Understandably so, Margo Price is still in awe of Meryl Streep’s extraordinary Golden Globes speech. “The idea that actors and musicians have a role to convey emotions and experiences is something I agree with”, she says on a crackling phone line from Nashville, “and country music is a template for real life problems”.
Price released her debut solo album Midwest Farmer’s Daughter in March 2016. The album garnered widespread critical acclaim, featuring in the year’s best album lists of NME, Rolling Stone, and the Guardian.
Much of the album’s appeal comes from its raw, rootsy feel which hints at elements of honky tonk, blues, funk, and pure rock & roll. Price recalls absorbing a “wide range of music” throughout her childhood: “The top 40 from my mum’s radio, classic rock from my father and country music from my grandmas”.
As we talk, she reels off names of musical influences from Patsy Cline to Bob Dylan, and of course Loretta Lynn—her album title respectfully riffing off Lynn’s Coal Miner’s Daughter.
Album opener, ‘Hands of Time’, with its poetic journey through memory and lush instrumentation, sounds so vintage that you could almost believe it came from any decade. You find yourself agreeing with the bold declaration of her label, Third Man Records: “Hard work, stick-to-it-ivness, grit, and pristine musicality drenched in real life experience from the school of hard knocks… that’s Nashville. That’s country music.”
I can’t help but think that her spunky attitude comes from the difficult times revealed in poignant detail throughout her record. The album closes with “I’ll be desperate and depressed until I die”, and I ask whether that was reflective of her state of mind during the writing process. She reveals that the song was originally written at a time when she and her husband were “really struggling”—she was interviewed by Rolling Stone, but didn’t yet have a finished album—and conveys a personal realisation that “maybe success doesn’t cure depression”.
‘Your Town Gets Around’ is a no-holds barred critique of the country music industry, Nashville being the notorious town in question. In one of the most cutting lines, “maybe I’d be smarter if I played dumb”, she lays bare the dinosaur sexism she has encountered in country music. “There’s not a lot of space for women… it’s shoved down our throats that women should be the objects of songs, be objectified,” she says. She expands about double standards: “men are called ‘natural born leaders’ if they speak out, while women are told ‘would you stop bitchin’?’” Nevertheless, Price cites Loretta Lynn “singing about the Pill” as an inspiration for her own music which counters stereotypes with stories of resilience and determination.
Finally, I quote songwriter Bobby Braddock, who recently remarked “country music has become publicly apolitical.” Price agrees: “I do think country musicians over a longer period have become less political and more scared to voice their opinion”. She cites Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears, with its focus on the history and plight of Native Americans, as a “great political album” which has been overlooked (Price herself has been vocal in her support for Native American tribes resisting the controversial Dakota pipeline).
Inevitably, our discussion then turns to Trump, an especially knotty issue for current country artists. While Loretta Lynn has expressed her support for the president-elect, and most have remained silent, Price has been a rare vocal voice in opposition. She famously wore an ‘Icky Trump’ T-shirt at a live radio session the day after the election, for which she “was threatened that her name would be passed on to his team”. Why did she? “As musicians, we have to use our voices, voice our opinions… it’s all we have”, she replies. And with that, we are back to Streep’s speech: “Quoting Streep quoting Carrie Fisher—take your broken heart, make it into art”.