Margo Price Talks Politics, Willie Nelson Collaboration on Confident New LP
When Margo Price returned to Sam Phillips Recording in Memphis late last year to begin tracking the follow-up to Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, uncertainty and change were hanging in the air. Donald Trump had just been elected president, and his popular MAGA refrain sounded to many like regressive action, a rolling back of rights for American citizens. For Price, it shifted the tone of her new album, appropriately titled All American Made.
“Like a lot of America, I was kind of in shock,” she tells Rolling Stone Country, calling between tour stops in September. “The songs had already been written up until that point but it did steer it a little bit, especially deciding to put ‘All American Made’ on it. During the Obama administration was when that song was initially written, but it just took on a completely different meaning after the election.”
“All American Made,” a largely acoustic number that closes the album, begins with sampled speeches from Bill Clinton, Martin Luther King Jr. and Richard Nixon, among others, mimicking the way messages often get blended into meaningless noise through our relentless news cycles. “Got a heartache on the bottom and a headache on the top / the part of me that hurts the worst is the hardest one to spot,” she sings, taking a hard look at the symptoms and causes of American malaise. With no clear solutions, the song takes an unsparing view of the way our disagreements turn into deep chasms – a scene that’s played out repeatedly and even violently on many occasions.
“I’ve always been one to want to discuss those things and try to make our country the best that it can be,” says Price. “But it’s so many complex and so many ugly, violent things that have been happening. It’s really hard to turn a blind eye to that. I think it’s important to voice your opinion and, regardless of people who tell me otherwise, I think that’s what makes our country beautiful … our freedom to express our thoughts and views. Our voices are all we have right now, and it’s important to use them.”
Price’s solo debut Midwest Farmer’s Daughter was released via Jack White’s Third Man Records in March 2016, and quickly brought her to national prominence after years of laboring in relative obscurity. Her honest tales of bad decisions, broken hearts and jail time were right in line with country’s narrative traditions and her sound – more Loretta Lynn than Sam Hunt – ensured she’d have a devoted audience outside mainstream country radio. That has placed her in the somewhat enviable position of not having to worry about staying in radio’s good graces to sustain her career. Perhaps as a result, she’s been one of few stars to speak up about the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia and the mass shooting in Las Vegas.
“I know people don’t want to lose standing,” says Price. “And a lot of people think that music is not a place for politics. But in these times, it is the country audience that I think has a unique chance to be honest and stand up and say, ‘We’re not going to allow things to revert back to the Fifties.'”
Price tackles that idea from other directions on All American Made, excoriating wage inequality on “Pay Gap” (“They’re all the same in the eyes of God, but in the eyes of rich white men no more than a maid to be owned like a dog, a second class citizen,” she sings), where the music alternates playfully between Latin-tinged verses in common time and a lilting waltz for the chorus. In “Wild Women,” Price sings about the different expectations heaped on women (particularly mothers) in entertainment while, as she notes, “all the men they run around, and no one bats an eye.” Price, for one, has no use for such quaint notions of propriety when it comes to discussions of hard living or politics.
“It’s funny how it’s ok when people are singing about, ‘fuck you’ to the music business in that regard, but people are scared to say anything about the government. It’s kind of the same thing,” she says. “People want to be outlaws, like ‘Fuck the man!’ It’s ridiculous that it’s like they’re only an outlaw to a certain extent.”
Elsewhere, Price mixes in bits of her biography with equal parts sadness and humor, recalling the loss of the family farm on “Heart of American,” and extolling the virtues of struggle and hard work in “A Little Pain.” Unlike Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, recorded on a shoestring budget at a breakneck pace, Price had more space to think about what All American Made would be, and how the rancorous political environment would shape it.
“It was nice to be able to take our time with it and feel things out, try different grooves and switching things up,” she says. “There were factors in the world, probably, that made us put a couple songs on there that I don’t know if they would have had the same impact if things went the other way.”
One of the album’s biggest surprises is the presence of Willie Nelson, who turns up to add a verse and a sublime guitar solo to the ballad “Learning to Lose.” Price and band decamped to Nelson’s Texas studio at the end of 2016 to record with him.
“It’s funny because the lyrics in the song are, ‘On the day before the day before the New Year,’ and we ended up being out there tracking it with him right around that time frame,” she recalls. “It was pretty serendipitous. He just came in to the studio and he was so relaxed. They already had Trigger set up there and a stool and a music stand, and on the stool there was an ash tray with a joint sitting in there all ready to go.”
All that extra time and deliberation spent on the album reveal the confidence of an artist hitting her stride. Recording with her touring band, which includes husband Jeremy Ivey and former Sturgill Simpson bassist Kevin Black, and featuring guests Josh Hedley, a fellow Third Man artist, and Old Crow Medicine Show’s Cory Younts, Price cuts through the songs with her crystalline voice, while the songs breathe and swing in equal measure. The group hops from the familiar Outlaw boogie and plaintive balladry of Midwest Farmer’s Daughter to some interesting new territory, lacing “Cocaine Cowboys” with flashes of psychedelic rock, and getting downright funky on the Rhodes piano-driven “Do Right By Me,” which features gospel accents from the McCrary Sisters.
“There were a couple different flavors on the first album,” says Price. “But making this album, we really didn’t want to limit ourselves to any one genre and that was the thought behind it, just feeling all the different outlets of American music. There’s so much musical history in America, styles that were developed here. If it was good, we just decided to do it.”