Margo Price Finds Meaning in the Mess on Strays

A surge of rock ’n’ roll guides the country singer’s soul quest on third studio album

Music Reviews Margo Price
Margo Price Finds Meaning in the Mess on Strays

Margo Price earned the blanket title “Americana singer” some time ago, but she’s always been pure rock ‘n’ roll. At a set during the now-defunct Sloss Festival in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2018, a thunderstorm rolled in as Price helmed the drum kit for a solo. Even after the coordinators called for a rain delay and the threat of lightning loomed, Price kept on thrashing. She didn’t even get a chance to finish her set, and much of that 2018 lineup was left unplayed, but it was hard to feel too disappointed with an exit as fierce as hers.

On Price’s new LP Strays, the Nashville-based troublemaker leans fully into whatever rock ’n’ roll dream she was chasing that humid June day. The follow-up to 2020’s electric That’s How Rumors Get Started, Strays honors Price’s beginnings in American roots music while painting a psych-rock backdrop to her stories of redemption, survival and rebirth. Price collaborated with her husband Jeremy Ivey, who joined her at a South Carolina Airbnb to take mushrooms, listen to a stack of classic rock albums and work through what would eventually become Strays, and then recorded the album at Jonathan Wilson’s (Angel Olsen, Father John Misty) California studio. The result is familiar—it’s undeniably a Margo Price record—but a little extra fiery.

Of course, Strays never veers too far from country music, which is intrinsically wrapped up in rock ’n’ roll anyways. The devastating “County Road” and ode to lovemaking “Light Me Up” wouldn’t sound out of place on a proper country record. But Price also specializes in psychedelia, which can be heard from the reverberations of “Been To The Mountain” to the greasy, spaced-out vocals on “Change Of Heart” to the twangy echoes on the ominous “Hell In The Heartland.”

A more thematic thread throughout Strays is the search for feeling. On “Time Machine,” Price sings “I wanna feel reality,” and on opener “Been To The Mountain,” she wonders “if I even exist.” Price has been in the industry and alive long enough to know that you can’t please everyone. Later in the opening track, Price says “I’ve been called every name in the book, honey / go on, take your best shot.” And sometimes with that realization comes a sharpened sense of what’s important. Other times, the passing of time can feel like watching your own life play out from afar, like when Price sings “I wish I could have what I didn’t know were the best years of my life.” The two sensations are both at play on Strays.

Another byproduct of getting older is not giving a shit. And Price, in the best way, is an expert in that department. On “Radio,” a stunning duet with Sharon Van Etten, Price admits to tuning out those who would try to undermine her. “People try to push me around / Change my face and change my sound,” the pair sings. “But I can’t hear them, I tune them out.” Even in the album’s most serious moments Price sticks to her guns. She’s still 420-friendly, even on “County Road,” an ode to a fallen friend, as she makes plans to “go get high and shoot a little dice,” and she’s still unafraid to speak out against what she finds atrocious, including her own internal demons.

Some songs are fueled by Price’s folk beginnings, including protest single “Lydia,” which is a sprawling scene not unlike the album closer and title track from 2017’s All American Made. Protest music has taken many shapes over the course of America’s history, but folk music will always be a fitting framework, and it’s one Price understands beautifully. Actually written before Roe v. Wade was overturned, the drug-laced “Lydia” is a fiction following a woman strapped with an impossible decision. It’s just further proof of Price’s gift for not only telling her own powerful stories, but also those of the downtrodden en masse. The songs on Strays can appear like a mirror, or like a biography, or like a string of character studies—a sure sign of good songwriting.

While there are always the issues of the day to fight for and against, sometimes just existing and loving is a protest. Price, who has faced opposition from the country establishment her whole career, knows this better than most, and Strays might be the best showing of that grit in her catalog so far. She’s been to the mountain and back, and she has nothing to prove to anyone. As she mentioned in a recent New York Times interview, she’s less concerned with placating and more focused on living truthfully, whether that means writing from her soul or fishing for bass with Brittany Howard. She’s not worried about pleasing anyone, or even singing rock ’n’ roll. It doesn’t matter what you call it—she’s just singing her truth.

Ellen Johnson is a former Paste music editor and forever pop-culture enthusiast. Presently, she’s a copy editor, freelance writer and aspiring marathoner. You can find her tweeting about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson and re-watching Little Women on Letterboxd.

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