ABOVE THE CURRENT
Alt-country songwriter Margo Price dials up her ambitions on Strays, her fourth rock-leaning contemporary country album which was written in an Airbnb in Charleston, South Carolina early in the pandemic. She wrote about 20 tracks with her husband and co-writer Jeremy Ivey, including the first two singles. The full album ended up being 10 songs and is quite a desert trek, visiting longtime landmarks of country, rock, honky-tonk melodrama, and ’70s psychedelics along the way. Mushrooms were involved, so this one wanders as much as it wonders.
Since her 2016 studio debut, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, Price has blazed an adventurous trail through or around the country music industry. She noted that she never felt welcome in the pop-country world in her recent memoir Maybe We’ll Make It, and Strays keeps pace with the underdog spirit of her alt-country forebears, as well as with 2020’s That’s How Rumors Get Started. Price has seen her troubles through a highball haze in the past decade: she’s lived under the poverty line, lost a child two weeks after birth, battled alcohol abuse, wrestled with infidelity on both sides of a marriage, and eventually toured with a newborn. All of that personal pain and continued perseverance expands to a Panavision backdrop on the red-in-the-face rocker “Been to the Mountain.” Price has seen so damn much and she’s not the type of person to give up on her career. That opener kicks open the bar room door, leaving lines of empty bottles behind for a (mostly) sober future.
There’s a vulnerability and power heard on Strays that emits an immediate contact high. It’s the sound of an evolved and embattled country personality leaning on friends, such as Lucius and Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell. One of the standout tracks on the album is “Radio,” which sees Price working with fellow working-mom musician Sharon Van Etten. The daily challenges of being a mother are amplified during the pandemic here with lyrics about being exhausted and asking loved ones for just a morsel of alone time.
On “Landfill,” Price uses the visual metaphor of looking over a mountain of garbage that contains all her past mistakes and dissolves her initial embarrassments into a calm acceptance. Not every song is autobiographical, though. The acoustic single “Lydia” recounts a story of a troubled woman in an abortion clinic (reproductive rights continue to be a focal point for Price’s career). It’s a spare and heartfelt song nestled among the rowdy electric guitar jams.
Strays holds up the trash and tribulations of its creator’s past under the harsh light of day over and over again. This is the soundtrack of Margo Price’s self-acceptance and the music continues to hit hard, fast, and a little more in-control these days. You gotta let go and wander a bit before finding yourself, and Price does it with style and grace.