clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Margo Price Is Making Room for Rock ’n’ Roll in Her Country Music

The Nashville singer-songwriter talks John Prine, the pot business, creating amid difficult times, and her excellent new album, ‘That’s How Rumors Get Started’

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Margo Price picked the worst possible time to put out her best album yet. That’s How Rumors Get Started, the Nashville country singer’s third full-length and first sustained foray into unabashed rock ‘n’ roll, is finally out Friday, its original May 8 release date vaporized by the COVID-19 outbreak that has kept her self-quarantined with her husband and frequent collaborator Jeremy Ivey, along with their 10-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter, for months.

Also, a tornado ripped through Nashville in early March. Also, her friend and mentor John Prine died in early April. Also, around that time, Ivey spent weeks battling COVID-like symptoms. In 2020 there is enough calamity, and tragedy, and day-to-day struggle to overwhelm even great art, and great artists. But “I’d Die for You,” the album’s electrifying closer and also her best song yet, still sounds invincible.

Though it’s a weeping-spell-inducing power ballad at heart, “I’d Die for You” has more snarl and distortion and howling vocal bombast than you might expect from Price, whose sharp-witted 2016 debut Midwest Farmer’s Daughter and sharp-elbowed 2017’s followup All American Made elevated her to the same corny Savior of Country Music status once bestowed upon the likes of Kacey Musgraves and Sturgill Simpson. Both those artists, in their own inimitable ways, rebelled against that unrequested rebel-hero mantle, and on That’s How Rumors Get Started, with Simpson himself producing, Price does too, with a grimy swagger on the almost psychedelic “Twinkle Twinkle” and a scorching wit even at her gentlest. “I used to feel loved / Now I feel used,” she sings on “Stone Me,” a lovely and thorough riposte to any remaining doubters, online or otherwise. “Almost went broke just from payin’ dues.”

This album somehow gets harder the sweeter Price’s voice gets: The buoyant gospel undertones of “Prisoner of the Highway,” one of several songs explicitly about the perils of chasing Savior of Country Music–type fame, only highlight the harshness of its last verse:

I sacrificed my family
I sacrificed true love
I sacrificed my unborn child to the heavens up above
Oh there was not a limit
To those I would betray
Oh I was deep down in it
As a prisoner of the highway

That’s How Rumors Get Started is a fantastic record, and in multiple senses a rock ‘n’ roll record, as wounding as it is wounded. In early July, I talked to Price on the phone about the tyranny of acoustic self-quarantine performances, and the total obliteration of work-life balance, and the challenges of singing while nine months pregnant, and the poor judgment of Vanilla Ice. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

I’ve been living with this album for months, and I’m so glad that other people get to hear it. Are you relieved it’s finally coming out, or are you more frustrated that it’s not coming out under normal circumstances?

I mean, at this point, I’m just happy to get it out and start on the next thing. I’ve definitely been feeling the pull to write again and to start working on that album. So it’s like, you just got to get it out and make the best of it at this point.

Do you have time to write, to think about the next record? It’s impressive even that you’re thinking about it, given everything you’re juggling at this point.

No, I don’t have time for anything. But I never sleep hardly anymore, so the last couple of weeks I’ve been just jotting down ideas, even if it’s just a note in my phone. Trying to pick up the guitar for a second while the baby’s occupied playing with some blocks. It’s a lot. My husband’s really been pushing me to start writing. He’s like, “You need to do it. We’re both going through a lot right now, but everybody in the world is.”

Do you have any sense yet of a direction, or what you’d like to do next?

I think I’m still going to make another rock ‘n’ roll album. I had a couple of country records, but I actually recorded three and shelved one of them, and I want to do the same thing with this next era. That’s not to say it’s going to be the same record I just made. I feel like there’s a hole there, just like there once was with country music and more rooted, traditional-sounding country and country funk, and that’s had a huge resurgence. I know there are rock ‘n’ roll bands, and I know some great ones, but most of them don’t have their foot in the door to anything.

In terms of promoting That’s How Rumors Get Started, are you sick to death of self-quarantine performances at this point? Is there any artistic satisfaction to them, given that there’s no crowd and no separation from your home life?

Oh, fuck yeah. I’m so over it. I don’t really think that this album lends itself to being played acoustic anyway. Of course there are some songs that you can see that way. But you want to feel a human connection when you’re playing with people, and I can’t sit there and read the comments on the livestream if I’m playing. And I’m sure people enjoy putting it on and listening, but there’s only so many acoustic-guitar, “point an iPhone at you and try to feel it” moments that you can have before—I just would rather sit around the fire with a couple of close friends at a distance and play songs for each other.

Like you, we’re cooped up here with small kids, and we’re homeschooling, and we’re trying to give everyone space to blow off steam. Have these last few months just obliterated any sense of work-life balance? How are you doing anything that you’re doing at this point?

Well, honestly, I’m holding a sleeping baby in my arms right now in a rocking chair.

OK. I’ll speak quietly.

No, it’s fine. It is like a juggling act that I did not realize how hard it was going to be. And I have my mother here to help me now, which has been a godsend, because we did 90 days with no grandparents and no babysitter. It’s having a 1-year-old, if you’ve had kids, you know how it is when they’re that age, it’s just a full-time job. And I feel guilty if I’m not working, I feel guilty if I’m working too much, or spending too much time with the kids. It’s just really hard to find a balance.

Then my husband and I, we’re together all the time, but yet I miss him, because we don’t get to go out on dates or take a weekend trip to New York to play a show or something. It’s just full-on just trying to get through each day. And I feel like every day is going so fast, because it’s like, wake up, you need to make breakfast and play with the kids, do a nap, do a run, do some work, make dinner, then either get drunk or watch a movie or go to bed.

Has this experience changed the way you hear the songs? With 2020 albums I love, I keep wondering if I’m going to think of them even five years from now as “quarantine albums.” Does this sound like a different record to you now?

Things have changed lyrically and just meaning-wise a little bit. Maybe if this does become somebody’s soundtrack to their quarantine, I’m hopeful that they would connect with it or ingest it more clearly than they would have if the world was still going a hundred miles an hour all the time. We live in such a condensed society where there’s just media in your face all the time. So maybe people will actually be able to put it on and get something out of it that they wouldn’t have if everything was just OK.

Sturgill Simpson is a guy who clearly doesn’t care much for record labels, or genres, or people who want him to make the same record over and over. A guy like that, what’s his advice for you? Does hanging around him make you want to cut a rock ‘n’ roll record and put out an anime movie?

Well, honestly, before I even knew that he was going to produce it, I was just writing a rock ‘n’ roll record, and I think both of us were at the same time wanting to change what we were doing. Because we’d been playing to empty rooms for a long time, and both of us, prior to breaking through, we’d been making that music for a while. And I think it was time to change. He’s like, “I want to produce the record. I want you to sound more like you did live, and I’ll do a great job. You got to let me do it.” And I was like, “Well, I want to make a rock ‘n’ roll record.” And he’s like, “Great. I’m your guy for that, too.” I think he can do a lot of different things, and both he and I have been painted into a corner at times into being these Saviors of Country Music, and it’s just not the case.

Was there ever a time when that Savior of Country Music role felt comfortable to you, or did it immediately strike you as wrong and limiting?

I was just in the moment, doing what I was doing, and just happy to have an audience. Country music is always going to be a piece of who I am and how I sound. I have no regrets about the records I made or anything—at the time, there weren’t a lot of people doing what I was doing. And then everything started to slowly shift, where everybody was playing more rooted in music, or at least they were advertising themselves to be some kind of spiel of authenticity. Like, Been through a lot of hardships, real-deal gift to the world. I don’t know, the narrative can just be so nauseating. I’ve been running from the narrative that I created, and it really was just what I’d been through, but I hope that people also just enjoy the music and not get caught up in the extra bullshit.

“I’d Die For You” is easily my favorite song of yours, ever, and I was wondering, first of all, who you’re singing it to.

I’m singing it to my husband and my children. There’s just a whirlwind of chaos going on right now, and it feels apocalyptic at times, even before we entered the Upside-Down or whatever this bad episode of Black Mirror is. But it’s like us holding on to each other in a dystopian world that we’re living in. It’s absolutely crazy just to think about what’s changed since I wrote that song, yet everything was all still there with the corruption and the greed and the hate. All of that was still there, but now it just feels like everybody had a chance to pause and digest what was going on.

That song feels anthemic to me, which is a very corny rock-critic word, but I can so vividly picture a huge crowd of people singing along to it at a concert or even at a protest. Did you set out with that song to write something explicitly bigger in any sense?

I think when my husband and I sat down to write that, I wanted a song that I could belt, and felt like was our own. I love the way that it came out, but also I performed at Carnegie Hall, which was one of my last shows that I played before everything changed. But we performed it there stripped down with piano and strings, and I just recorded a version like that as well. I haven’t announced that to anybody yet, but I can’t wait to also put out that version of it, because it’s my favorite song, too. It is.

I was going to say, you are seriously belting on that song, and on other songs on this album. Has your relationship with your singing voice changed from album to album? Do you feel more confident as a vocalist now?

Oh, without a doubt. I feel like, of course, I’ve grown as a singer, but also as a recording artist I’ve gotten better, even in just the past five years of singing harmonies with myself or with other people. The one thing that Stu really wanted to capture was how I sing live, and so he said the way that he likes to track his vocals a lot of the time is by taking the headphones off, and then you play the track coming back at a really low volume. And so I just sang in the room without the kind of polarizing thing that happens when you’re hearing your voice come back through cans.

You were pregnant while recording this album: Does that affect your voice specifically in any tangible or intangible way? Or is it just that absolutely everything is harder?

I actually felt like things were easier. Towards the very end it does get hard to breathe, just because the baby’s pushing on your diaphragm. And I ended up, I sang with Mavis Staples on, I think it was my due date, or at least a couple of days before I was due.

Oh, god.

And I sang with her at the Ryman, and I was so big, but I still got out there and gave it my all. But when I was recording the vocals, I was more like, probably four to six months pregnant. Because I worked on it a lot when we got back to Nashville at David Ferguson’s studio. Me and Sturgill, whenever we would come off the road, we would meet at The Butcher Shoppe and just work on everything. I feel like I just took so much more time with getting this album the way that I wanted it than I have prior.

“Prisoner of the Highway” is very intense, as songs about being a touring musician go. You’re singing basically about how being an artist has ruined a lot of the rest of your life. Is that song an exaggeration at all?

When the myth becomes greater than the truth, you just go with the myth, right?

Right.

I think it was like a document of what I’d been running from my whole life. And you don’t really know what it is, but as soon as I was, like, 20, Jeremy and I were living in a Winnebago and I really became addicted to that kind of lifestyle where 14 days you camp in the same place, and then you move on, and you just figure things out. And part of the appeal to me to become a musician was that you would never get sick of being in the same place, after just being stuck in my hometown. Growing up was so painful. There was no culture, there was nothing to do but get drunk and high and drive around on gravel roads, literally.

So the appeal was that I could always remain inspired, and I don’t know. It was an exaggeration, but it still felt very much like a thing that is going to happen if and when we get to play shows again. I’ve missed a lot of weddings and birthdays and just things that happen that normal people get, like graduations and stuff with my siblings, and stuff with my parents, and time with my grandparents. I left home and I don’t go back very often, and so you feel bad. My grandma’s in a nursing home. I haven’t been able to see her because I just—now, obviously, I can’t. But I mean prior, you spend a lot of time, and then you realize that a decade has gone by, and sometimes you wonder what you have to show for it.

Between that song and “Twinkle Twinkle,” it left me wondering if spending years on the road trying to make it is a mistake, even if you do make it. Do you feel like a star at this point? And even if you do, does that make all the chaos you’ve been through worth it?

I don’t ever think about fame, or I’d probably consider myself more like a D-list celebrity or something. I don’t want to let those thoughts poison my inspiration or just ruin me as a person. But it really is just the business side of things that make you feel yucky, because obviously I love my fans, I love the fact that I get to go out and play shows for a living. I feel like I just cheated the system somehow. Being able to buy a house off of the songs that I’ve written is a wild thought after not even being able to afford the rent and always having some landlord breathing down your neck when you live in a shithole anyway. I just always wanted to sing, and all the things that go along with it are what’s annoying.

I think you noted online that a few lower-tier country dudes played concerts recently, with no social distancing, no masks—for the most part, they were just carrying on as if everything was normal. Is that defensible at all?

Oh, it makes me irate. And I just heard Vanilla Ice is playing a show in Texas or something.

He canceled it.

Oh, good. OK. Good to know.

He saw the light.

Yeah. They say that all press is good press, but I don’t think that I want that kind of blood on my hands at this point. It’s just really selfish, because the longer that this takes, the longer everyone’s going to not be able to play shows. If everybody had just quarantined for two weeks and been safe, we’d already be over this shit. I don’t know. It’s such a mysterious thing. It almost seems like just the Earth’s defense mechanism for us to stop killing it. So who’s to say what would happen, but I know a lot of people are just not taking the doctors’ advice and they’re trying to make it all political when it’s not political at all. It’s just the fucking facts.

Yeah, I like your “Fuck Off” face mask very much, and I was hoping you would consider selling them as merch.

I was just saying that I wanted to get face masks as merch this time. I have one that had pot leaves on it. I have a bunch of different face masks. Like, masks, but make it fashion.

Right. It’s for your different moods, for your different occasions.

Exactly.

You’re in the weed business now with Willie Nelson. Is this a good time to be in the weed business?

Well, I guess it depends on who you ask. I’ve been smoking a fair amount of pot during this quarantine. I think it’s been keeping me feeling sane, and definitely has been less damaging than alcohol. But I don’t know, everybody has to do their own thing. I’m trying to get some edibles going up in Illinois. That’s going to be my next venture, because I do think smoking right now, you got to be careful, you got to take care of yourself. So all things in moderation.

Following you on Twitter and Instagram, you’ve posted these really moving and honest and kind of personal things, along with a few pictures of your kids, even though you’ve talked about not wanting to do that much. Have you revealed more of yourself online this year than you ever imagined you would?

Yeah, maybe so. Sometimes I have a little panic attack thinking about it. I don’t know. I think there’s like a level of, if you let people get too close, that can be dangerous. And I do just always want to be transparent about who I am. I know tons of people out there are feeling really lonely, myself included. It’s your little window to the outside at this point. Sometimes I just want to board up the window and never look out it again. But at this point, it’s kind of one of the only places you can go, but it’s dangerous, because you never know what kind of shit someone’s going to yell at you. So I do feel the need to protect myself and my kids, but I’m just trying to find a balance somewhere in there.

Stone Me,” of course, is partly about ignoring all the assholes on social media. Are trolls easier for you to deal with at this point? Or are they at least easier to ignore for the most part?

Oh yeah. I feel like I learned my lesson early on with letting people get to me or bully me. I really have a thick skin at this point, and it’s no big deal for someone to say that they don’t like the same thing, or they think I’m an ugly dog. I don’t care. I don’t care, man. People are going to say terrible things, and that’s the worst thing about the internet, because everybody says stuff that they would never say to your face.

It breaks my heart that we won’t get a John Prine song about all this, about this moment in our lives. Is there any way to describe what he taught you as a songwriter or even as just a person?

John had such a gift, that people worked their whole life to achieve those kinds of songs. And he was just a master at laying it all out on the line and being able to relate to people, I’m sure, on both sides of the line. Just his spirit, and the way that he remained completely down-to-earth and relatable and likable and just inspired. He just was on a completely other level. And I think his last album was so good. I remember my friend was like, “If John Prine doesn’t win a fucking Grammy for this record….” And he didn’t get a Grammy, and he deserved one. He without a doubt deserved a Grammy, and he didn’t get it, but it didn’t matter. The songs are so good that people are going to be feeling them for a long time. And I just wish he was still around to put another one out.