Margo Price and the New Generation of Traditional Country Singers Sound Off

Price, Cale Tyson and Raelyn Nelson preview their Nashville showcase and weigh in on everything from Americana to bro country

Margo Price, one of Rolling Stone Country's Artists You Need to Know, poses outside the Inglewood Motel in East Nashville. Credit: Micki Leonardi

Tuesday evening at storied Nashville club Exit/In, Rolling Stone Country will present its inaugural showcase, as three must-hear acts on the fall installment of our Artists You Need to Know feature — Margo and the Pricetags, Cale Tyson and Raelyn Nelson Band, led by Willie Nelson's ukulele-wielding granddaughter — take the stage for a night of traditional country with a capital T.

We assembled Price, Tyson and Nelson, along with Nelson's bandmate Jonathan Bright, in a West Nashville coffee shop for a roundtable discussion about the good, the bad and the ugly that come with playing music that's unmistakably country but not exactly the breed currently played on the radio — Price and Tyson are much more about lap steel than pop beats, more salty tears and less shiny trucks. And though her band flirts with a distinctly garage sound, "Papa Willie" exposed Nelson early to the genre's most vital founding fathers, embedding it not only in her blood but her brain.

But just because their music may touch more on Tammy Wynette than Tim McGraw, it doesn't mean this trio is always content with being plagued by words like "throwback," "vintage" or "whiskey-soaked," either. Though their music can be called traditional, they certainly have no designs on simply recreating the past.

In an age where Sturgill Simpson picks up steam at the same pace that everything from EDM to hip-hop fuse into modern country, where do artists like Price, Tyson and Nelson fit in? We asked them about current trends, self-labeling and why, maybe, the goal is more about feeling authentic in their own skin than any genre — new or old.

So, is it frustrating that people constantly compare you all to older artists and incessantly use words like "vintage" and "traditional"?
Price:
I don't mind it that much, but it gets exhausting. I just want people to say that I sound original. Obviously, I'm not reinventing the wheel, but you know.

Tyson: It's overused, for sure. It's so easy to say, "bringing back old country." But on the other hand, I would so much rather people say, "You sound like Waylon Jennings" than "you sound like Jason Aldean."

Price: And I hate the term Americana. It's so overused. People put it on things when they don’t know what to call it.

Tyson: Americana is blues, it's folk, it's country. But really, when people start saying "you're this," 99 percent of the time you're like, "Fuck, I'm not that. I'm this!" I don't think it's a bad thing, but I also don't think any artist should go out there and say, "I'm an Americana artist." Nothing irritates me more than when an artists calls themselves Americana.

Price: I immediately write people off when I hear that.

Nelson: It's hard. Here in town, when you tell people you are playing and they ask what kind of music, you don't want to say anything because you're afraid they're not going to like anything you say.

Tyson: I don't even like saying country sometimes. I'll say it, but then I'm like, "Oh shit, not country: traditional country."

Price: You have to differentiate between old country and new country, which is really weird.

Is there room for your breed of country music to be more than just a little niche in the genre? Do you think someone like Sturgill Simpson is changing the tide?
Price: He cleared the path for a lot of us, for sure. It opens a door to those who are doing something more real and not dressing like a beauty queen and singing pop music. Hopefully there can be a rebirth — where people aren't singing about the same thing that they were in the Seventies, but issues that can be pertinent today.

Nelson: Just if people could push it a little bit, like Loretta [Lynn] pushed it a little bit. Even though they might not be on the radio because of it.

Do you think about what to label yourself?
Price:
When I made my Facebook page, I think I put "modern traditional country." It's traditional, but it's new.

Nelson: It's scary because, no matter what, other people are really the ones who are going to make a label.

Is it ever a worry that you'll be defined too much by Nashville — either by the trappings of Music Row or the indie scene east of the river?
Bright:
I don't think we do, because we can't get arrested by the Nashville industry. And one weird thing for me is that there's never been a country club scene anyway. There's no real scene where I am going to go see original country music.

Price: Yes! You go down to Broadway, and everyone is doing covers.

Bright: It's "Dixieland Delight" on every corner.

Price: When I first moved to town, I thought about doing a one-day a week thing. And my friend said, "Do not go to Broadway. Broadway is where good musicians go to die."

Tyson: I did a bunch of Saturdays at a place downtown and did covers for four hours. The breaking point was when a friend of a friend came up to me and said, "Do you ever play original music?" And I thought, "Fuck, I gotta stop doing this."

Price: Maybe a lot of tourists have an idea that you might go down to Broadway and discover something. But that's just not the case.

If you could score a major-label deal, would you want it?
Tyson:
Fuck yeah. Someone to pay for my recording, not have it come out of my pocket? Yeah.

Price: I would like it, as long as people weren't telling me what I could play. I know a few friends who have major label deals but even when they need to choose a cover to put on a compilation album it has to be approved.

Tyson: Major labels are starting to go towards what we're doing, especially with Sturgill, though.

Nelson: I don't really aspire to get a label deal — my grandpa said, "Don't give away your music, just put it out on your own," so that's what I'm going to do. I'm not saying never. But now, it's not the one thing on my mind.

Raelyn, do you have conversations with Willie about how to survive in the industry here?
Nelson:
He doesn't not like Nashville, but he got out of here because it wouldn't let him do what he wanted to do and let him be him. So that's what he told me when we were sitting around on the bus. He said, "Keep doing this. Keep going, keep putting your music out yourself." He's kind of against people taking his money for his songs, you know?

Price: I feel like labels are dying in a way, and what you need more than a label is a good publicist and other things. I signed with a label when I first moved to town and it was one of my biggest regrets.

What kind of impact do you hope your work can make in the current musical landscape?
Nelson:
If I can be someone's favorite band, then I'm happy.

Price: I think reaching out to people and connecting through my music, if they've had hard times. I know when I've been depressed, music is usually what gets me through. And maybe be able to pay my bills, too.

Tyson: That would be nice. It's all of our passion. If I am in exactly the same place I am now when I'm 50 or 60 years old, I'll still be happy. My dad would say, "How many years are you really going to give it?" My fourth year in Nashville he said, "You've been here four years and you haven't made it yet, aren't you ready to move on?"

If you watch shows like The Voice, you see so many people come on and tell the story of how they gave themselves one year to "make it," and if they don't get a chair to turn around, they're going back to that barista job. It's sad.
Price:
It is. I never watch The Voice or American idol. I just think it's laughable that you can put a bunch of people in the room who are all starving and put this giant rib eye in there and be like, fight over it! And are they writing their own songs? It's like a karaoke contest to me.

Well, speaking of other people's songs, what did you listen to growing up?
Nelson:
Papa Willie, Loretta, and Patsy [Cline] and Waylon [Jennings].

Raelyn, growing up in a family so synonymous with country music, was there a point where you wanted to rebel?
Nelson:
No. It's just always been around, and that's just what was and what is. I love it. Old country just feeds my soul.

Price: My uncle wrote for George Jones and Conway Twitty and all those cats. I was from a small town where everybody listened to country music and the local radio station was all country, but I definitely wanted to play rock & roll for a while, and I did. Now I'm back full circle.

Cale, we know you harbored a certain affection for Conor Oberst.
Price:
The truth comes out!

Tyson: I definitely went through the whole emo phase. But once I got to 18 years old, I was like, shit, my songs are sounding like what I used to listen to with my dad in the car all the time. It just came back to me. But I still love Conor Oberst, by the way.

Is there anyone you enjoy listening to in mainstream country at the moment?
Tyson:
I'd say Josh Turner. And everything George Strait, of course.

Price: I gotta be honest, I don't listen to much of it. My husband and I turned on country radio in the car the other day and had a hard time getting through it.

Nelson: Brandy Clark is excellent. She's great. I was an instant fan.

She just got signed to a major-label deal with Warner Brothers, too. There are glimmers of change — if you watched the CMA Awards, there Brandy was, on stage with Kacey Musgraves and Shane McAnally, winning for a song that basically champions gay rights.
Price:
I like that she's pushing the envelope. I really do like her subject matter.

Bright: It's funny though that you can still be edgy in country music by mentioning weed or the pill. Nothing's changed since the Sixties. And [Musgraves'] words are great, but it's like, is this the outlaw?

Price: Yes, it still sounds like pop music, to me.

Cale, as a male in country music, do you ever worry about the impression that a lot of your fellow men are leaving with the bro-country trend?
Tyson:
I am honestly so far removed from it. But good for them, those people that are making money.

Price: They're smarter than us!

Tyson: The genre shift into bro-country totally makes sense. I remember when I was in high school, the country dudes would drive big trucks and get subs put in them and listen to either super country music or super rap music. So it totally makes sense that it came together. Whoever was like, "Holy shit, I gotta do this," was genius.

Bright: Actually, I have a theory. During the hair-metal era, those guys started wearing big hair and sparkly shirts, like the bro-country guys [now]. They blew up huge, and then Nirvana came along and killed it dead. I think that point is coming because the mainstream people are starting to make fun of it.

Tyson: And then, 10 years from now, they'll be called "traditional country!"