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Musicians on Musicians: Brittany Howard & Margo Price

Two of Nashville’s sharpest voices reflect on breaking rules, touring hard, and using music for change
David McClister for Rolling Stone

M argo Price once danced on a table at a Nashville greasy spoon, and Brittany Howard has the photos to prove it. “Me and Margo go way back,” says Howard, recalling the period when she first came to Nashville, in 2011. Back in those days, Price was the singer in a popular bar band, Buffalo Clover, and Howard was working on the Alabama Shakes’ first album, Boys & Girls. “We would stay up all night, going to shows, drinking, and talking about our dreams,” says Howard.

Boys & Girls would cement Alabama Shakes as one of the decade’s most important rock bands. “I saw Brittany blow up,” says Price. “One minute she was working at the post office, and then everything took off. She’d be jet-setting with Paul McCartney, and then she’d come back and we’d go to karaoke.” Price later broke through with her 2016 renegade-country debut, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, and they never lost touch.

They’re both still creatively restless. After several experimental side projects, Howard just released her solo debut, Jaime, which combines synthed-out psychedelic funk with hip-hop loops and lyrics that grapple with sexuality and family tragedy. Price just released That’s How Rumors Get Started, which trades fiddles and pedal steel for keyboards by the Heartbreakers’ Benmont Tench and heavy guitars. “I see what Margo is doing and I think, ‘That’s my sister,’” says Howard. “Because she’s doing the same thing, going against the grain.”

Howard: The thing I learned from you is perseverance. I’ve known you through this entire success story, and I remember there were times you weren’t so sure it was going to happen, but you never gave up. I’m so proud just knowing your story. You can be gentle and you can be a motherfucker, and I really respect that about you.

Price: I’m going to cry. … I was thinking about the older days, and I wanted to ask you, out of all the bands you’ve been in — Thunderbitch, Bermuda Triangle, Alabama Shakes — what’s your favorite?

Howard: A lot of it feels very different. But if I had to choose, I might say Thunderbitch is my baby. It just felt like a time when I was becoming really powerful in myself. Being Thunderbitch, I felt like I was 30 feet tall.

Price: You were larger than life at those shows, like riding a motorcycle [onstage]. You were in the parking lot earlier, you had your face painted, you were making eyes at me, and I didn’t even recognize you.

Howard: It was very Meatloaf.

Price: Your band that you have now is just so incredible. It sounds so close to the record, the background vocals and everything. And I really think that Jaime should have gotten Album of the Year.

Howard: What’s crazy about the Grammys is I think I still could get Album of the Year. Vote for me! Back to your record: If there’s one thing that you want people to take away from the stories you tell on the record, what would it be?

“Every time I get an Uber and they’re like, ‘What kind of music do you make?’ says Howard. “I just say, ‘My kind of music.’”

Price: I hope the record can take people’s minds off of what’s going on in the world for a brief moment, maybe make them think a little bit more deeply about what’s going on. You know, nobody has health care, there’s no child care. There’s … a lot of things that we need to fix. But I certainly don’t have the answers, and it’s certainly not a political record. But, yeah, I hope that people can just learn to be a little more forgiving.

Howard: Everybody is just, like, a mirror of each other. It’s pretty crazy to me how disconnected people can be from “Hey, that could be me, except I have money.” It’s really odd how people can call themselves certain things: “I’m a Christian, I’m a good man.” And then they can look at another human being and not use any of those values. That’s pretty wild to me.

Price: I saw that you marched at the Teens for Equality [a police-brutality protest that drew 20,000 to Nashville]. It’s so inspiring that’s going on in Nashville. There’s a lot that needs to happen right now in this city. And the camaraderie that I saw after the tornado [earlier this year] — I wish people had that right now. And I’m worried about places like 5 Spot, like all the little dives we used to play when we were first getting our start. I don’t know how songwriters and musicians are even supposed to break through right now, because people are playing down on Broadway, but you can’t play original music down there.

Howard: The kind of reputation that country music has, especially here in Nashville, it’s kind of like the boys’ club, and you’ve got to get in to be successful. Did you witness any of that stuff?

Price: I never felt like I was part of the country-music establishment. And, you know, the award shows and the festivals — there was a couple things that I was invited to, but then I think there were just certain things that I said that kind of took my name out of the hat.

Howard: Political things, or comments about the music industry?

Price: Probably both. Like the gun-control issue: the [Route 91 Harvest festival] shooting that happened in Vegas and the way that that was all handled at the CMAs or whatever, it just all kind of got washed over. Nobody wants to say anything bad about the NRA. And I’m like, ‘Fuck them.’ I’m not going to play their games. And I don’t care about, like, co-writing with any of those people.

Howard: See, that’s the thing about Margo Price: She sticks to her guns. She is who she says she is. What you see is what you get.

Neither of you are afraid to speak about politics or social justice, though.

Howard: I take it really seriously, just because a lot of what’s going on today affects me directly, as a gay woman of color. I want to be able to feel safe in my country, I want to be able to feel safe in a kayak in the backwoods. I want to feel safe just as much as a Billy Bob wants to feel safe. … Change is going to happen. Because I know there are more decent people in the world than selfish people.

Price: How long did you tour Jaime?

Howard: I didn’t quite get to tour it for even a year — basically August to March. I started having a really, really good time again. I’ve been touring since 2012. I was always gone. With the Shakes, we played so hard, toured so hard. And we played the songs over and over and over. And it was starting to take some joy away from me. So I was kind of apprehensive getting back on the road again. I knew I had a lot of great intention behind it. I just needed to try my hardest and, you know, hold on. Any time I didn’t feel strong, I could look around and someone in my band would just give me the tools I needed for that day and show me what I was missing. I can be kind of shy. At the beginning, I wasn’t sure if it was going to be good enough. But it was good. It was better than good enough.

Price: I don’t use my falsetto as much as I should, or could. But I love how fluidly you can go from your falsetto.

Howard: The thing about voices is, like, as long as everyone is doing their own individual voice, you can’t lose. There’s singers out there like Karen Dalton. Her voice has been through it, but I love her because she is just being her authentic self. Those are the people who become iconic. Like David Bowie or Prince. They did their thing the way they wanted to do, even though everyone was like, “That’s weird.”

Price: Did you ever take voice lessons?

Howard: I’m self-taught, just because in the beginning it was just, like, a financial thing. My own curiosity taught me. Another question: How are you doing during this global pandemic? What do you do to go to your place of wholeness?

Price: I mean, I’m not gonna lie, I feel real burned-out. Ramona is not sleeping still through the night, which is insane because she’s over a year old. My mom’s come down and stayed with us and helped me because there would’ve been no way I could have put the record out and done interviews. Other than that, I’ve kind of leaned into everything pretty heavily: going on lots of hikes and spending a lot of time outside, fishing. Nothing to write home about. What are your next few months like? Are you gonna get back in the studio? 

Howard: This is like a whole new world for me. I haven’t had a “home schedule” for probably a decade. But getting to make my days up has been kind of eye-opening and amazing for me. This is literally like a whole new life. I’m really grateful for my career, obviously. But before, everything was on a timeline: You’re living on this timeline, and you would try to squeeze life into those spaces where you could make room for it. Having time now, I realized that the whole thing doesn’t have to revolve around the timeline. So that’s been really good for me, actually. I’ve been, like, vegan. I’ve been tying flies for fly-fishing. I’ve been on a boat, and cooking.

Do you both feel a heightened obligation to keep up your social media during lockdown?

Price: I have a private account. 

Howard: Me too. I have a fishing account

Price: Your fishing account is the best on the on the internet.

Howard: BrittanyBeFishing!

Price: Whenever I’m feeling a little burned-out, I’ll just log into my family account, and I’ll just put up, like, kid pics. And then I just kind of have my close friends that I follow in there. I don’t feel like I have to constantly put stuff up. You’ve done some Airbnb reviews on your private one. Those are so good. They need to be on your public page.

Howard: I’m the worst at tending to my social media. I think part of it just has to do with the fact that I really don’t want to deal with any naysayers. Always, one person’s gonna come along and have their fucking opinion. I love my fans. What I’m trying to say is I feel like it’s not a great safe space for me to really enjoy being a creative person. I feel like younger people right now are crushing Instagram and me, I’m just kind of like, “uhh.”

Price: What about the music industry has pissed you off the most?

“Nobody wants to say anything bad about the NRA,” says Price. “And I’m like, ‘Fuck them.’ I’m not going to play their games.”

Howard: Streaming pisses me the fuck off. The reason I say that is because there’s smaller and smaller ways of monetizing our work. We have to leave our families and hit the road and make the kind of money we need to survive. Streaming is cool and convenient, but how do we make it work for musicians? I think there’s a better way.

Price: I’m glad you brought that up. I would say the thing that pisses me off is genres and everybody wanting to stuff you in a genre and that’s how you’re known forever. How do you describe your sound?

Howard: Every time I get an Uber and they’re like, “What kind of music do you make?” I just say, “My kind of music.”

Price: That was my ambition with this third record, to not have everything drenched in only country instrumentation. I’m sure when you left your band there were probably a lot of people that questioned it.

Howard: I feel like I questioned it a little bit. I felt comforted by having someone to have ideas thrown back and forth with, and I enjoyed being on a team. I was just like, “What if I could have the confidence to do this by myself?” Because that’s what it takes.

Price: I think that when you’re out of your comfort zone, that’s where really great things happen.