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

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That first somebody was Matt Ross-Spang, a producer and engineer at the legendary Sun Studio in Memphis. In early 2014, he oversaw a one-song session with an early lineup of the Pricetags. While the band hadn’t quite gelled into the powerhouse it is today, Price herself made a big impression. “I’d been at Sun for 11 years, and I saw all kinds of people come in to make a record,” Ross-Spang recalls. “But when she came in, well… I would never compare myself to Sam Phillips, but when he was running Sun in the 1950s, people like Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins just wandered in the door. That’s how I felt about Margo. She walked in with all this talent.”

A few months and a slightly new lineup later, Price and her band returned to Sun to record a full album, with Ross-Spang co-producing alongside Pricetags multi-instrumentalist Alex Munoz. To fund the sessions she had pawned her wedding ring and sold her car. “None of us did any pre-production,” says Ross-Spang. “They came in and did it live in the room, and we cut the record in three days. But Margo never does a bad take. She sang ‘Hands Of Time’ and the hairs on the back of my neck would stand up. I was trying not to show it, because I had to engineer. I was trying to act like this was an everyday thing.”

With the album finished, Price started shopping it around to Nashville labels, most of which weren’t interested. Fortunately, the music found its way to Third Man Records, the label founded by Jack White, Ben Blackwell and Ben Swank. Swank caught a live show and was floored, so he invited Price to the Third Man offices for a tryout. He set her up in what they call the Blue Room, a live venue and makeshift studio. While Price sang a harrowing tune called “Desperate & Depressed”, Swank hid in the control room with Blackwell and White. “We listened to her sing this song about how hard she’s working and how long she’s been ripped off,” says Swank, “and we were just blown away by her voice. As soon as she left, I turned to Ben and Jack and said, ‘So we’re doing this, right?’ And they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re doing it.’”

Price represented a risk for the label, which is better known for seven-inch singles and elaborate boxsets than for straight-up country albums.

“We don’t always want to be seen as Jack White’s project,” Swank says. “That means getting some new artists who change the conversation a little bit. If we’re going to stand on our own, we need artists who are outside of our world and our family. Margo is the first step in that direction for us. It’s our first dalliance with the country world, but we didn’t really initially target country at all. We knew that if it could get into the rock’n’roll world, the indie-rock people would dig it and the people who were into traditional country would dig it.”

Just as Price represents a new kind of country artist, she’s enjoying a new kind of country success. With her label targeting rock and indie publications rather than traditional country press, she has built up buzz without hit singles. Her album debuted at the top of the Billboard country album charts without an entry in the singles chart – a first in chart history. “We knew this was going to be something that spread on its own,” says Swank. “You can’t force something on people. Margo’s story is interesting, but a lot of it is the way she carries herself and the way she relates to people. So much of her personality comes through in her live shows.”

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