“Earth does not belong to us, we belong to the earth.”
This is a quote written on the button that Margo Price has pinned to the collar of her paisley print jacket, attributed to Chief Seattle, the Emerald city’s namesake and seminal figure in the Native American Suquamish Tribe. It’s noon at an East Nashville restaurant, and Price, bundled up for the sudden December freeze, has been worrying this morning since she got out of bed at 7:00 a.m. – about the Dakota Access Pipeline (hence the pin), about the latest antics of President-elect Trump and about her six-year-old son, who woke up with a stomach virus.
“I need to cheers myself, with the day I’ve had,” she says, scooting in a large booth with two gold talismans – a wishbone and a horseshoe – around her neck and ordering a prosecco. Of course, this being December 6th, something else stomach-churning happened: the announcement of the 59th Grammy Awards nominations, for which most assumed that Price’s LP, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, would be a shoo-in. But when the nominations were revealed, Price and her album were overlooked.
Still, there are things to celebrate because, for all intents and non-Grammy purposes, 2016 was most definitely Margo Price’s year.
“I’ve been training for this kind of disappointment my whole life,” she says, laughing. “[A nomination] would have been cool, but there are so many other things to be upset about in this world. This is nothing compared to Election Day.”
This ability to see the light – and the dark, depending from which angle you’re looking – is what’s made Price’s music so impactful. Few debut albums garnered the kind of instant adoration and unilateral critical praise that Midwest Farmer’s Daughter did this year. It’s the kind of record that hits you in the gut: staggeringly honest, as devastating as it is joyful and whip-smart. Compounded with a dynamic live persona, Price filled a hole in the country music landscape, one where tradition – through instrumentation, storytelling and terse twang – balances with songwriting that never tries to rehash the past, only capture the present. Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is a personal record, but with more weight given to representing the human struggle than just airing her own dirty laundry. It’s a sense of perspective that comes in handy when you need to shake off anything that comes your way. Like awards snubs.
“If I was really thinking about the Grammys when I made the record, I would have made a totally different record, anyway,” she says. It’s hard to argue with that: Price and her husband Jeremy Ivey sold their car and her engagement ring, among other possessions, to finance Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, which was infamously rejected by almost every label in town.
“Three chords and the truth is the cliché – I like to throw a couple extra chords in there.”
Almost, being the operative word. Jack White’s Third Man Records saw the promise in this set of songs and gave it a home, releasing it in March. It made history on the Billboard ranks when it debuted at Number 10 without a charting single, and stints singing with John Prine and Kris Kristofferson came next, as did appearances on Charlie Rose, Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, a publishing deal, the title of Emerging Artist of the Year at the Americana Honors and Awards and, of course, Saturday Night Live. The rise seemed meteoric. But for those who knew Price, it was more “finally!” than “already?” They knew of her decade-plus time on the Nashville scene, struggling to break through but without making concessions in her music.
“If you would have told me then I would have played Saturday Night Live, I would have never believed you,” she says, moving on to a plate of Brussels sprouts and a chicken pita. “I remember right after I did Conan, I stayed [in Los Angeles] a couple extra days to unwind, and SNL came on in the hotel room. The musical guest came on, and it was Jack [White], the first episode he ever did, and I was thinking to myself, ‘I will never play that show. Just be happy you get to play cool things like Conan.’ And then, about a week later, I was asked to do it. And it took a month, I think, to set in. I’ve been totally shocked with all the things this album has done.”
Price delivered her performance on SNL with fire, fury and fringe – of her single, “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle,)” and a ballad, “Since You Put Me Down.” The band even tipped a sonic hat to the late Merle Haggard, who passed shortly before her appearance. For classic country fans, it was a nod to the roots they love and cherish; for Nashville novices, it was an entry point to the genre that they could finally relate to, burning with fierce emotion. And for Saturday Night Live, it was a gamble on the gut that paid off. Like their early booking of Lana Del Rey, which drew some criticism before proving smartly prophetic, Price’s appearance went on to reinforce that the sketch-comedy series’ critical ear was still pinned firmly to the ground.
SNL booker Brian Siedlecki saw Price for the first time at South by Southwest, an experience he recalls as being nothing short of transformative. “It was one of those moments where you see an artist live and you say, ‘Wow.’ They just knock your socks off,” he says. “I remember sometimes you see people for the first time and they are not so polished – she just opened her mouth and I was like, ‘Holy cow, this girl can sing.'”
It’s a similar come-to-Jesus occurrence that Ben Swank of Third Man Records recalls. “When I saw her play for the first time, I said, ‘Oh shit, this was right under my nose,'” he says. “This is exactly what I love about country music, and I don’t love a lot of country music.”
Though she wasn’t widely known at the time, Siedlecki recalls hearing people singing Price’s songs in the hallway during SNL rehearsals. “You knew then it was the right move,” he says. The paparazzi followed Price out of the building, and she celebrated the evening by “smoking weed inside a fancy restaurant.”
Though Price was rumored to be in consideration for last November’s CMA Awards, when the nominations were announced in August, her name – along with fellow Music Row rebel Sturgill Simpson’s – was nowhere to be found. Price took it as an opportunity to add a little fire back into “This Town Gets Around,” her kiss-off to Nashville’s upwardly mobile who trade decency for opportunity. “When I got snubbed at CMAs I thought, ‘This song has different meaning now,'” she says. “I’m happy everyone said no.”
“I’d lie if I said I wasn’t disappointed,” says Swank. “But I don’t – and she doesn’t – think an award is necessarily a validation of good art.”
There have been other validations and awards along the way – and some she finds even more meaningful than a trophy. “The other thing that has been not surprising, but really beautiful, is talking to the many mothers and fathers who have lost children,” she says, tears welling in her eyes. Price and Ivey lost one of their twin sons, Ezra, at two weeks old. She wrote about it in “Hands of Time,” her six-minute masterpiece, but the aftermath, depression and impossibility of coping with such a devastating blow is all over the album. Parents write her letters, and at a show in Boston, a mother who had lost her son at six put his T-shirt on the stage for Price to keep. Another woman stopped her on the street to tell her how her music encouraged her to keep going after a similar loss. “I was bawling,” says Price.
“For so long it’s been, ‘Don’t talk about these things, you’re going to make everybody sad and everybody uncomfortable,'” she says. “Well, fuck you, I’m going to talk about it. Putting that in my music was the most difficult decision I ever could have made. I don’t ever want to seem like I am capitalizing on it, but I can’t just pretend that I’m happy because I’m not. Even now, I still have hard days. I get in the shower and cry. If you live through the death of your child, you should be able to talk about it and let other people know it’s ok to go on.”
Price has also been vocal about the election – for her performance on NPR’s Tiny Desk, she revealed an “Icky Trump” shirt – and, most recently, she took to task a certain aggravating Twitter hashtag, #womeninmusic. “You never see a hashtag #meninmusic,” she says. “From the time I was 20 and people would say, ‘Chicks with Picks,’ I hated it. It’s not a genre, it’s a gender.”
If anything’s been missing from music – country or otherwise – it’s this level of honesty. Price is less concerned with proving she’s an outlaw with a stage costume or reckless antics, and more with never biting her tongue, especially when it counts. “People are so scared to talk because of losing a fan base, but that’s the whole job of being a musician – to talk about the things going on,” she says.
“I think what Margo has done has proven that you can stick to your guns,” says Jed Hilly, president of the Americana Music Association, “make the music you’re passionate about, and win. I love her.”
For her second LP, which she’s already started to record, Price alludes to more political moments, though it won’t necessarily be a “political” album. She and Ivey are tackling much of the production themselves – no flashy big-name required – and Price was even considering a double LP. However now she’s a little wary that people might continue to group women together (#womeninmusic, you know) and compare her to Miranda Lambert’s twin-disc The Weight of These Wings. “Now, I’m not sure,” she says. “I don’t want to look at anyone else’s work and decide what I’m going to do, but people will relate it to that. I want to be like, ‘I’m not thinking about that, I’m thinking about the White Album.'”
Price decided to go back to Memphis, where Midwest Farmer’s Daughter was made, only this time to the newly refurbished Sam Phillips Recording (with a couch even re-upholstered by White, who swung by a session; whether or not he’ll actually appear on the finished product is anybody’s guess).
“I’ve been writing this whole time,” she says. “In the past two or three weeks I’ve been writing a lot, because there is so much going on in the world and so much going on with me internally.” “All-American Made,” which she played on her Born to Ramble Tour this year and on a post-election appearance on NPR, will likely make the cut. As will one called “Heart of America” and a few songs written by Ivey. “I think he gets so overlooked,” she says about her husband, also a talented producer and musician who swaps road duty for time at home with their son Judah.
Sonically, the album will still ring county, but continue to incorporate the wide influences – soul, blues, funk, pure rock & roll – that made their way into Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. Price’s old band, Buffalo Clover, was an amalgam of all those things, heavy on the funk and soul. In concert, she covers everyone from Doug Sahm to Karen Dalton. “There are still some very country moments, but there will be a lot of other things on the record, because that’s what keeps me interested,” she says. “Three chords and the truth is the cliché – I like to throw a couple extra chords in there.”
“She transcends country. Country is the shortcut to getting to where she is at,” says Swank. “Her music is informed from so many different places. A lot of the best artists out there make the stew out of a lot of different things.”
Price will continue her expansive Born to Ramble Tour, which has taken her across the country and abroad, after the New Year, but for now is planning on spending every minute of downtime with her son – ignoring things like the 601 text messages on her phone that have popped up in the wake of her success and gone unread. Judah can still turn to his mom for a good lullaby, though Price was a little miffed when her mother let him stay up past his normal bedtime to catch her on The Tonight Show.
“He’ll tell people, ‘My mommy is a really good singer. That she’s the best singer in the whole wide world,'” she says, wrapping up the rest of her pita to take home to Ivey. The prosecco, however, is gone. The gold horseshoe and wishbone gleam as she slips on her coat, but they’re just accessories. Judah’s right, because kids, like good country music, are honest. She doesn’t need the luck.