Where Does Margo Price Get Off?
Willie, Billy, Loretta, and Nashville’s crossover queen
By Raoul Hernandez,
9:00AM, Thu. Jan. 25, 2018
Like Austin, Nashville cohabitates liberal and conservative bedfellows culturally, politically, musically. Illinois-born Margo Price, 34, who dropped out of college and moved to Music City when she was 20, embodies all the progressive literacy of country outlaw greats on two Third Man Records releases. She revisits Texas on Tuesday at Emo’s.
Austin Chronicle: Where does Margo Price get off?!
Margo Price: [Laughs] Usually the last stop. I try not to worry about whether everybody likes me or not. I think if everybody liked me, then I would probably be pretty bored with what I was doing, so I follow the muse wherever that takes me.
AC: Ever had that happen, where someone comes up to you, cocks a hand on a hip, and asks you where you got the gall for this or that?
MP: No, usually people just do that online. I don’t know if anyone would buy a ticket to see me if they didn’t like it [laughs].
AC: Since your solo debut in 2016, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, I’ve thought of you as the great missing link in country music – the artist that finally crosses the genre over to the hip indie kids thanks to the combination of your songwriting and the label you’re on, Jack White’s Third Man Records.
MP: Hopefully I’m converting a lot of people because there’s been great country music out there. We’ve just been through a long period [in popular music] of things being really happy and not having a lot of substance when it comes to the topic of songs. People get hungry for the truth after they’re starved of it.
AC: Ever get the sense that people who don’t even own a country record came out to your shows because they liked the songwriting and in fact got converted on the way?
MP: Yeah. I understand that people have been turned off of country music because of what the mainstream has forced on them for so long, but yeah, it’s been good to feel a little bit of a sea change. You just have to be on the look out for all the imposters out there that are trying to go back to their roots and make something authentic after years of just going along with the same thing everybody else has been doing.
AC: I’ve been thinking lately what a ruse the whole alt-country scene of the Nineties was, where punk rockers and metalheads got tired of taking that beating, and decided to play Waylon Jennings covers instead. In retrospect, much of that stuff hasn’t held up.
MP: Totally. This isn’t the first time there’s been a rebirth. It definitely seems to come in phases. But you’re right, there’s a lot out there that’s been washed over. People are just trying to find their way.
AC: Where you always country or was there a gateway for you?
MP: I always loved country music and listening to it, but I also grew up listening to a lot of rap. I grew up listening a lot of Tom Petty, just a lot of rock & roll. A lot of it is really connected, too. When you look at gospel music and blues and rock & roll and country music, they have a lot of similarities.
AC: Was there a particular artist, then, that sent you down down the path of hardcore country?
MP: Bob Dylan has always been the be all, end all for me. I love Bob Dylan, and he always followed his muse, too, whether that was playing with the Band or Johnny Cash. He kept his career going because he was always reinventing himself and always finding new things to be inspired by, whether it was gospel music or whatever. I definitely claim him as an influence.
AC: Have you had any occasion to meet him?
MP: I actually played a show in Milwaukee this year with him and Willie Nelson – and Jason Isbell and Sheryl Crow. It was amazing to see him. I didn’t have the opportunity to shake his hand, or talk to him, but it was very cool to play a show with him.
AC: You duet with Willie on the new All American Made. Any bigger country legends to work with than that?
MP: Well, Billy Joe Shaver, Emmylou Harris, Loretta Lynn. There’s a lot of them, I think, still out there. Willie is definitely one of the biggest icons and trailblazers out there, though, integrating jazz into what he did and making his own style. He’s just brilliant.
AC: What was it like, that first time you were on Willie’s bus?
MP: Oh, well, it’s kinda hard to remember [laughs], but it was pretty smoky. No, it was a great time. He was telling jokes and thanked us for being there, and playing at Farm Aid. I was just thrilled to meet him and his wife Annie, and their kids are so sweet. I met his sister Bobbie [Nelson], who’s still playing in his band and is still such a great player. And Paul [English], of course, is still playing with him, so it’s been a joy to get to know all of them and just spend some time with them.
AC: So the song, “Learning to Lose,” did you duet together in the studio or was that done remotely?
MP: We recorded that song at Sam Phillips [Recording in Memphis] and then we asked Willie if he would sing on it. He said, “Yeah, of course,” so I came down there to his studio in Spicewood, out by his golf course and home outside of Austin. Oh it was just so cool. The guitar was already set up; Trigger was there in his stand.
He came in and was in a great mood. He was also working on God’s Problem Child that day, his record, so I got to hear all of that before it was released. We just had such a great day there. Mickey Raphael, his harmonica player, he also played on that track. It was so cool.
AC: So many of his duets are simply digital files shared online, so working with him like that speaks to your talent.
MP: Willie was real encouraging to my husband [Jeremy Ivey] and I both. He said, “This is a great song,” and did a lot of takes. He did so many good guitar takes, too, that we had a hard time picking what solo we were going to use, because they were all brilliant. They were all so good and so different from each other. I bet we spent six hours one day just listening to everything that he had done. I had tears of joy coming down my face listening back.
AC: You mentioned Billy Joe Shaver, maybe second only to Willie Nelson in terms of stone country songwriters from Texas. Have you ever run into him?
MP: This past year, we’ve been covering his song “Black Rose” and I met him at Willie’s Fourth of July picnic. And I met him in Nashville one time, too. I’ve ran into him probably three or four times now, and I always go up to him and get him to tell me stories. I don’t even know that he knows who I am, but I always say, “Hey, it’s Margo.”
I told him this past year I was covering “Black Rose” and he said, “We don’t do that one anymore.” That was one of his earlier songs and has darker subject matter. He’s just great. He’s a legend. Years ago, we went to [Willie’s] Luck Reunion back before we were playing it and my husband took a picture of him. It’s always a joy to be around Billy.
AC: You mentioned Tom Petty before and you name check him in the new title track. Moreover, your album was released on his birthday, October 20, and he had died just previous to that on October 2. Scary timing for a song that had obviously been ready to go for a while.
MP: Well, yeah, really, who can anticipate something like that? We wrote that song probably three years ago. Like you said, the album was set to come out on his birthday, and I was heartbroken that he was gone. I really had asked that question in the song with the intent of maybe getting him to answer me. I grew up listening to him and the Heartbreakers, and just poured over the music. It’s a huge loss, because I think he had a lot more to do.
AC: Does his being named in the song, “All American Made,“ have anything to do with his song “American Girl”?
MP: I never thought of that, but I felt like some of the visuals in the lyrics to “All American Made” definitely had a Tom Petty feel to it. When I got to writing the last verses – me and my husband wrote it together – I said, “What’s more all-American than Tom Petty?“ So I thought, “Throw his name in there.”
And sometimes, I can get really annoyed if a song has a name drop in it. Unless it’s done the right way, like “Luckenbach, Texas,” or something [laughs]. But yeah, I think his influence on American music is huge. He’s touched so many people that it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t like Tom Petty.
AC: What’s your favorite Petty song?
MP: Ooo, that’s tough. I do love “American Girl.” I love “Last Dance with Mary Jane.” I love “Walls.” “Honey Bee,” “It’s Good to Be King.” I could just go on. He’s written so many great songs.
AC: Did you ever see him perform?
MP: Yes, I actually saw him in Nashville right when I moved there. He was playing in town at Starwood Amphitheatre and I went on a date with this guy who I didn’t even like to see him.
AC: That didn’t ruin the show, I hope.
MP: As soon as I showed up, I ditched the guy.
MP: [Laughing] Yeah. It was a great show.
AC: Another song that stands out on the album is “Weakness,” which preceded the new LP in a double EP. Country music is famous for turns of phrase like the one in that tune: “Sometimes my weakness is stronger than me.” Sounds so simple, but how hard is it to come up with a line like that?
MP: My husband and I both love that clever style of writing. A song like George Jones’ “It’ll Be Me” is a good example of that: “When the phone doesn’t ring, it’ll be me.” It puts it in a way that’s actually thought provoking. I think that both my husband and I are always looking for a way to invert a cliché or take some sort of Southern colloquialism or any little bit of wisdom – riddles even – and make them into something that’s memorable and new, but yet still feels familiar.
AC: Who came up with it, you or him?
MP: I think it was him, but it started from a poem I wrote. It started, “Sometimes I’m Virginia Woolf, sometimes I’m James Dean,” and it was me having these multiple personalities and describing them through characters that I admire. So he took some stuff I had, then threw the line in there, and then we put a cooking beat behind it. It’s so fun to sing. I’m lucky that I have him to help me make ideas that always keep us on our toes. We’re very competitive.
AC: Would the Beatles be the Beatles if Lennon and McCartney weren’t so competitive?
MP: Exactly. That competitive edge really does keep things interesting. Two heads are better than one.
AC: In the same vein, you must have felt an incredible pressure to follow up the first record. Did that pressure help, or hinder?
MP: Oh no, I didn’t feel pressure at all. I’ve been waiting my whole life to be heard, so I was really excited to finally have an audience. I’ve been writing my whole life. I feel like my husband and I have grown as artists and writers together, and I’m glad things have turned out the way that they have.
AC: I was struck when you played ACL Fest 2016. The first weekend you were back to back with a Texan country artist that also lives in Nashville, Kacey Musgraves. I kinda felt like y’all were country mouse and city mouse in that you’re an indie artist and she’s a major label act, and yet together you’re two of the best country acts out there.
MP: I kinda try and do my own thing. We’re both female and that’s our common thread, but I like Kacey. I like what she does and think she’s super cool, but I like to keep moving and just worry about myself. I didn’t remember playing at the same time, I just remember having a good time.
AC: Another quietly extraordinary song on the new album is “Pay Gap,” which harks back to the social activism of Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette. Can you tell me about the song?
MP: “Pay Gap” was something I’d been trying to write about for a long time. I felt it was important to get out, but it was a scary song for me to write, because of the subject matter, which a lot of people out there don’t think is real. So it took some courage to write and some careful thinking to make something that didn’t feel like it was dividing sexes or classes, but just telling the story in a very plainspoken way – the hard truth of life that women haven’t always been treated fairly and we’re still fighting for our rights. So yeah, that song was important for me.
And I did look at others writers that came before me, like Loetta Lynn and songs like “The Pill” and “Rated X,” and Henson Cargill’s “Skip a Rope.” It’s been done before, where you slip in a little bit of a message in there and also have some easy listening music to go with it. You can go a long way by sugar coating it a little bit.
AC: The line in there, “Don’t give me that feminism crap,” what are you referring to?
MP: Yeah, people always ask me about that line. It’s very tongue in cheek, like, “Don’t say ‘feminist’ like it’s a bad thing,” because obviously I am a feminist and it means equal rights for all. It doesn’t mean women are better, it just means that we’re all equal.
AC: Last question, what’s your favorite thing about Austin?
MP: Oh my goodness, my favorite thing about Austin? That is so hard. I love the food there, I love Barton Springs, I love all the cool record stores there, but I guess I’m just going to have to say what everybody says, and that’s Willie Nelson.