Just last year, Margo Price caught the attention of critics and country music fans, especially those keen on the classic spirit of Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson, with her debut
Midwest Farmer’s Daughter.
From the twist on Lynn’s classic album title to Tom Petty and Levon Helm references, and down on into song structure and beautiful instrumentalism, Price has steeped herself in the influence of country greats in an attempt to revitalize a genre that has become as commercialized as metal in the ’80s. She’s not alone in this effort, as Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, Kacey Musgraves, and others have been on the same trajectory in recent years. Each of these artists has brought something at once new and antique to the post-Taylor Swift country landscape.
In fact, the music of these artists, and particularly Price, has genuinely very little in common with the “big machine” of Nashville. She does not fit the current genre’s norms stylistically or ideologically. But this is good. 2016’s
Midwest Farmer’s Daughter was a huge success critically, if not chart-wise, housing one of the best country songs of the decade, “Hands of Time”. And 2017’s All-American Made only improves and solidifies Price’s place as one of the most talented country artists around today with vividly personal story-telling, a little old-school spunk, and insightful social and political awareness to boot.
Co-writing much of the album with husband Jeremy Ivey, the lyricism is some of the strongest currently coming out of Nashville. Lead track “Don’t Say It” begins with a scathing critique on a lover with clever wordplay: “Don’t call the preacher when your car won’t start / Don’t call the doctor with a broken heart / Don’t count your money ’til it hits the bank / Don’t say you love me when you treat me this way.” Price’s crafty knack for ear-catching first lines continues on “Weakness”: “Sometimes I’m Virginia Woolf / Sometimes I’m James Dean.” This particularly memorable track freely shuffles along accented by violin flourishes, bouncing honky-tonk piano, and guitar solos before decidedly coming together on a 4/4 riff as Price laments, “Sometimes my weakness is stronger than me.”
Price discusses the loneliness, hardship, and growing pains of being on the road throughout the album, a common writing topic for artists after their breakthrough. “I’m so tired, but I can’t sleep / Too many obligations I’m trying to keep / Gotta please everybody except myself,” she complains on “A Little Pain”. Feelings of aimlessness are shared by the road-worn (but still kicking strong) Willie Nelson on the melancholy ballad “Learning To Lose”. This song in particular stands as a perfect example of Price and company’s attention to detail on every musical fill, instrumental break, and production choice. Each one adds to the song’s emotion, and there are effectively no mistakes made.
One of the more entertaining tracks, “Cocaine Cowboys” features a slow and sleazy guitar riff before jumping into a double-time chorus as Price calls out poser cowboys that are “Bad in the saddle / They’re all hat / They don’t rope no cattle”. The sonic diversity continues on the tropically-tinted “Pay Gap”, where Price asks for equality for women workers in America with hyperbolic jabs like, “We are all the same in the eyes of God / But in the eyes of rich white men / No more than a maid to be owned like a dog / A second-class citizen”.
Social and political awareness are the closing topics of discussion as the album ends with the title track discussing the good, the bad, and the unanswered questions of America. And in the most time-appropriate and sobering moment of the album, Price appeals to America’s recently lost legend, “So tell me, Mr. Petty, what do you think will happen next? / That’s all American made”. It’s one of those moments that stops you in your tracks, realizing Price wrote that line while Tom Petty was still with us, a companion that taught millions of Americans about love, heartache, and American life. His recent and sudden passing gives the line a heightened significance and almost prayerful reverence as Price wonders what will be next for the conflict-ridden United States.
What will have to be next is for artists like Margo Price to pick up the torch of being that musical companion, creating relatable pieces of Americana that can only come from a place of absolute sincerity and faithfulness to share pure music from honest personal experience. That is what she has done on her first two albums, masterpieces both, and what can be looked forward to in the future.