Margo Price Bets The Farm On It

Photos by Angelina Castillo
Photos by Angelina Castillo

Margo Price doesn’t have a lot of time off lately, which is why she and Jeremy Ivey, her husband and songwriting partner, made the best of a quiet day this summer between shows at a modest hotel off I-90 in Illinois, about two and a half hours from the small farming town where she grew up.

“We had a day off in Rockford, so we stayed at the La Quinta Inn just hanging out and riding bicycles around the parking lot,” Price says, seated outside at Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge in the Madison area of Nashville with Ivey, drinking a beer on the patio and slapping some aggressive mosquitos with her bare hands (those little buggers really seem to like her). But there weren’t any good restaurants around, so they found a bowling alley nearby and ate some wings. “We bowled like eight games,” she says, holed up at a table in a Neil Young t-shirt and jeans, kicking her boots up. “Everyone got really competitive.”

“Dollar games, dollar hotdogs,” singsongs Ivey, in various shades of brown and navy. Their son, Judah, even had his first Shirley Temple there at the Cherry Bowl, where Price, Ivey and the band — the Pricetags, as they’re known — all spent a Friday night shooting for strikes with their tour bus parked nearby, between dates supporting Chris Stapleton.

Shortly beforehand, performing at the Newport Folk Festival as a duo — something they hadn’t done in ages — Price and Ivey spent the time off stage enjoying the sea air and eating their “weight in oysters,” a habit they have shared with the legendary folk master, John Prine. Meaning, they’ve indulged in the salty molluscs with Prine himself, once at he and wife Fiona’s house. Ivey brought them over, and did the shucking by hand. Now they’re friends, even partaking in inside jokes about Price’s facial features — particularly one that has a little extra character thanks to being broken a few times. “Margo Price is great,” says Prine. “She’s the real deal and I’m in love with her nose.”

A few years ago, the only relation Price had to legends like Prine was maybe playing a few cover songs in her East Nashville backyard. Now, she’s sung with him — along with Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson and Loretta Lynn, and many others — a far cry from dive bars she’d frequented for over a decade, struggling to get her voice heard in a town that often loves a truck song more than a true talent. Since her solo debut Midwest Farmer’s Daughter came out in 2016, she’s appeared on Saturday Night Live, played Newport Folk Festival and Farm Aid, and saw her record make an entrance in the Billboard top ten. Now, she has a new album on Third Man Records, All American Made, and an extensive set of dates to go along with it. Given all that, it’s been harder to find those moments to relax, so they’ll take it where they can get it, even in a La Quinta parking lot: and for Price and Ivey, a songwriting duo in the tradition of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, they’re always working anyway. Notebooks come along everywhere: even with some beers on a Mexican vacation, even on a camping trip. Some bring magazines or card games. They bring pens.

But Price and Ivey have been home long enough now, between those weekend runs with Stapleton, to spend a little time with their friends — friends who sometimes don’t even bother to call, thinking Price will be too busy to respond. But they both were actually here at Dee’s last night, hanging out in almost the exact same spot with Darrin Bradbury, a fellow songwriter whose coat still sits abandoned on a chair as proof. And they’ve been flipping through old journals looking for material for a booklet to go with the album, digging up some jewels.

“I was going through all these notebooks, and I thought, ‘I’ve been writing about the same thing for ten years,” says Price, her eyes widening. “About the family farm.”

Price and Ivey were recently back near the town of that very farm in Buffalo Prairie, Illinois, the one that she sang about losing in “Hands Of Time,” a seminal track off of Midwest Farmer’s Daughter with some of the sharpest, most stirring songwriting to come around in years. At Price’s mom’s house, they found a piece of paper where they’d written out the lyrics to “Deportees” by Woody Guthrie, with verses redone to be more current. They’d done this eight or nine years ago, thinking about the power of social commentary through song long before All American Made’s title track, which paints a bittersweet picture of a country with hope and humanity but greed and corrupt government at the helm. It was even longer ago when they discovered the promise of co-writing together, on a song called “At the Gates.”

“I wouldn’t have done it, and she wouldn’t have done it,” Ivey says. “But, together, we did.” Now, they sometimes don’t know who wrote what — their lyrics can be almost Frankenstein-like, with little bits of each: Price’s blood, Ivey’s skin, their breath.

Price and Ivey have known each other for fourteen years, playing in each other’s bands around town while both becoming staples on the East Nashville musical scene. He’d just gone through a divorce when they met, but the sparks were there — creatively, and otherwise. Some new couples bond over movies or meals, but theirs is appropriate: he sold her a Roland recorder digital eight-track, and Price would ring Ivey up, hoping to get some insight on how to get it running properly — or just steal a little face time. “I was always calling him up being like, ‘I can’t figure out how to get the reverb off,” she laughs, looking at Ivey. He knows that if Price really wanted to figure something out herself, she would have.

One time, after they’d finally dated and broken up for a stint, Price invited Ivey to open up for her at a place called Liquid Smoke in Murfreesboro, about forty minutes outside of Nashville.

“It has craft beers and a fish tank,” Price says. “We were broken up at the time, and so I wrote a really mean song about him. But he wrote something nice.” They’ve been blunt songwriting partners ever since, first with their soul-rock outfit Buffalo Clover, up till now. Sometimes Ivey plays harmonica and guitar on stage, and sometimes he stays home to take Judah to preschool. 

Midwest Farmer’s Daughter was a success, but that didn’t mean Price, or Ivey, had stopped writing: even at her early shows she played new songs, and, when she appeared on Charlie Rose and NPR’s Tiny Desk last year, she debuted “All American Made,” a very rare tactic for an artist new to the mainstream looking to build on the momentum of a particular album.

“I regret playing certain things on the last album cycle that were for this [record],” she says. “But I needed to play “All American Made”; for the therapy for myself. What else do you sing about? I played it. I played it on Charlie Rose. I couldn’t help it.” That NPR performance was taped the day after President Trump was elected, and she had tears in her eyes and an “Icky Trump” shirt on under her button-up: maybe it wasn’t wise or advisable to veer outside her current catalogue for such a visible opportunity, but she didn’t care. She had to play from the heart. 

Price, along with Ivey and the Pricetags, recorded All American Made at Sam Phillips Recording in Memphis with Matt Ross-Spang, the same producer who made Midwest Farmer’s Daughter (“I’m still waiting for a bad song from them,” he says. “I haven’t heard one”). They’ve already been back to the studio to make an entire other album: her band members describe the creative environment between Price and Ivey as a “never ending cycle of shows and songs.”

“Margo and Jeremy are always, always writing,” says Luke Schneider, who plays steel guitar and dobro. The rest of the Pricetags comprises Jamie Davis on guitar, Kevin Black on bass, Dillion Napier on drums and Micah Hulscher on keys, and the band is an integral part of the Margo Price experience. “If you can’t find Margo, she’s writing. She’s in a hotel room, or she found a park or is in the back lounge of the bus. I could not even guess how many hours she spends a day writing. It’s inspiring to me to see someone so dedicated to the craft of songs.”

It was a particular period of some intense writing alone that made Ivey’s antenna go up as she was crafting the songs for Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. “She was writing by herself, which hadn’t happened in a while,” Ivey says. “When she starting writing these songs I was like, ‘Man. That’s really, really good.’” What happened next is now stacking up to be a bit of rock and roll lore: Ivey sold the car, Price sold the ring, and they made the record. But no one was biting, and they were without a label — and without wheels.

“He came down Gallatin Road, and sold it at Carmax,” she says, glancing out past the fence that shrouds Dee’s outdoor seating, and then at Ivey. Now, at this bar off the same strip, Price’s record is number two in the jukebox, and their new car is parked outside.  “Thank you, Carmax.”

Talk to any number of musicians in the East Nashville community, and they will speak of Price’s unrelenting drive, and belief in her art — and the willingness to pursue it through hardship and sacrifice that many others simply couldn’t weather.

“Margo’s tenacity has certainly encouraged me in times of fear or exhaustion,” says musician Lilly Hiatt.  “I think, well, I’m sure Margo is tired sometimes, but you don’t see her wear that on her sleeve. She has always been this way, she has that fire. I think of her a lot when I feel weak and scared. Margo is brave and bold and we are lucky to get to watch her shine.”

Bradbury agrees. “Margo and Jeremy didn’t get here by way of a lightning bolt. They got here by way of elbow grease and craftsmanship. Their success is a byproduct of the quality they put forth,” he says. “I’ve seen ‘em sing for 1000. I’ve seen ‘em sing for 10. Hell, I’ve even seen ‘em sing across their kitchen table. Each time, above all else, what’s abundantly clear is that ‘the song’ takes precedence.”

Third Man Records, led by Jack White and his partner, Ben Swank, recognized those songs, and Price’s tremendous stage and vocal power. So much so that, after signing her, they didn’t change a thing about Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. Nor did they prod her for direction on All American Made. Now, Price has been to White’s house, their kids playing together while the adults jammed. “We got out the guitar, and it was so cool to sit there and swap Dylan songs with Jack,” Price says. Her son found a peacock feather on White’s property, and it made his day, and the memory of that moment seems to delight her the most.

“Margo has shown herself yet again to be a real artist and modern voice for country music with this record,” says Swank. “It’s a stylistic leap forward both musically and lyrically but definitely retains all of the qualities of a Margo Price song that people already love. A lot of artists try and struggle to reach that place on their second album, but she just knocked it out, like she always does.”

And much of that magic was born out of letting the spontaneity of creation lead the way. The title track for All American Made was recorded in three takes at 2:30 a.m. – Price and Ivey had written the song a few years ago, when Barack Obama was president, in a local coffee shop, splitting up the verses. At Sam Phillips, they smoked some weed and drank tequila, and everything felt so good as they were hammering out some ideas that Price just decided to lay it down, then and there. They stayed up until 6:00 a.m., layering in sound clips from the likes of Presidents Nixon and Clinton for what Ross-Spang describes as “a cacophony of broken promises” inspired by Simon & Garfunkel’s “Silent Night.”

“I remember, as a kid, getting stoned and putting on headphones and listening to that,” says Ivey. “It’s such a great statement, of how something so violent can be so peaceful.”

“All American Made,” as a song, deals in the American experience: hypocrisy, struggle, the plastic replacing the personal, the suffering poor on welfare and the empty dreams that look more attainable in Technicolor. But the album is steadfast in its sonic American-ness, too: soul, rock, blues, folk and, of course, country, all weave their way in. Even the McCrary sisters offer their vocals to a track (the blistering “Do Right By Me”). That dynamism is what has made Price such a crossover success — there’s a purity of twang to her music and an indefinite catalogue of influences, but never so much that it completely leaps into another genre altogether. “Roots music is roots music, whether it’s blues or rock and roll or country,” she says. “Gospel chords are the same as blues chords which are country chords.”

And while Midwest Farmer’s Daughter told Price’s story, an essential starting point, All American Made widens that lens, highlighting the segment of the population that country music is always supposed to be singing about but rarely does: not the high school quarterbacks in the small towns, but the single mom struggling to get a fair wage, or foreclosures that took the farm. It doesn’t glamorize rural American life, like a Luke Bryan tune might, talking about cracking beers open on the docks. It’s often bitter and biting, like on “Heart Of America,” where Price sings, “the town, it got too big for its britches, and the government it came. And now it will never be the same.” The human condition does not need a genre label, and that’s what’s driven Price, even to sing about something as heartbreaking as the loss of their son, Erza, at just three weeks old, on “Hand Of Time.”

Even Ivey was paralyzed by “Hands Of Time,” one of the songs that Price wrote by herself. “It blew my mind,” he says. “I don’t think I wrote anything for a couple months after that.”

Price has a way of speaking for forgotten people and forgotten stories at the same time she’s speaking for herself, a tradition that she continues on All American Made. And there’s room for roasting too, and a little country humor: on “Cocaine Cowboys,” the city boys with brand new Stetsons who only “ride the rails” of the white powdered variety are a particular target. When Ivey says “we love fashion, too,” to make clear they’re not trying to skewer something more general, Price deadpans, “Yeah, but I’ve ridden a horse.”

Joshua Hedley, a close friend of Price’s and now a labelmate on Third Man Records, speaks to Price’s “deeply personal” writing style.

“She tells her story and doesn’t hold back,” he says. “I think people recognize that and appreciate it in a world where everything is so superficial and cookie cutter, she stands out. Thats why she is where she is.”

One of country’s foremost non-cookie cutter icons, Willie Nelson, took notice. He’s featured on the song “Learning To Lose,” which Price and Ivey felt had a very Nelson-like quality that came through once it was completed. On a whim, they suggested he sing on it to Swank, and, before they knew it, they were down in Texas laying it down in his studio, watching Nelson strum away on his precious Trigger.

“It’s the best thing that’s ever happened in our lives,” says Ivey. “He looked at both of us and said, ‘You wrote a great song.’ I said, ‘We’re just ripping off you.’ And he responded, ‘But I never wrote that song. You didn’t rip me off, you wrote something else.’ That meant so much.”

Price wants Ivey to put out an album of his own someday, and she’s not alone — Prine has also encouraged him to do so, back when they were slurping those oysters. Until that time comes, his solo write on All American Made is “Loner,” an incredibly potent mediation on the hamster wheel of existence and the need to be seen over self-awareness. “Being born is a curse, dying young’s worse,” it begins. “Finding love is the meaning of life. In the land of freedom, in invisible chains, you get what you pay for, sometimes you pay twice.”

But those words couldn’t scratch or sting nearly as much through any other lens but Price’s: sung by someone else, it wouldn’t be quite the same. In it, she jumps from her gorgeous, monster belt to a relaxed casualness, spitting out words when she needs to and letting others hit with but a whisper. “I think she is truly one of the great vocalists of our time,” says Ross-Spang. Schneider echoes that sentiment. “She easily is one of the best singers in the world,” he says. The next night, at a surprise gig at East Nashville’s American Legion Post 82 during Honky Tonk Tuesday, she will show those chops in a weed leaf and cactus-print dress, bellowing through songs like “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle)” and jumping down into the crowd. Price used to come to, and play, places like this all the time before life took a dramatic turn. Now the tour bus waits outside, and fans pace around it, hoping to get her attention. 

Sometimes, Price and Ivey think about leaving East Nashville — they’re on the road so much these days that home is that bus, anyway. In their small backyard, all they can really have is a little planting box, but they want a garden, and flowers that flourish. “I love my house here in East Nashville and it kills me to think about leaving it, but I really miss country living,” she says. “We’ll probably move out to a cabin somewhere. I would love to buy property in Buffalo Prairie someday. Buy back the farm, right?”

Bringing up the idea of “buying back the farm,” a phrase from “Hands Of Time,” makes Ivey wonder aloud where the phrase “bought the farm” came from — which, apparently, owes its origins to the U.S. Air Force, when pilots crash-landed in farmland and the government had to pay back the farmers when their crops were ruined.

“It’s sort of like ‘buy back the farm,’ I guess,” says Price.

“That’s not a phrase,” responds Ivey. “That’s just you.” Price shrugs, before swatting another mosquito.

“She’s so good,” he adds, “she even writes her own clichés.”

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