Margo Price Interview

The Margo Price story is well known by now, selling the family car and pawning her wedding ring to finance the recording of her debut solo album Midwest Farmers Daughter. The album finally received the deserved love from Jack White’s Third Man Records, having been rejected about everywhere else. The acceptance by Third Man was a blessing in disguise because she was finally signed to a label renowned for allowing its artists the freedom to express themselves artistically, a factor critically important to Price. "I’d castrate my arm rather than sell out" she notes without a hint of humour. "The more popularity I get the more I have to try even harder to keep my feet on the ground and not sell out and not get into advertisements for products I don’t believe in. Sometimes it’s hard to turn down the money, not everybody buys records these days and it gets very gruelling being out on the road all the time away from my kid. But I love it and it’s what I am."

Midwest Farmer's Daughter is confessional, raw and personal. A depiction of her life journey, warts and all, from childhood to the present day, confronting family trauma, bad relationships, depression, a short spell in jail and the tragic death of one of her twin baby boys. Its successor All American Made, though not musically dissimilar, casts a wider net questioning gender equality, politics, insincerity and exploitation. I wondered how comfortable she is when not writing in the first person or real-life issues. "I’d soon run out of things if I keep writing about myself’’ she laughs’’ I think I’m a strong writer when I deal in the first person but both my myself and my husband Jeremy, who cowrites with me, have written fictional. We might be watching a film and a scene influences a song idea. We recently wrote a song about a couple that finds a bunch of money and go on the road running from the cops and another story about a stripper and her dippy husband. I like writing about stuff like that too.’’

There is a song writing bloodline in her family. Her uncle Bobby Fischer took similar risks to his niece when packing his bags and leaving seventeen years of steady employment with International Harvester in Illinois to head to Nashville in 1970 to try and make a breakthrough as a songwriter, a career he had pursued part time for a number of years. With the support of his wife, who remained in Rock Island Illinois with the children for a further three years, he survived a few rocky years to eventually establish himself and wrote songs subsequently recorded by artists including George Jones, Reba Mc Entire, Charley Pride, Conway Twitty, Tanya Tucker and Lee Greenwood. I asked would she ever see herself recording a Margo Price sings Bobby Fischer album. "I do, I definitely do. He’s one hell of a writer and I’ve learned a lot from him and look up to him so much. He keeps notebooks full of lines, just song ideas. My husband and I have been over with him sometimes and he’ll say, I have a song title. We worked together on the song, put it down on a tape recorder and he had us sign a contract that it was a co-write. He’s blood but there was no such thing as a handshake, business is business! For his eightieth birthday I went over to his house and sang Writing On The Wall for him and was so nervous’’

The past two years have been a whirlwind for Price with the release of her two solo albums within an eighteen-month period, resulting in endless touring, appearances on Saturday Night Live, Austin City Limits, Jimmy Fallon in the States and Later With Jools Holland and Glastonbury in the U.K.  The twelve preceding years laid the foundation stones for her breakthrough, recording three albums with Buffalo Clover, a rock and southern soul fusion band that she and her husband Jeremy Ivey co-wrote for.  I question the temptation to release another album immediately to continue the momentum or will she spend a bit more time touring the two last albums. "Jeremy and I have already recorded a third record’’ she explains "though I’m not sure if we will put it out next, we decided to just record as much music as possible now. I’m thinking also about a new direction of sorts but it will still be roots, there won’t be any electronic music going on or collaborating with any DJ’s, that’s for sure!  We’ve recorded the album that I just mentioned in Nashville having gone to Memphis for Midwest Farmers Daughter and All American Made. I might go down a complete different avenue, Joshua Tree or something like that, maybe the West Coast, I like to change it up.  It’s hard to decide when to release the next album because we recorded All American Made in December 2016 and waited all the way until October 2017 to get it released and I’m already tired of those songs now (laughs), reinventing them and changing the tempos to keep us interested and on our toes.  I’d really like to get back on the Spring album release cycle, it’s the perfect time, so I’m thinking of the next album release in Spring 2019. I’ve got stuff going on between now and then, I’ve been working on the soundtrack for a western film and we’ve talked about releasing a compilation of Buffalo Clover recordings including some stuff that’s unreleased so we’ve got a few things to tide us over. I’ve also got a country artist that’s one of my favourites and has a hold of one of my songs to hopefully record which I’d love.’’

The title track of All American Made was in fact written during her Buffalo Clover days and might not have seen the light of day had there been a different outcome to the last American Presidential election. "The election definitely gave the song more weight and gravity. The message has always been the same, I’ve always questioned authority and not trusted the powers that be and the last election definitely brought the song out, it’s amazing how events can change a song.’’

Price is representative of a growing group of female artists in East Nashville with the talents to make industry breakthroughs given the opportunity and some good breaks. I mention artists such as Lilly Hiatt, Erin Rae and Lillie Mae, three exceptionally talented artists, all neighbours of hers. Price has consistently written about gender inequality both in financial and career opportunities with This Town Gets Around from her debut album and Pay Gap and Wild Women from her current release. A torch carrier and spokeswoman for her peers perhaps. "I love Lilly Hiatt, I’ve played drums in her band! There’s always music circles going from disco to a poppy sound and then people get tired of the shallowness. I think now is a good time for musicians in general who are writing real heartfelt songs and not one dimensional. You may have heard of Dan Bradbury, he’s one of my favourite writers and he’s also struggling a lot to get people to believe in him and put his music out. I just tell them this is the purgatory period and there is light at the end of the tunnel and keep working hard and you’ll get the breaks. I really love Lillie Mae also, she’s been playing bluegrass for years and years, since she was a young child, she’s a phenomenal picker and great guitar player as well as the fiddle. Erin Rae is coming on tour with me opening on some dates in The States, such a talented writer, the Joni Mitchell of her generation’’

The C2C tour that she is currently playing is interesting in that realistically herself and Emmylou Harris are the only two acts of the twelve performers who could be classified as country in the true sense. They are also the only acts of the touring group that don’t get wall to wall airplay on Country Music Radio but have still managed to made major industry inroads. With a touring schedule that has resulted in her being at home for the grand total of two days in the past two months I wondered, given that she would be performing to a different audience than her core followers, if the exposure would be beneficial."Yeah, but you know what they say about exposure, some people die from it! Last night in Glasgow, I’m not sure if many people at the show knew or ever heard of me. It took some work but I think I did win them over. We were the only act to have pedal steel so I’m quite happy to represent the roots side of things and when I went to my dressing room and see its next to Emmylou Harris’s it makes me want to cry! So that’s good enough for me.’’

The mention of Emmylou Harris prompts me to recollect a conversation I was fortunate to  eavesdrop on a couple of years back. It’s September 26th 2016 and I find myself at The American Legion in Nashville, attending a party night hosted by young local honky tonker Cale Tyson. With the Americana Music Festival closing the previous day the evening promises to be the perfect come down before heading home to the real world the following morning. Between acts I slip out to the near empty bar for refreshments where, to my surprise, both Margo Price and her husband Jeremy Ivey were seated and in conversation with the bar maid, a charming lady who must have been approaching eighty years of age and who was obviously known to the couple. Only an hour earlier Margo Price had completed a live radio recording of Skyville Live, on stage with Emmylou Harris and was recounting the tale to the intrigued bar maid.’’ I’ve just been on stage with my lifetime hero Emmylou Harris’’, said a beaming Price to which the bar maid replied "But honey, you’re a big star now." Price gets quite emotional when I recall this incident, wiping a tear from her eye. We are seated in the hospitality room at the 3 Arena, where Price is due to perform that evening at the C2C Festival, on a bill that coincidentally also includes Emmylou Harris.  "Oh my God I remember that well. It’s pretty surreal some days. I had actually played The Americana Award Show at The Ryman in 2016 a few nights previous to that. I couldn’t find my ticket and didn’t know where my dressing room was. I thought I’d just go backstage and hang out. I passed the dressing rooms and saw a sign on one door that read Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt and Margo Price. I got so nervous that I thought, I can’t go in there right now. I went to the bathroom and stayed there for a while before I plucked up the courage to go in to the dressing room. When I did they were all so nice to me and I got a photo taken with me between Bonnie and Emmylou and after I played they both shook my hand and gave me some compliments and I was on cloud nine. Even last night in Glasgow when I went to my dressing room and see it next to Emmylou Harris’s it makes me want to cry’’ she laughs. "I love her so much and have covered so many of hers and The Hot Bands Songs over the years.’’

Emmylou Harris is only one of country music royalty that Price’s has been rubbing shoulders with in the past couple of years. Steve Earle, Kris Kristofferson and Buddy Miller, all heroes of hers, have shared various stages with her but possibly the most striking endorsement of her rising profile was having Willie Nelson guest on the track Learning To Lose on her current album. As the track fades out Nelson can be heard signing off by saying ‘Allright … that’s good’. And good the track certainly is. ‘’We were listening to a lot of Willie Nelson when we wrote that song so it was written in the style of Willie Nelson’’ she points out "I had never met him and my husband and I were in our bedroom writing the song and I said wouldn’t it be cool to get Willie to sing on this song. It was a pipe dream having not ever met him so we were on cloud nine when he agreed to sing on it. I’d love to hear him sing the whole song himself one day. His vocal was so good and his guitar playing too. We had so many solos from him that we didn’t know which one to pick for the track. I was sitting there listening to them with tears rolling down my face.’’

Interview by Declan Culliton  Photographs by Ger Culliton