A few minutes before Margo Price comes on stage, I find myself talking to a friendly man from Birmingham. He tells me that the last time he saw Price—with her previous band, Buffalo Clover—the audience consisted of four people, “including the support”. What a difference a critically-acclaimed debut album makes: tonight, the country singer packs out the Bullingdon on one stage of a 2017 solo tour that will take her across the UK and America.
Price’s voice has been compared by many to Loretta Lynn in her heyday, and it sounds even more striking live. After the obligatory opening beer, she launches into a slow intro to ‘Tennessee Song’, the long, held notes showcasing a compelling blend of raspiness and crystal-clear expression. The versatility of her voice is underlined in a new song, ‘Taught Me With Your Eyes’, which sees her convey vulnerability over a steady waltz beat.
The four-strong band gives her songs a richer sound than on the record, with the pedal steel and her husband Jeremy Ivey’s harmonica adding a quintessential country twang. Declaring “I’m never going back to Florida unless it’s to see Mickey Mouse”, Price dives into ‘Desperate and Depressed’, a rant about a disastrous time on the road. The walking bass and pounding drum beat give an angry edge to the repeated cry “I’m desperate and depressed/Ain’t it a mess”.
You’d forgive Price for playing a set list full of her celebrated 2016 album Hands of Time, but she defies that expectation. “Who wants to hear some shitkicking country music?” she shouts at the start of ‘Paper Cowboy’, an old-school honkytonk tune reminiscent of Hank Williams. At one point, she even leaves the stage, allowing the band to play a completely instrumental number alone, as if we were in a Nashville country bar.
Homages to classic country and rock artists abound. In the night’s most intimate moment, she duets with her husband’s guitar accompaniment on Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’. Then, with just a tambourine and her voice, Price leads the audience in a stirring rendition of Janis Joplin’s bluesy ‘Mercedes Benz’.
Previously, Price has criticised lazy and stereotypical media comparisons to female country singers: she told Rolling Stone, “I feel kind of like one of the men. I’m like David Allan Coe. I’ve been to prison, man!” Her song ‘Weekender’— based on a weekend stint in jail— is one of the most popular songs of the night, a masterpiece of catchy hooks and tragicomic observations. To cheers she recounts writing the song in her cell, on a piece of crossword puzzle paper and a smuggled pencil.
In a similar spirit, she dynamically covers Merle Haggard’s ‘Red Bandana’ and Johnny Cash’s ‘Big River’ with the kind of gusto reserved for true devotees.
The gig is at times unpolished—the transitions are occasionally awkward, as Price does not quite have the technique of filling in gaps with conversation perfectly practised. The flipside of this is extraordinarily raw moments such as in the climax of ‘Hurtin’ on the Bottle’, when Price dashes off the stage and into the audience. Forming a circle, she dances enthusiastically with the crowd in one of the most astonishing crowd interactions I’ve ever seen.
Price continues to surprise with her encore. She covers Kris Kristofferson’s classic ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ with a piece of beautiful staging: she starts the song alone with a guitar, before her band gradually join her on stage and together build the song to a thrilling culmination. After ‘Four Years of Chances’, a blues-influenced original song with an alluring bass line, she concludes with Rodney Crowell’s ‘I Ain’t Living Long Like This’. While the band pounds out rocky rhythms, Price bounds across the stage with her tambourine, completely absorbed in the moment.
There is a final thunderous chord, a beat, and rapturous applause. The audience, and I, are left in no doubt that Margo Price is much, much more than her bestselling album.