By Philip Runco.
You don’t have to do much digging to learn the tale of Margo Price. You just have to put on her record.
“Hands of Time”, the opening song of the country singer-songwriter’s solo debut, Midwestern Farmer’s Daughter, sets the scene for what’s to come in exquisite, heartbreaking detail.
There’s the “unpaved road” to her old house in Buffalo Prairie, Illinois – a small town square in the middle of nowhere. There’s the loss of the family farm, which forced her father to take “a job at the prison working second shift.” There’s her departure for Nashville, where she “started singing in the bars and running with the men.” There’s meeting her husband – and frequent songwriting partner – Jeremy Ivey, and the the tragedy of losing their firstborn child.
It’s all there and more.
“I want to buy back the farm and bring my mama home some wine,” the chorus goes. “And turn back the clock on the cruel hands of time.”
You can’t turn back the hands of time, of course, but over forty minutes, Price proves you can paint a vivid picture of what it has wrought.
A not insignificant amount of minutes and hours have passed between Price’s departure from Illinois and today. For over ten years, success eluded her in Tennessee. Eventually, she recorded Midwestern Farmer’s Daughter on her own dime at the original Sun Studio in Memphis. And after having it rejected by nearly every label in town, she connected with Jack White. His label, Third Man Records, had never put out a country record, but that would change with Midwestern Farmer’s Daughter.
In early March, the LP debuted in the top 10 of the Billboard country chart, the first time in chart’s 52-year history that a solo female did so without any track record of charting songs. A slew of other achievements and opportunities would follow, too, most notably a spot on “Saturday Night Live” a month later.
Speaking with Price a few weeks ago, I ask her if she could have fathomed such a reception at the outset of the year.
“You know, I always kinda hoped that it would do well,” she shares with a laugh. “The same goes for every project that I did up to this point, though. You have to keep your dreams alive. You have to keep the faith. But I certainly never thought that I would play ‘Saturday Night Live’ and that whole stuff.”
It’s an early Wednesday morning, and Price is exhausted from a trip back from Minneapolis, which returned her to Nashville much later than planned on account of some summer storms.
“I believed in the album but I just kind of thought that I had too much bad luck on my side,” she continues. “I always thought that my art would be appreciated later – like, after I was dead.”
Better now than then.
“Yeah,” Price says with another chuckle. “I guess so.”
How did you pull together the resources to make a record like this on your own?
Well, somebody gave us a good deal. [Laughs] We recorded it at Sun Studio in Memphis. Matt Ross-Spang had done a single for us when we were driving through Memphis on the way to Texas. We just really clicked with him, and he was like, “You gotta come back and cut the full album here.”
But, of course, we didn’t have the money, so I started writing labels and producers and people that I thought could help me. I began saying, “I’m about to make the best country record of the year. Give me your money.” That didn’t work. I sent demos of the songs that I had made in my basement, and I didn’t get much of a response at all. I don’t think anyone even listened or really took the time at that point.
My husband and I have always been very resourceful throughout our career as musicians and even just trying to live as struggling artists. We’ve taken things to pawnshops, and sold things, and skimped and saved our money. So, that’s what my husband did: He went down to CarMax on Gallitan Road and sold one of our two cars. I thought he was absolutely insane. But he got a little under 10 grand for it, and we just took that money and sat down with a piece of paper and kind of divided how it should be spent.
Then we got into the studio, and we pushed the album out in three days. We recorded it live. No headphones. We were all in the same room together. I think everybody just knew that there wasn’t a lot of money and there wasn’t a big budget being thrown around, so there wasn’t any room to fuck it up. [Laughs]
Everyone that played on it are still in my band, and they still play with me, and we all just respect each other very much. They worked very hard to make it sound as good as they could with being paid a boatload or really having a lot of funds.
You remarked recently that “a lot of people like mainstream country because they’re not given another option of country music to like that’s modern.” In what ways do you hear your music as modern?
There are things we have done that are more than just the traditional sound. “Tennessee Song” has pedal steel being ran backwards. There are people using effects that you would not find in traditional country music – like, the drums are all blown out sonically. There are elements of how it’s being played that are just a little different.
There’s also what I’m talking about in terms of subject matter. I try to take elements of modern culture and put them into songs. Sometimes those things don’t sound as romantic as the old way of saying things, but you can still find ways to be poetic and talk about modern day issues. You know, I’ll say something about someone taking a selfie in a song. [Laughs] But I try to find to way to make it poetic and make it fit in the context of a song. I think it’s important to not live completely in the past and to not regurgitate something that’s already been done, but to also keep it focused and organic.
Given both the personal nature of your songs and the in-depth interviews you’ve given around the album, what’s it like having so much of your life’s story in the public sphere?
I guess when I was making the record I didn’t even think about it. I wrote the songs that I wanted to write for myself. I wasn’t really writing with any intention of what people would think about me.
But I’m happy to wear my heart on my sleeve. I’m not trying to be cool. I’m not trying to do anything that’s trendy. I’m just trying to be honest. Hopefully, that will help somebody who has maybe been through the same things as me.
I’ve had parents reach out and talk about their losses. It’s really therapeutic for me. I always enjoy talking to people who have been through the same things, whether it’s concerning the loss of a child, or whether they’re like, “I went through some depression” or “I spent time in jail once.”
I think when people commiserate together, it makes the misery go away. At least, that’s the hope.
Jeremy [Ivey] shares a songwriting credit on half of the album’s songs. Obviously, you two have a relationship and life outside of music, but how you describe your creative relationship? What does he bring to – or draw out of – your songs?
Jeremy is very prolific writer. He’s always writing. It’s great, because it pushes me to do the same and to keep up with him.
In a way, our relationship is very competitive, because if he writes something that I think is really great then I’m going to try and get a co-write in on the song. [Laughs] And it’s vice-versa: If I come to him with something that he really likes, he wants to help make it as strong a song as it can be. We never think a song would be better if it was just my ideas. You know, two heads are better than one.We both write on our own, though. We both are just trying to always work and get better at the craft.
It’s interesting: He knows very well how to write from my point of view. We’ve been together for thirteen years, so we can kind of read each others minds in that way. There are lots of things in there that seem very personal from me – and, of course, I did a lot of the writing myself – but he’s also very good at penning things in a way that I do and sing them. And I do want to say them, because he knows what I’m passionate about and what I believe in.
We have a very healthy co-writing relationship.
A lot of your profiles have honed in on the negative aspects of Nashville’s music scene – the hierarchy, the barbs, the malaise. Your liner notes acknowledge both the ups and downs of the past dozen years in the city, though. What are the positives? What’s kept you there?
I’m finally kind of finding a positive side with two people that work in the industry. I’m so happy that I’ve found the folks at Third Man, who’ve treated me with respect and not tried to take advantage of me in any way. And there’s my lawyer. I have found good people in the music business.
The thing that pulled me here is that I had met so many good friends and really talented musicians and songwriters that lived in Nashville. I was always very inspired by the people that I surrounded myself with. I still am to this day. There’s nowhere else in the world that I could have a band to play this proficient and this tight. I think the level of musicality and work ethic here is unparalleled with the so many other live music cities.
I do love it here. As many downs as I have, there’s always the same amount of good thing to counterbalance it out.
Country music isn’t relegated to any one particular place geographically, but growing up in Illinois, what was your connection with the genre?
There was a radio station in my town. The town only had about 3,000 some people, but there was a radio station – it’s still there today – called 102.3 WRMJ. It was a country music station.
All of the kids who went to my school, you know, we all grew up in a rural area. It was all kids working on the farm. The whole area was people that had grown up in this small town or right outside of it. You had to bale hay and take care of livestock. Surprisingly, I think the North has a big love for country music. Like you said, it’s a nationwide genre. It was always something that was on.
Back then, I was listening to more ‘90s country. It was Dwight Yoakam and Marty Stuart. Of course, there was, like, Randy Travis and Garth Brooks. Suzy Bogguss was from my hometown, so I liked her songs a lot, and I had that influence.
My grandmother has always loved it old stuff, because… because it’s the best stuff. So, I was listening to that at a relatively young age. My great uncle, of course, wrote for Reba [McEntire] and all the way back to George Jones, so I listened to a lot of that, and I think it just sort of stuck with me.
How would you describe the experience of playing SNL?
It was really beautiful. The staff there is amazing. We got there early in the week, and you put up your things in the dressing room, and you have rehearsals every week, and there are the shoots. It didn’t quite seem real.
But I managed to keep myself really relaxed the whole time. I think everyone was surprised at how calm I was. I just knew that I could let myself get really worked out or stressed out, because it’s live TV – there’s no freaking out. I feel like when I got home, it really sunk in. It did take a week or two. I thought I was dreaming. [Laughs] It was a great time.
What are you going to write about now that things seem to be going so well?
Oh, I’ve got years and years of material. [Laughs]
When I got into writing music, I really wanted to have a voice that was saying something. I didn’t want to sing about love. I didn’t want to sing about selfish topics. My album kind of ended up being about me. Luckily, I got that out of the way, and I’ll still probably write from a lot of personal experience, because I think that comes through to people.
But we’ve got some many things going on in the world that needs changing and needs saying – you know, the pay gap between men and women, and the gun control issues. There’s so much going on that I’ll never be bored. I’ll never not have something to say, because I’m a loud and opinionated person. [Laughs]