Margo Price, True American Badass, Wants Her Country to Do Better
The outlaw singer talks about new album 'All American Made,' hanging with Willie Nelson, and what's pissing her off.
Photo by Danielle Holbert
I first met Margo Price on a rainy February day in Nashville, only about a month before the release of her 2016 debut, Midwestern Farmer's Daughter, a collection of songs about loss, drinking to fight off the pain, going to jail, and music industry sleaziness. We'd met at the Nashville Palace, just down the road from the Grand Ole Opry. After about an hour of conversation in the empty back room, we headed over to the Willie Nelson and Friends Museum and General Store.
The place had all the Willie goods you could ever want: headbands with fake braids, Willie's bloody mary mix, Willie for President shirts (he campaigns on behalf of the
"Party Party," apparently). What my article never mentioned is that once we'd bought our souvenirs, she kindly offered to drive me a half-hour out of her way to where I was staying, and told me a bit about what she'd been going through.
There hadn't been a lot of talk about Midwest Farmer's Daughter yet. By that point in her life, she'd endured years of hardships, living in a campground and busking for dinner money, touring relentlessly, and getting rejection letters from labels. In 2010, she lost her 2-week-old son, Ezra, to a heart ailment. In 2013, she was involved in a car crash that resulted in a two-day stint in the Davidson County jail (reached via email, she declined to go into further detail). When it came time to make her first record, she sold her car and pawned her wedding ring to cover the expense of recording. Driving through the Tennessee rain, it was easy to get the feeling that Price wasn't sure what would happen if the album ended up being a flop.
But Midwestern Farmer's Daughter was anything but a disappointment. The album debuted at No. 10 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. That chart has been around since 1964, and until Margo Price came along in 2016, a solo female country singer had never debuted in the top 10 with her first charting album and no prior history on the Hot Country Songs chart. As of June this year, Midwestern Farmer's Daughter had moved 52,600 copies in the U.S. alone. Critics praised Price's ability to take the tried-and-true sounds and structures of country music and haul them into the present, as well as her disarmingly personal songwriting. The opening track "Hands of Time," a twangy, orchestral shuffler over six minutes long, lays her hardships bare as she curses the impossibility of bringing things back to the way they were—before her father lost the family farm, before the death of her son.
And since the album's release, Price has worked harder than ever, touring non-stop, sharing bills with and sometimes playing alongside the likes of Emmylou Harris, Loretta Lynn, Bob Dylan, John Prine, and Kris Kristofferson. And, oh yeah—Willie Nelson, who Price calls "a living saint," duets with her on somber, honky tonk weeper "Learning to Lose," one of the most stirring tracks on her new record, All American Made, which releases via Third Man Records. They're pals now. And yes, they've smoked grass together.
"I got really high," she says with a laugh over the phone from Nashville. "He has vapes, too. It's really cool—his line of marijuana is called Willie's Reserve, and we got to go to their grow room, and the dispensaries that have it, and they're just the best people. We'll be getting ready to do a show and he'll just be smoking a vape. He still smokes joints. I actually saved a joint that he gave me; it's in my jewelry box. He's given me several, and I smoked a couple of them. But I saved one."
Life has changed a lot in past year, but that doesn't mean things are easy. Price laments that she feels like she has to be a bit more careful about the things she says and does, with so many people watching and listening all the time, even down to just picking and choosing when to play new songs. But some things have gotten easier, and she'll deal with the bad if it means she gets to keep the good. And by "the good," she means things that are remarkably simple, including being able to offer a solid foundation for her son, Judah, who is now seven years old: "We don't have to work jobs in restaurants that we hate, and I can afford health insurance for my kid, and for him to go to a school that will allow him to travel with us," she says.
A big part of All American Made deals with that struggle—to exist in an America where it can feel like it's getting increasingly harder to make a living, to keep your family safe. Sometimes it sounds kicked back and fun, as on the funky country rocker "A Little Pain," where Price sings about suffering for what you want and invokes wisdom from the late, great drummer of The Band: "Like Levon said, I ain't in it for my health." "Pay Gap" fights for income equality, addressing the overwhelming economic disparity between white men and everyone else, and "Heart of America" details the plight of small-town farmers in the 80s.
Bookended by presidential speeches, the title track saves a staggering amount of gravitas for the album's final moments; over a sparse acoustic strum and lonesome electric twang, Price sings soft and pained about the darkness that's clouded the US over her lifetime—the Reagan administration selling arms to Iran, the specter of nuclear war, Trump. The echo on her voice makes it sound so cavernous that you worry those sentiments are headed straight into the abyss.
With that in mind, I ask her about what's pissing her off. She laughs a frustrated laugh.
"Oh, man. It's not so much about even pissing me off. Just seeing things that are unjust and talking about it. Puerto Rico needs help. It seems like every day there's a new crisis, and then more fabricated crises. I don't understand why people aren't allowed to protest during the national anthem."
She adds that many people have forgotten that protest has always been uncomfortable. And one of the most uncomfortable protests in American history continues to be the fight for gun control. Few issues are more heated or divisive than Second Amendment rights, especially with mass shootings in the United States becoming increasingly deadly.
"The lack of people caring about gun control, who can get their hands on certain kinds of ammunition or rifles—it seems like it can be prevented. I'm not saying, 'Take away all the guns.' I own guns myself. But I just think that people could do better. So I'm trying to be patriotic. I actually do really love my country and what it stands for and our constitution."
It's unlikely we'd have these songs if she didn't. Many prominent country artists are quick to be vocal about the evils of mass shootings, but you'd be hard-pressed to find many of them taking actual hard stances on gun control, even in the wake of the shooting at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas, when gunman Stephen Paddock killed 58 people and injured more than 500 more. Country stars have been met with considerable repercussions for taking a stand before. The backlash and boycotts that the Dixie Chicks faced in 2003 in the wake of lead singer and Texan Natalie Maines saying she was "ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas" is still fresh in the mind of Nashville. Who's willing to fight for what's right and potentially lose album sales?
"I wish that maybe more people would speak out," says Price. "Maybe they'll start to. Things kinda seem like they're at a changing point. Our country's very divided, and that makes me sad. But I think we should speak out against things like white supremacy. There are things that are bad, and we need to not be afraid to say so. To not worry about album sales. Because, man, hardly anyone even buys records nowadays."
She has a reason to be hopeful about the future, though. He's there on the tour bus every now and then, checking out mountains and learning firsthand about geography, playing checkers in the back with the rest of the band. When you have a son, losing hope is not really an option. "If we don't have that," Price says, "then it's pretty bleak. And as bad as things have been before, things will change again. I have to be hopeful. I have a son to worry about."
With the recent onslaught of terrifying natural disasters like Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Irma, Price worries about the environment, too. She worries about health care. Simply writing and recording All American Made resulted in feeling a bit of pressure, with her team mentioning the dreaded sophomore slump every now and then. In the past year or so of hard touring, she's been been told by her doctor she should be avoiding flying to stay healthy. She misses being home sometimes, misses being with her friends, and says she can't even count the number of funerals and baby showers she's missed. She even missed Judah's birthday last year because she was on the road.
"I don't really know any other way than to tour a lot and work hard, because the music industry's changed, and that's kinda one of the only ways to make money, unless you're selling your songs to advertisements and stuff like that," Price says. "But I think Townes Van Zandt said something about that whole situation like, "I knew I'd have to give it all up if I really wanted to do this." Even when I'm home, I'm dedicating time to play guitar and write. It can be exhausting, but I love it, and it's always been that way, so I don't know anything different, really."
With her more hard living-years behind her, Price says she tries to keep any sadness at bay by staying healthy, meditating, being patient, getting enough sleep, and exercising. It doesn't always solve every problem. "If I figure it out, I'll let you guys know," she says, laughing. But she also makes sure she has some indica and sativa around to deal with insomnia and back pain, and to keep level.
"I've been smoking for quite a while, and it really just balances out my mood," Price says. "I like it more than drinking. If I have a headache or cramps or whatever it is, I don't really wanna take ibuprofen or aspirin or something that's eventually gonna give me an ulcer. I really like to vape now. I found ones that don't bother my throat as much. There's not as much smoke. Even edibles or tea. There're so many different ways to enjoy it. You can even have capsules. It really is overlooked in the medical world, for nausea and cancer patients and all the things that it can help."
As much of a "miracle drug" as it may well be, even weed can't (literally) stop the world from spinning 'round, and one of All American Made's most poignant moments has taken on extra emotional weight because of cosmic timing. In the final minutes of the title track, after Price has laid out the frustration and sadness endemic to living in America, she sings, 'So tell me, Mr. Petty, what do you think will happen next?"
When she and her husband were writing the song, she says, they were brainstorming the most American things they could think of: "Sports, Jesus, and Tom Petty songs," Price says. The line is meant to be a plea to a living rock 'n' roll legend to send us some direction, to point us toward something better. But, as most are aware, Tom Petty died of cardiac arrest on October 2—just a day after the Las Vegas shooting, and three weeks' shy of All American Made's release, which also would've been his 67th birthday. And he'll never have an answer for us.
"It was a little tongue-in-cheek, but I had hopes he would hear that," Price says. "I just didn't think he was gonna pass away so suddenly. I was really bummed about that. I really wanted to meet and talk to him, tell him "Thanks" for his songs."
She says she found out as she was gearing up to start a run of dates with Chris Stapleton, told the rest of the band, and cried for about an hour. Years earlier, new to Nashville, she says she'd too broke to see Petty play at the Starwood Amphitheatre. But then a man asked her on a date to the show. "I did not like the guy at all," Price says. "But I love Tom Petty so much that I was like, 'Yeah, I'll go!'" Once they were there, she ditched her date and enjoyed the show on her own.
Now, with the country fighting through one of its most divisive eras ever, Tom Petty isn't here to tell us what might happen next. But artists like Margo Price are making music that explores that question honestly and incisively, creating a sound that's as rooted in American musical tradition as it is progressive in its message, looking toward a better future while keeping its eyes on the past. Her pal Willie's still singing, too, getting high and spreading the good word about a plant no one need be in jail for smoking. Hope is always the first spark that ignites real change. Until that change happens, as Price sings on "American Made": "At the end of the day, if the rain, it don't rain, we just do what we can."
Matt Williams is a writer and photographer based in Canada. He's on Twitter.