Margo Price has spent the past hour driving through the rain with a tornado on her tail. All week, storms of Old Testament magnitude have buffeted the alternative country star’s home near Nashville. As she negotiated the latest deluge, she was reminded of a passage from her 2022 memoir, Maybe We’ll Make It.
“The first movie I remember watching was The Wizard Of Oz,” she writes. “From that moment on I imagined I was Dorothy ... I wanted to click my heels and be somewhere else.”
Just like Dorothy in Oz, Price knows how it feels to be chased by tornadoes – figurative and otherwise. Price lost a baby son at 10 weeks in 2010, suffered post-partum depression after the birth of her daughter in 2019. And struggled to keep her marriage afloat amid infidelity on both sides. Two years ago she quit drinking – but only after her editor pointed out to her whiskey had a starring role in Maybe We’ll Make It.
Price fretted about putting all of this into her book, which, in terms of heartbreaking honesty, gives Prince Harry a run for his money. Four months on, though, she is proud to have had the courage to share these traumatic chapters with fans. Their positive feedback has had a revitalising effect: she has taken that sense of vindication and celebration and poured it into her effervescent fourth album, Strays, released January 13.
“I feel stronger than ever,” Price says, having finally outrun the tornado and pulled into her driveway to chat by Zoom. “Leading up to it, there was a lot of anxiety. A lot of self-doubt. A lot of fear and shame. But now that it’s out and I’ve been able to talk to so many fans and so many people who read the book ... They thought it was really brave. So now it feels it was meant to be.”
Strays was written and recorded as she was deep in the final revisions of Maybe We’ll Make It. One project seeped into the other: the LP’s opening track, Been To The Mountain, is essentially the book retold as three minutes of Tom Petty-style heartland rock.
“I’ve been a number, I’ve been under attack,” Price sings in her flinty, expressive voice, over a firestorm of chugging guitars. “I have been to the mountain and back.”
“Somebody was saying: ‘Oh, you’ve been to the mountain – you’ve been to the top or whatever’,” she says. “I was like ‘wow. It’s more like I’ve been through hell and back’.”
Hell is something Price (39) can talk about all day. The singer is a leading light in what might loosely be called the independent country scene. She arrived with a splash: her 2016 debut Midwest Farmer’s Daughter was the first country album released by Jack White’s Third Man Records.
It created an instant sensation. Rolling Stone compared her to Loretta Lynn. The Guardian heard a young Dolly Parton. In 2019 she received a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist, losing out to Dua Lipa. Jack White, Dolly Parton, Dua Lipa – for a country artist coming from left of centre, this is what the big-time looks like.
The journey to the bright lights had, however, been long and arduous. As recounted in Midwest Farmer’s Daughter and in her book, Price grew up in Aledo, Illinois – the sort of decaying rust-belt town that it would be easy to think only existed in Springsteen songs. She was drinking by her early teens and lost her virginity aged 14. “Graduation couldn’t come fast enough,” she writes of her high school years. “The walls of my town were closing in on me.”
Amid the poverty and the claustrophobia, music was her constant and her guiding light. She left Aledo to study dance and theatre at Northern Illinois University. Next, she upped sticks for Nashville. Her dream was the dream everyone has when they go to the home of country music: to become a star. However, country music was in no rush to discover her. For 10 years she waited tables, taught dance classes and worked on construction sites, where her speciality was installing cladding on new builds.
Price was in her early 30s when she self-financed the recording of Midwest Farmer’s Daughter and got a copy into the hands of Jack White, who had stopped by several of her shows around Nashville. He was floored by the album – a confessional tour de force that spun tales of love and loss in the dark heart of the real America. It landed at a timely moment: her musings on the dark side of small-town America arrived the same year those same forgotten corners of the US, fuelled by deprivation and frustration, propelled Donald Trump to the White House.
[ Margo Price: midwest farmer’s daughter’s rocky road to success ]
“You have people that are living in poverty. There’s no middle class any more. It’s really sad to see how divided our country is. If we could all just work together we would realise we all want the same things,” she says.
The tragedy, she says, is that a divided America is a weaker America.
“They would rather have us fighting. Because when we’re divided, our power is weaker. It’s so sad to see. There’s obviously always been a war on the poor, a war on black people in this country, people of colour, queer people, women. If we all could band together maybe we could see some change. I still have hope. It is a bit of a dumpster fire here right now.”
Critics swooned over Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. The Nashville dream factory, however, didn’t know what to make of Price. It still doesn’t. For all the acclaim, she has yet to be invited to the Country Music Awards – Nashville’s answer to the Oscars. And despite her 2019 Grammy nomination Price wasn’t asked to sing at the ceremony. Shrugging, she explains that the ambivalence flows both ways.
“I have conflicting views and feelings about the country music industry. I love the music itself. I love what I perceive to be country music. That word is very complicated and it means something different from different people.
“As far as it goes with the mainstream pop country and the Nashville establishment organisations that have taken ownership of that word, yes, I have problems within it. You’ve got someone like [conservative country singer] Jason Aldean and his wife, Brittany Aldean, who are blatantly Trump-supporting. People that get lifted up and given awards and everything ... I don’t want to be associated with that.
There is another country tradition she says – one of defiance and of siding with the underdog. That is the spirit she celebrates on new songs such as Lydia. It’s a big weepy epic about a poor woman seeking an abortion. Lydia, of course, does so in a country where a woman’s right to choose is under threat as never before (Price points out the track was written before the US Supreme Court struck down the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling regarding the Constitutional right to abortion).
“Go back to Johnny Cash taking out an ad in a newspaper and flipping the middle finger to the CMAs [Country Music Awards]. That’s where I stand,” she says. “Johnny Cash was trying to make records about the Native Americans struggle. He was performing with people like Bob Dylan. He tried to change the establishment from within. That is where I’m at.”
By coincidence, Strays comes out on the second anniversary of her break-up with alcohol. She isn’t against stimulants. Several of the new numbers were inspired by a psychedelic mushroom binge. She has a strain of marijuana named in her honour, sold by her friend Willie Nelson’s Willie’s Reserve – a “trailblazing line of marijuana products”. Booze, though, was something else: a demon that had to be exorcised.
“I struggled with it for a long time. I would give it up for a little bit and then pick it back up again. It does feel like a bit of a miracle [that she has quit],” she says. “When taking mushrooms, I realised that I could absolutely quit drinking if I wanted. And then I went out and I got a bunch of reading material and read a bunch of books.”
The effect was dramatic: “I have completely erased the want or the need to drink from my brain. I was getting older and I could not deal with the hangovers any more. I don’t regret all of it. A lot of my partying was fun. Some of it I obviously do regret. I feel it was a time and a season. I got good at it. I became a professional and now I’m retired.”
Strays was written during lockdown. She struggled with the isolation – and with the disappointment of not being able to tour her third LP, That’s How Rumours Get Started, which came out bang in the becalmed summer of 2020. There were bigger challenges, too. Her friend and mentor John Prine died of Covid. And she nearly lost her husband, musician Jeremy Ivey, to the virus.
“I was incredibly worried about Jeremy,” she says. “It was a very difficult time. Having a new baby at home. Feeling some post-partum depression as well. And not having family and friends around to help us ... it was lonely. I’m just glad that we made it out and that Jeremy is still here.”
Strays is already being carried forward on waves of acclaim. The New York Times has praised its “big-hearted indie country, honky-tonk stomp and 1970s guitar-explosion psychedelia”. She hopes the record does well so that she is in the position to tour Ireland and Europe. Post-Covid, the costs of playing internationally have rocketed. Musicians at Price’s level – big cult artists with plenty of name recognition but without a superstar budget – have to think twice about their commitments.
“I would love to be over in Europe at least once a year because I know that I have fans there that appreciate me and understand what I’m doing,” she says. “But it’s expensive. Flights are expensive. I have a huge band. I’m not about to come over there and play as a three-piece. I’m going to let this album do its thing and hopefully I can get over there and not go into the red. So it is on my mind. I will be back for sure. ”
Strays is released January 13th