album’s already finished, recorded in Austin while she and her band were in town for Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion. She hopes to get into the studio this year to record another, which she says will not be a country record, but will “still be roots music.” She wants to take her time on that one, eyeing spring of 2019 as a potential release target. She plans to re-release some of Buffalo Clover’s catalog too, perhaps in the form of a “best of ” compilation, as current Price fans have driven a renewed interest in the band’s catalog.
          “I remember back in the day having a big box of Buffalo Clover records down in my basement, and we took them all to Goodwill because I couldn’t stand to look at them anymore,” she says. “Now I’m like, ‘Wow, people are selling them online for like $200. What was I thinking?’”
          Price’s personal and professional juggle — writing, recording, touring, even promoting earlier albums, while maintaining her family life — flies in the face of another stereotype Price detests: that women must choose between a family life and a career.
          Her own mother, who worked as a teacher while Price was growing up, modeled that for her. That doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult at times, something she admits readily, getting a little choked up as she speaks about missing Judah while she’s on the road.
          “I get really stressed out,” she says. “I totally do. My mom, I couldn’t do anything without my mother. She helps take care of the house when we’re gone. She helps with my son. Sometimes they travel with us, which is awesome. They went to Texas with us when we did our recording. They got to meet Willie Nelson. I think the last run I was on, before Texas and before the last couple of short things I’ve done, my husband was out with me and I broke down and started bawling. I miss my kid so much and sometimes I’m like, ‘What am I doing? I should be home all the time.’ But when I am home, we get really quality time. He was on spring break for nine days, and we spent every waking moment together. ... I don’t know how I do it sometimes.”
          Tonight, she’ll head home to enjoy a little more time with her family, including her visiting grandmother, careful not to waste a moment of togetherness before it’s time to hop on the bus. She and her family recently moved from East Nashville to what she calls “the country,” and she counts the slow pace of her new home life is a nice counter to the flurry of activity that comprises her career. Hers isn’t a “the grass is always greener” kind of philosophy, even when she does hear the siren song of the stage while spending time at home; she’s fortunate enough that, right now, the grass is green pretty much wherever she is, and, after years of hardship, she isn’t taking a bit of it for granted.
          “I really try to enjoy my downtime when I’m home,” she says. “We just moved to the country, and we have a little creek in the front yard, so I’ll put on my rubber boots and walk through the creek. We’ve got some chickens, and the dog. I just sit out on my back porch by the fire pit and hang out. I just try to soak it all in.”