Nashville's insurgent new star takes Uncut on a bar crawl

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Margo Price isn’t famous, but she’s getting there. The fiercest and most confident country debut of the year – a tough account of hard livin’ and hard drinkin’ – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter was released back in March to rapturous reviews, making her one of the most talked-about and written-about artists in any genre. Comparisons to Dolly and Loretta and Patsy and Tammy quickly followed, but like Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton, Price strikes a cagey balance between tradition and innovation, between reverence for the past and irreverence in general.

“Margo as a frontwoman, she’s just suited to it,” says Caitlin Rose, a longtime friend and fellow singer-songwriter who’s fought some of the same battles in Nashville. “Some people have to work to figure out that role, but she’s very much a natural. With a lot of newer country acts these days the question of authenticity is always being thrown around, almost needlessly so, but Margo’s writing pulls from the personal in such an aggressive way that there’s no room for that.

“Whatever she’s writing or singing or doing, she’s doing it in a way that’s authentic to herself.”

Rose knows from experience. She co-wrote “Hurtin’ (On The Bottle)”, the first single from Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, a few years ago during a long evening on Price’s front porch. “One night we were hanging out and playing music after the bars had closed,” Rose recalls, “and we realised we’d killed the handle of whatever we’d been drinking. Margo said something along the lines of, ‘Boy, we sure put a hurtin’ on that bottle.’ Me being the natural-born buzzkill that I am, I decided that we should write that song right now instead of going to get more beer.”

“Hurtin’…” could be a honkytonk throwback, but Price sings it with far too much bluster, and her band the Pricetags play it with too much rowdy energy, for it to be saddled with the traditionalist tag. Her songs sound brash and bruised, vulnerable and occasionally violent. “About To Find Out” promises an ass-whuppin’ to a rival, who might be another singer or just be someone at the bar, while “Hands Of Time” lays out her life in harrowing detail, owning up to the experiences that most artists might sweep under the rug: her family lost the farm when she was a child. She moved to Nashville and shacked up with a married man. She was swindled by unscrupulous managers. She lost a baby. She went to jail for drink-driving. Lesser artists might buckle from the weight of so much tragedy, but Price has turned it into rip-roaring country music.

“The lyrics to that song,” Price says of “Hands Of Time”, “came out very quickly, but it took a while to find the right frame to deliver it in. It gets a good reaction. Sometimes it’s painful to wear your heart on your sleeve and go through those details night after night, but hopefully it’s helping somebody else out there who might not have someone to talk to.”

For Price, country music – all music, in fact, but especially country – can be a powerful means of connecting with people, of having a deep exchange with listeners. “That’s what I always loved about country music – the songs being the stories in people’s lives. You can write an entire biography in four or five minutes. The best material is to peer into someone else’s life and get their insight into things and enjoy the conversation with another human being. And that’s really all anybody wants in the world: for people to ask how they are.”

Soon Price’s husband walks through the door. Clad in black jeans, an old T-shirt and a weathered vest worn unbuttoned and loose, Jeremy Ivey looks as if he might have walked offstage in Laurel Canyon circa 1970. They’ve been married for eight years, an item for 13: parents, bandmates, co-songwriters, collaborators, touring partners and tonight, drinking buddies. They’re only in Nashville for a few days between tour stops, and today are busy with interviews and errands. Price took their son, Judah, to the beach – or what counts as a beach in landlocked Nashville. Tonight they’ve hired a babysitter, called up some friends and hit the town hard, unbowed by the weight of a journalist in tow.

When Price met Ivey at a party, he was technically still married to a Waffle House waitress back in Georgia. “She had discouraged
me from playing,” he says. “She told me I sucked so, OK, I suck. Obviously it didn’t end well. I wanted out of it anyway, but being my first marriage, I didn’t want to fuck up my life.” Connecting musically as well as romantically, Price and Ivey started performing together almost as soon as they met, eventually moving to Colorado and busking the streets of Boulder, often pretending they were newlyweds playing to raise money for wedding rings.

After returning to Nashville they formed Buffalo Clover, an omnivorous group that mixed classic rock, sweaty R&B, honkytonk gospel, CCR choogle, Skynyrd boogie and gritty soul. The band released four long-players and toured internationally, but eventually splintered with the clash of strong personalities and unrealised expectations. “Margo’s a natural,” says Ivey. “A couple of years ago we would be playing for about 20 people, and she would just own it. She’s always had confidence onstage.”

Price may be the one in the spotlight these days, but tonight at Duke’s Ivey comes across as the more guarded and reserved of the two – not unwelcoming or unfriendly, but protective of his wife, perhaps sceptical of prying journalists where she is effusive and outgoing. His disposition is underscored by the tattoo on his forearm – EZRA in ornate script. He was Judah’s twin, born six years ago.

The children were something of a miracle, Price says. “My husband and I thought we couldn’t have kids. I had always wanted them, but eventually I got used to the idea. Then it happened by surprise.” She recounts the story in a verse on “Hands Of Time”: “Soon I settled down with a married man/We had a couple babies, started living off the land/But my firstborn died and I cried out to God/Is there anybody out there looking down on me at all?”

Price fell into a deep depression, as would any young mother facing such an unfathomable loss of life and faith. She drank heavily, acted recklessly. Rock bottom came in the form of an arrest for drink-driving, which meant spending weekends in county lock-up. That, too, inspired a song, the observant and self-deprecating “Weekender”, another standout on Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. It’s filled with concrete details (“red-dyed gravy and something that looks like meat”) and vivid characters (a crack-addict roommate who coughs all night and sleeps all day).

“The first 27 years of my life weren’t a walk in the park, so I look at the positives. I have a healthy baby at home. I have a husband who loves me. I have the God-given gift to sing. Those three things have kept me going, but also just the lack of knowing what the hell else to do. I knew that this was my true calling, so I had to keep going until I either lost my mind or somebody said, ‘Hey, you’re good!’”

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