On Friday, March 25, Margo Price will release her debut solo album, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, a record that’s as strong as it was a long time coming. The album was recorded at the legendary Sun Studios in Memphis on Price’s own dime; a longtime Nashville resident who found some success with her Southern rock group Buffalo Clover, she shopped Midwest to the usual suspects around town before finding a somewhat nontraditional partner in Jack White’s Third Man Records. Hers is Third Man’s first country release, and an essential one at that.
Price got my attention a few months back with her lead single, “Hurtin' (On the Bottle),” and its raucous, FADER-premiered music video, but she really won me over with her LP’s opening track, “Hands of Time,” a resilient six-minute telling of her life story. I’ve praised Kacey Musgraves’ similarly autobiographical “Dimestore Cowgirl” elsewhere, but Price’s story really gets its hooks in you for its open-endedness: Musgraves has, in many ways, arrived, but Price is very much still on the hustle. Or, as she sings it: Still running as fast I can, trying to make something honest with my own two hands.
When Price was in New York recently, she stopped by The FADER offices before driving home to Nashville. We had a long talk because, honestly, she has a lot of interesting things to say. Though she’s often described as an “East Nashville fixture,” her long career doesn’t seem to have especially helped this new turn as a solo artist; instead, I think of Price as a resilient outsider, grinding and succeeding beyond the major labels’ nouveaux traditional country scene. Her stories are all the more worth hearing because of it.
Tell me a little bit about where you come from.
I come from a small town in Illinois out in the middle of a lot of corn fields, bean fields. I lived there until I was 18, and then I left for college. Went to NIU, which is a university outside of Chicago, also a lot of cornfields. About two years into college, I dropped out of school and moved to Nashville. The plan was to go back to school there, but after I got there I just chose not to go that route, and it’s been in Nashville ever since.
I performed under my own name for a while, till I was 23, and then my husband and I started this band called Secret Handshake. It was very heavily influenced by The Kinks and a lot of British music. Our whole goal was to write songs that were purely topical—no love songs, just political and social commentary. Which was like, maybe not the thing to do in Nashville. We moved to Colorado and we were living in this tent, in this area where you didn't have to pay for camping. We would go into town, and we really needed to make a good amount of money busking because we didn't have jobs. We made a sign that was like, "Just married, need money for rings." We were on Pearl Street in Boulder, where there's a lot of hippies and a lot of people busking and doing performance art. So there's a lot you have to compete with, people like spitting fire. So we pulled the “Just married.”
What do you mean “topical songs”?
Well, we were playing covers and stuff too. But there was a song called “Archetypes of War”… I can't believe I'm telling you this. There's another song called “Bloodshed.” There's a song about this guy named Paul House who was in jail, supposedly innocent. He ended up getting taken off death row. I don't think our song did it but, you know, I wanted to say something in the music. It pissed me off that every time I turned on the radio and it's just childish love songs. So we went through that phase for a while after listening to lots and lots of Kinks. It was an interesting time to think back on us trying to play those kinds of songs in Nashville. Nobody else was doing that.
When did you start Buffalo Clover?
It was after we moved back from Colorado the first time. We started to just write normal songs again, whatever that means. We started looking for musicians and met a good group of people we got along well with. We gave it a good go. Spent years and years and years. At the time, I thought that that was the project that would get me there but—I mean, we did some great things, we had a lot of great opportunities. We were signed to a very small label, and that just turned out very poorly. It seemed like a good idea at the time, like, "Oh someone wants to help us," but it just dug a bigger hole of debt and failure.
Your husband played in the band, too, right?
Yeah, he played guitar. I just mostly sang. I put down the acoustic and focused on fronting, which was intimidating at first but then freeing to learn how to do. I remember trying to watch people that were really good at working the mic. People who would, like, throw the mic stand down and then kick it up with your foot and catch it—stuff like that, totally useless mic tricks. I guess maybe that's part of the thing that never felt natural about it. I put my guitar down and was trying to be somebody that I wasn't. I'm not James Brown. It was fun, though. It was the rock & roll days of my youth.
And now he plays bass for you.
Yeah! He plays bass in this band now. But when I first started it, he wasn't in the band at all. He was in Buffalo Clover, and I had this other side project, and eventually it gets cheaper to higher your husband to play bass.
“It doesn’t matter how cute and innocent-looking you are. When you do bad things, you will eventually get caught. Don’t try to outrun the police, don’t smash your car into things in front of cops.”
None of those old bands were straight-up country music, though, right?
No. But everything that I sang, everything that I put out, would get put into “alternative country” or whatever. In a review, it would be, like, “roots country,” and the whole time I was like, “This is me doing rock & roll! This is me not doing country.” But I don't know, something about my voice made it always country no matter what I did.
As for the new stuff, I mean it's country music—there is pedal steel, there's fiddle, there's all these things that make it country music—but I would like to think we are re-inventing it in a way. It’s not just like we play old-time country music. I don't strive to just be traditionalist. I'm not doing 1-4-5 for every song. I'm not knocking anyone who does, sometimes you only need 1-4-5 to make a good song, and I have songs like that, but I would never want to pigeonhole myself and say that I play traditional country. There's different layers to it.
One of my favorite songs on the album is “Weekender,” about spending the weekend in jail. I feel like women in country music often sing about doing bad and destructive things, but very, very rarely about getting caught.
Jail songs, prison songs, in country music are pretty common, especially in the old stuff. But there's not a lot of women, I think, who have written jail songs. It's not a very womanly thing to go to jail. I was just really depressed, and I made a lot of bad decisions, and that is how it ended. It was a bit of a turning point. It wasn't like I knew it was gonna end that way, but I knew that I was so depressed that something was going to happen, whether it was locking myself up in a mental institution or whatever it was, so that was kind of how the depression ended. It doesn't matter how cute and innocent-looking you are. When you do bad things, you will eventually get caught. Don't try to outrun the police, don't smash your car into things in front of cops.
Oh, so it’s a true story. You smashed your car and tried to keep going?
Something like that [laughs]. My grandma won't be happy if I really come out and say that happened. I tried to keep it from the family. My town back home is really small, the type of place where people sit around and listen to the police scanner because there's not much else to do. “Someone got pulled over out on Route 5! Gonna talk about it.” So I tried to keep that to a minimum but then I wrote a song about it, so it's gonna get out there somehow. You make mistakes and you learn from them, and I'm definitely not an advocate of driving around being an idiot. I just was in a very bad spot and it was very dumb. I regret it very much.
I interviewed Dave Cobb recently, who has produced a lot of great country albums lately. And I have to say, it was nice to hear a great, traditional yet forward-thinking record that he didn’t do.
I think over time there's always been these producers who get this huge buzz, and it's a big deal for a while and then it's onto the next. I think Dave is really talented, I love Sturgill's record, I like a lot of the stuff he's done. I think he was also really lucky in finding three really talented people who write really great songs, and they're all very different from each other. But would Chris' album have been as great if somebody else produced it? Probably. The songs are really good. It's funny, I think for a while I thought that I had to do that or I wouldn't be successful. But I didn't have the opportunity to do so, or I might have.
You just went and did the record. You weren't signed to anybody, right?
I tried to write all these labels and people, like, “I have amazing songs, you have to front me money, I promise I will make a good record,” and they were just like, “Denied.” But I just knew I had to get what I was doing out there because everyone else was having this great amount of success. My husband one day was like, “I'm gonna sell the car.” I actually tried to stop him. I was like, “This is a stupid decision, this is not responsible, parents shouldn't gamble all our belongings on one thing.” But there was no stopping him. He sold the car and then we booked the studio. Just as quick as it comes, it's gone. We recorded the whole thing live in about three days, and then we did some overdubs later. That money ran out, and the guy who mastered it, they did it on an I.O.U.—”I'll pay you back for this later, somehow.” They were really sweet to help me do that. Once I heard Third Man was interested, it was a really great feeling. There were all these other labels in town that I thought would be into it that were just passing. A lot of them weren't even listening to it because they knew me from Buffalo Clover, and they had just labeled me a loser a long time ago. There was lots of rejection letters. You check your email in bed, before you even get out of bed for the day, and you're just getting your rejection letter, it's so hard to get out of bed.
“I was like, ‘This is a stupid decision, this is not responsible, parents shouldn't gamble all our belongings on one thing.’ But there was no stopping him. He sold the car and then we booked the studio. ”
How has having your son changed things?
Time will tell how long I go out for stints on the road without him, but before it was like, I would take off and leave at the drop of a hat. Now there's planning that has to be involved. It's funny how it's a double-edged sword with men and women. There’s so many men that tour constantly and they have children, and it's not even an issue. Nobody asks, “Where's your kid?” Well obviously, the kid's with the woman at home. So our situation is a little bit different. But it's nice to see people like Jason Isbell and his wife having children, and Carrie-Anne and the Shovels & Rope folks, they just had a kid, and Loretta Lynn had four before she even got her start, and Tammy was a mom. You go back and you look at all these people and you're like, “Oh, they all had kids. It's fine.”
Your great uncle, Bobby Fischer, has a storied career as a country songwriter. Is he a figure in your life, or just a distant relative?
No, he's a friend. We've become really close, but it took a while. When we used to vacation down in Florida, we would always like stop in and stay at his house and look at all his cool old records on the wall. When I first came down there, my mom was pushing the relationship. She was like, "You need to go talk to Uncle Bob 'cause he'll just put you in touch with all the right people and connect the dots and everything will happen," but that's not how it works. I went to his house when I first moved down there and played him a couple songs, and you could just tell, like, he wasn't really impressed [laughs]. He just kind of sat there and gave me a line of advice, but we kept in touch over the years, and I go over and we write together now. He's super old school. Here I am, you know, pushing my record button on my iPhone and he has a boombox with like a tape player in it. When you finish a song, he prints out a paper and you sign it, like, "We wrote this song together on this day!" It's so funny. It's pretty cool, but it's a different way to do things.
Since he was skeptical at first, do you remember convincing him to come around?
He came out to this show that Rolling Stone Country had put on when they first opened their office there. They had me headline it or whatever. It was at this place called Exit / In, it's a really historic Nashville venue, and so he came out to that show with his wife, Helen, and obviously they're the oldest people in there, hanging out at a rock club. We got done and we took a photo together and he was just like, "I'm so proud of you." It was a nice feeling. I just sang at his 80th birthday party, too. It was all these heavy-hitter old songwriters in their 40s, 50s, 60s and my uncle, he turned 80. I sang like one of his songs—everybody showed up and sang one of his songs to him. It was really cute.