BACKSTORY: A Tennessee chanteuse who has channeled misfortune into a concise and modernly iconic country album
FROM: Born and raised in Aledo, Illinois, but raising hell in Nashville for the past decade
YOU MIGHT KNOW HER FROM: Her single “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle),” which has earned her widespread praise and an appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
NOW: Releasing her debut LP, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, as the first country artist signed to Jack White’s Third Man Records
“People need a little character-building sometimes,” Margo Price says, and her debut LP, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, is suffused with it. It’s something of a concept album based on Price’s own life: her family loses their rural Illinois farm after suffering through financial hardships, she gets exploited by managers, she loses one of her twin sons shortly after birth, she drinks too much and then goes into a deep depression that eventually lands her in trouble.
“There was a dark period where nothing was helping and nothing was making me feel better,” she says. “I hit a breaking point and part of me was thinking that maybe I needed to check myself into a mental institution. I was feeling so depressed and so terrible. And then I ended up in jail instead.”
But when she delivers lines like “I was fifty-seven dollars from being broke,” or “All I wanna do is make a little cash, ’cause I’ve worked all the bad jobs, busting my ass,” Price is not seeking pity. She’s stating her intentions—“I wanna buy back the farm, and bring my mama home some wine, and turn back the clock on the cruel hands of time.” While several songs channel Loretta Lynn or Emmylou Harris, others, like “About to Find Out,” brim with barbs worthy of Dolly Parton.
“[Character] writing is fun to do, but [it] wasn’t working for me. So I decided to be honest.”
“My husband [bassist Jeremy Ivey, who’s in Price’s band] and I, over the years, have done lots of fictional writing,” she says. “We wrote a song about a guy who finds a big bag of money, moves to Vegas, and marries a stripper, or whatever. That kind of writing is fun to do, but [it] wasn’t working for me. So I decided to be honest.”
Price was raised in tiny Aledo, Illinois, an hour south of Davenport, Iowa. She began writing songs and playing guitar when she was in high school, sang in the choir at school and church, and performed the national anthem at semipro hockey games. She dropped out of Northern Illinois University when she was twenty to pursue music full time.
Price comes from a golden songwriting lineage. Her great uncle, eighty-year-old Bobby Fischer, wrote for Conway Twitty, Reba McEntire, George Jones, and other Nashville singers throughout the latter twentieth century. When Price first wrote with Fischer, he didn’t sugarcoat how hard she would have to work to be successful. She moved to Nashville in 2003, met Ivey, and started several bands, one of which briefly included singer-songwriter Sturgill Simpson.
The songs on Midwest Farmer’s Daughter were written within the past three years, and the album was recorded largely over three late nights in February 2015 at Memphis’ famed Sun Studio without the support of a record label. To cover the costs, Price pawned her wedding ring and sold gear, clothes, and a car. “We were doing anything we could to scrape together and get money,” Price says.
After she completed a rough mix, she sent the album to thirty labels, from majors to one-man operations. All of them rejected her, and she began to feel cursed—doomed to posthumous success or worse. Finally, Third Man stepped in and signed her as the label’s first country artist. Jack White had been keeping tabs on her, she later found out.
“I knew it had the capacity to do a lot of things,” she says of the record. “I really did know the songs were good and I believed in it.” FL