Photos: Michael Bialas

Margo Price and Suzanne Santo: Honky-Tonk Women Take Good with the Badassery on Tour

What happens when two accomplished singer-songwriters with deep roots cred take different paths during their 2018 road trips that include hot (and cold) stops in Colorado?

All American Made
Margo Price
October 2017
Ruby Red
Suzanne Santo
August 2017

Margo Price has reserved a warm spot in her heart for Boulder, Colorado, and that came in handy when her 2018 tour stopped at the Fox Theatre on 20 Feb. For Suzanne Santo, it might be a cold day in hell before she returns to Fort Collins, another supposedly cool college town off Interstate 25 that provides a convenient double play for many musicians routing their tours through the Centennial State.

These two honky-tonk women are hard-working, thirty-something singer-songwriters with Midwestern values who don’t always get what they want, but try, try, try to get what they need. What happens when they hit the road as solo artists can be uplifting or downright perplexing, but hopefully never too hopeless to call it quits. Here’s an examination of how their recent experiences compared.

When the doors finally opened a few minutes past 8:00 pm for the shivering handful in line for the Margo Price show at the Fox on a topsy-turvy Tuesday, it was nine degrees on the Hill in Boulder after an extreme temperature drop. Known for its party atmosphere, the popular college town this night had students packed into the nearby Starbucks like they were giving away Blonde Espressos for free (maybe they should).

Margo Price performs at the Fox Theatre in Boulder.

Price, the current queen of alt-country and still riding high after the October 2017 release of her sophomore solo album All American Made, barely mentioned the weather, though, even after a much-needed snowstorm dumped several inches along the Front Range. Six songs into her hot-blooded set, Price was thinking about about one of Boulder’s main attractions.

“My husband (multi-instrumentalist, songwriting and performing partner Jeremy Ivey) and I, long before we were married, before we had kids, we came out here to Boulder, we sold all of our stuff in Nashville, said we were done with the dream, we were done chasing music and we moved out here to Boulder and we were living out of our car and out of a tent,” Price said after wrapping up “Heart of America”, one of the nine songs she and her crackerjack band performed that night from the 11-track album. “We’d come down to Pearl Street and we’d busk. We set up this guitar case and a little sign that said, ‘Just married. Need money for rings.’ (crowd laughs) It was such a lie. We had to eat dinner, so … so it’s good to be back.”

A supportive crowd that threatened to overflow the Fox’s 625-person capacity — even with Price set to play in Denver’s sold-out Bluebird the next night — cheered loudly with approval, perhaps realizing that sheer talent will only take you so far without a little luck.

Suzanne Santo tells her Colorado horror story.

Less than a month earlier, Suzanne Santo, one-half of the indie rock-roots, Los Angeles-based duo HoneyHoney (a personal favorite since I first saw them — as a supporting act — at the Fox in 2012), had her own Colorado story to tell, only if it wasn’t nearly as sweet.

Wrapping up her first tour of 2018 without HoneyHoney partner Ben Jaffe, Santo played at comfortably grungy Globe Hall in Denver on 28 Jan in support of Ruby Red, her solo album debut that was one of my top choices of 2017.

Though the long, narrow venue with a standing-room-only (other than the church pew in the back) capacity of about 250 was not quite filled, there were fervent followers in the house. And Santo was grateful and relieved after the attention she and her two touring bandmates — guitarist Blaine Stark and drummer Paul Doylereceived during “Handshake”, her opening number that also kicks off Ruby Red.

“Wow, you guys are so quiet. I gotta tell you, after the last couple of shows [in Colorado Springs and Fort Collins], not so much,” Santo said. What a treat! Thank you, guys.”

Eleven songs later, during a rousing 80-minute performance that just continued to build momentum, Santo told the Story of Fan Interference (if one dares to attach “fan” to a couple of dopes) that happened the previous night at the Magic Rat, a bar inside the Elizabeth Hotel in Fort Collins.

“So there’s also like drunk patrons that are just staying at the hotel getting fucking bombed,” Santo said comically to a crowd that responded correctly — with hearty laughs. “And we were loading out our gear and trying to sell merch. … This guy jumps up on stage and starts playing Paul’s drums. And I walked up and was like, ‘Dude, you can’t do that. You gotta get out of here.’ And he just didn’t look at me, he just walked away. And five minutes later, his dumbass buddy comes up, it was just like (the movie) Step Brothers. …

“Pounding, pounding on the drums like a child. And I’m gonna say this guy was in his 50s, maybe pushing 60s. And I was like, ‘Dude, get out of here. And he wouldn’t stop. And I had to push him off the stage. I was like, ‘What the fuck is wrong with you?’ … And he was trying to hit [the drums] on his way out as I was pushing him. And the thing is, they went to the hotel to try to get their rooms comped because they were treated poorly by the band. … I hope to God they didn’t comp their rooms. But we’ll never know and I don’t want to know. Anyway guys, here’s some rock ‘n ‘roll.”

Such is the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle for the determined musician just trying to eke out a living in this day and age, even two performers who were raised as Midwestern girls (Santo in Cleveland; Price in Aledo, Illinois). But how do you measure success when the fate of two equally talented artists rests in the hands of one or two disrespectful goons?

These two shows — regardless of the circumstances — might be hard to top by any all-Americana man or women as the calendar slowly counts down to 2019. Hopefully, there will be plenty of reasons such as these to still see them both this year.

Margo Price sings a duet with opening act Particle Kid.

Surprise, surprise

Margo Price: Midway through a 95-minute set that often included her harmonica-playing husband at her side, this Midwest Farmer’s Daughter announced that a duet was worked up earlier that day to perform “Learning to Lose”, which she sings on All American Made with Willie Nelson. Though the audience was teased with “Highwayman” to introduce the headliner’s set, the Red Headed Stranger was nowhere to be found when Price brought out her special guest.

Particle Kid, the artist formerly known as J. Micah Nelson, was the night’s impressive opening act and returned the favor after Price and some of her band members appeared near the end of his well-received show to perform his “No. 1 hit song” — “Everything Is Bullshit”. It shouldn’t be too surprising to learn that he did a reasonably effective job substituting for Nelson on “Learning to Lose”. Particle Kid actually is one of Willie’s kids, too.

Suzanne Santo reunites with Ben Jaffe, her HoneyHoney partner.

Suzanne Santo: She didn’t forget her bit of HoneyHoney, after all. Jaffe, who’s releasing his solo debut album this year, not only was visiting in the Denver area, but jumped onstage to play electric guitar on a couple of their band’s best songs — “Yours to Bear” and “Don’t Know How.” Called a “champ” by Santo, Jaffe was accompanying her for the drive back to L.A.

The punchlines were an added bonus.

Santo (to the Mile High City crowd): “Do you get a double workout when you work out at high altitude?
Crowd: “Yeah.”
Santo: “OK, cool. Awesome. So I should totally have a six-pack right?
Jaffe: “Well, it’s a 12-pack here.”

Instrumental in their success

Price: Sticking mainly to the acoustic guitar in Boulder, the gutsy performer who’s struggled to master the mandolin did jump behind a second drum kit alongside full-timer Dillon Napier during “Cocaine Cowboys” and “Paper Cowboy”.

After that first go-round, one of two extended jams that included impressive licks by exceptional electric guitarist Jamie Davis and pedal steel player Luke Schneider, Price moved to the keyboard while the rest of the band took a break on “All American Made,” one of the few ballads that Price ended with a vocal wallop.

“I’m not really a drummer,” Price admitted between songs. “I’m not really a piano player, either, but I’m gonna do it.”

Santo: Her violin playing that can be fabulously furious or touchingly tender thankfully remains a principal part of the act, but she apparently has left her banjo behind. Santo, though, made up for it by playing plenty of electric guitar, which she learned before a tour in 2016 that brought HoneyHoney to the Ride Festival in Telluride.

Trying to up “the rock factor” that year, Santo began with an Eastman on songs that normally involved playing an acoustic guitar. “I actually went to Eastman to talk about their violins and told them I was also in the market for a hollow body/electric and ended up leaving with both of those beauties (on an endorsement basis),” she told me via email after a pair of festival weekend performances that July. Since then, she has added a few more electric guitars to her arsenal.

Margo Price rarely removed her cowboy hat.

Fashion sensible

Price: Wearing a traditional burnt-orange cowboy hat that she rarely removed, Price looked like the sweetheart of the rodeo with fringe and embroidered flowers on her purple, two-piece suit. For the extended encore that included “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle)” and “Proud Mary”, Price took off the jacket to show her support again for Particle Kid, revealing one of his “Everything Is Bullshit” T-shirts.

Suzanne Santo’s one-piece jumper was a real crowd-pleaser.

Santo: The former model and onetime aspiring actress goes the extra mile with her style (and wore a post office uniform while playing the drums as “Mail Lady” at the end of five episodes of the 2017 goofy comedy TBS series The Guest Book with Jaffe (billed as the “Exterminator”). While earning a lot of style points for the one-piece jumper she bought in Denver during a cross-country drive all by herself, she realizes the outfit doesn’t always make the musician. Told after two songs that her wide-brimmed hat was affecting the sound, Santo shrugged and tossed it aside, saying, “Sometimes you have to sacrifice fashion for rock ‘n’ roll.”

Cover stories

Price: Bob Dylan’s “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” was a quirky change of pace but the Tina Turner-inspired version of John Fogerty’s “Proud Mary” was a last-gasp blast for the Wild Woman who doesn’t worry about being “high … from the altitude.” Turner has referred to her four backing dancers as “Flowers,” and even though they weren’t available, Price brought along her own — in the form of a bouquet of roses she passed out or threw out while moving through the crowd in the show’s closing moments.

Suzanne Santo gladly adjusts a microphone stand during her song with opening act Mapache.

Santo: All the covers (Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man”, David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream”) were highlights but by bringing out opening act Mapache‘s Sam Blasucci and Clay Finch, a beautiful version of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Helplessly Hoping” turned into a tearfully poignant moment, even if the lead singer had to play emergency techie to adjust a failing microphone stand.

Margo Price performs with her harmonica-playing husband Jeremy Ivey.

Then and now

Price: The former lead singer of Buffalo Clover — which also included Ivey and Napier — was first brought to my attention in 2013 by a rookie publicist, who wrote in an email pitch:

“Their new record, Test Your Love, is coming out 11/12 and features Brittany Howard from the Alabama Shakes. They just returned from a full tour of Spain and the UK … also Margo (lead singer) is a mom to a super cute tiny boy human.”

Talk about burying the lead. I liked what I heard on Test Your Love (which also featured current Price pianist Micah Hulscher), and requested an interview with “Margo.” It never happened (another rookie mistake?) as Buffalo Clover, whose songs included “All American Made” and “Luck,” morphed into Margo and the Pricetags, which included current bassist Kevin Black.

Price, who has experienced heartbreak, reeling into depression after losing her “firstborn son to a heart ailment,” got her lucky break as a solo artist when she signed with Jack White’s label Third Man Records and recorded Midwest Farmer’s Daughter in 2016. Even though she’s been writing songs since moving to Nashville in 2003, Price was named Emerging Artist of the Year at the 2016 Americana Honors and Awards.

Price became a major fixture on TV shows such as Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown (her “Tennessee Song” can be heard at the 1:40 mark) and Saturday Night Live, while her “super cute tiny boy,” Judah, is now 7 years old.

This week, she just released her latest music video, “A Little Pain”, from All American Made.

Her current tour, which includes sold-out shows throughout the West and at the Ryman Auditorium, runs through May, followed by a busy summer festival season.

Santo: There are no upcoming tour dates for Santo or HoneyHoney listed, but Jaffe has five shows scheduled for March, and he and Sage Atwood made a music video for “Dominator,” the first single from his upcoming 2018 release Oh, Wild Ocean of Love.

In August 2017, HoneyHoney, which formed in 2006, announced that they had left Rounder Records, the label that released 3, their 2015 Dave Cobb-produced album, and wrote in an email update to their supporters:

“We still love to party but the parties will be different for some time, solo parties. HH will continue to spread the word on our individual projects but you can find us both separately on the ol’ socials and with new mailing lists and websites. … Guys, we love you. Your support is what allows us to do this.”

— Ben and Sooze

Michael Bialas is a journalist and photographer who enjoys writing about entertainment and sports for a number of online publications, including PopMatters and No Depression. Follow him on Twitter: @mjbialas

Concert photos by Michael Bialas. See more of Suzanne Santo in Denver and Margo Price in Boulder.