Margo Price, Brandy Clark and the Working-Class Voices We Need in Music
A Curmudgeon ColumnMusic Features Margo Price
All those white, blue-collar voters who upended the recent election have a right to be pissed off. Their jobs have been gutted by global capitalism; their communities have been hollowed out by deteriorating schools, devastating storms, crumbling infrastructure and large populations on the move. The world they thought they once knew has been altered forever.
One presidential candidate responded to that anger with sober, practical solutions: a higher minimum wage, lower college costs, more regulation of global capital, affordable healthcare, more spending on schools, roads and bridges, and curbs on the global warming that heightens storms. These were small, undramatic steps, but steps that could actually happen and make a difference.
The other presidential candidate responded to that anger by echoing and amplifying it. It didn’t matter that his actual policies would widen income inequality by cutting taxes for the ruling class and cutting services for the working class while allowing schools, healthcare, roads and the weather to all get worse. The voters didn’t care about that; they just wanted someone who spoke their language.
Is it possible to talk to these angry voters in their own language without lying to them? Two of the year’s best country albums suggest that it is. Margo Price’s Midwest Farmer’s Daughter and Brandy Clark’s Big Day in a Small Town both talk about small-town life in fly-over America in the local vernacular. But they still find a way to insist on the dignity of women and other outsiders—and on the right to a livable wage for honest work. They provide an example our politicians would be wise to heed.
Price begins her debut album with “Hands of Time,” a string-cushioned countrypolitan ballad that laments the economic forces that forced her daddy off his Southern Illinois farm and onto the second shift at the local prison. On the chorus, she declares her simple desires—to “make a little cash” from “all the bad jobs bustin’ my ass” and to “bring my mama home some wine”—as well as some impossible dreams: to “buy back the farm” and to “turn back” the “cruel hands of time.”
On the second song, “’Bout To Find Out,” Price shrugs off the temptation of living in an irretrievable past and looks forward to a future when the “rich man’s child” will learn how it feels “to be put in your place.” This is class warfare as a gleeful, honky-tonk two-step nudged along by an impatient steel-guitar lick. “Some folks today have got nothing to say,” Price sings, “except to talk about their wealth. But the poor’s still poor and the war’s still war.”
Over the rocking Memphis soul of “Four Years of Chances,” she tells an ex-husband, “I cleaned your shirts and washed up the dishes, but you never did treat me right,” with the fire of anger crackling under her vocal. And it’s not just a bad lover that lights her fuse; it’s all the piggish men who can say, “You’re hired” or “You’re fired.” The spry Western swing of “This Town Gets Around” supports the indictment of a music industry where “It’s not who you know; it’s who you blow that’ll get you in the show.” And that scenario is clearly a stand-in for every company that’s run the same way.
The candidate who wanted to be the first female president presented a similar analysis, but she did so in the language of the grad-school seminar and the law-office conference. Price gets across her points about class and gender in the language of beauty salons and barrooms. Of course, it helps that she writes fetching melodies and sings them a relaxed, gliding soprano. She’s inevitably weak on policy proposals, but that’s not her job. Her work is to open the lines of communication so others can explain the importance of a minimum-wage hike and the Affordable Care Act.
On the lead-off track from her sophomore album, Clark introduces Sherry and Jimmy, a hairdresser and a bartender who listen sympathetically to their customers’ personal “Soap Opera” stories. Clark adopts those personas for the rest of the record, talking to her own customers in the language of pedicures and martinis. But what she tells them is not the fantasies of televised soap operas and Fox News but the realities of small-town life.
She will never be the “Girl Next Door,” because, she sings, “My house and mouth and mind get kind of trashy.” Besides, she’s seen what happened to the “Homecoming Queen” (“Twenty-eight shouldn’t look this old, but the last 10 years sure took their toll”) and the woman with “Three Kids, No Husband” (“It’s been a 40-hour week and it’s only Tuesday”). “We’re broke; we’re busted,” she sings on the guitar-pumped “Broke.” “Our Chevy truck is rusted. We’re high and dry; ain’t enough apples for the apple pie.”
Clark has co-written some of the smartest songs recorded by Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert and the Band Perry, and she rejoins the great tunesmith Shane McNally for five tracks on the new disc. Clark and McNally are both openly gay, and while none of these songs are about that, the co-writers match their mastery of country songwriting with an impatience for any kind of gender stereotype.
Big Day in a Small Town is Clark’s major-label debut. Producer Jay Joyce tries to justify Warner Bros.’ investment by providing country-radio-ready arrangements, often to the detriment of the material, which sounds less personal than Clark’s previous album, 12 Stories. But the songwriting is just as smart.
Price and Clark both prove that you can talk to small-town America’s angry white voters if you use the vocabulary and twang that they’ve grown up on. If you peel the suburban façade off modern country, you find a rural tradition that has long talked about the challenges of paying the bills, staying sober and keeping a marriage together.
These two singers revive that methodology, but make it clear that the culprits for our current situation are not funny-looking strangers but the wealthy men who pull the strings. If more of our politicians had used the same language to make the same points, we’d be in a different place today.