Growing up five miles outside of tiny Aledo, Ill., down a gravel road that led to her childhood home, Margo Price was truly raised as a farmer’s daughter. Her youth was spent outside, riding bikes, fishing and horseback riding. Raising too much noise wasn’t an issue because the closest neighbor was a mile away. When Price’s teenage years set in, she became occupied with back-roading, cruising the main strip in Aledo and even some cow tipping. The town’s movie theater had only one screen. For a bigger variety, she’d go to The City—the Quad Cities area, including Davenport, Iowa.
Singing and songwriting also came naturally from a young age for Price, and she performed at school at church, and the popular high school football game National Anthem circuit.
“I think everyone in the Midwest really loved country music; it’s kind of the only music in the town where I grew up,” says Price, decades removed from that idyllic upbringing, with numerous personal tragedies and years of toiling in the Nashville music scene between her past and the very promising present. The present success culminated last month with the release of her much-hyped debut solo record, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, on Jack White’s Third Man Records. Dozens of labels passed on Price before White took the gamble. “I think sometimes people don’t take me as seriously, because I’m from Illinois and I’m not from five hours south in Kentucky.”
Price’s misfortunes, chronicled in Daughter’s first song, “Hands of Time,” began with the loss of her grandfather’s farm. She was just a toddler then, but remembers how the loss rippled through the entire family, as her dad, who grew soybeans and corn, and his brothers all owned portions of land for farming.
Along with the farm, her grandparents lost their farmhouse and were forced to move to Aledo—the city—a day so sad she still remembers it despite her young age at the time.
Years later, Price dropped out of college, where she studied theatre and Spanish, to pursue music full time. She moved to Nashville in 2003 after visiting earlier that year during spring break from school. The energy of the big city called to her, and she soon met her future husband (and bassist), Jeremy Ivey.
But her career floundered, and years playing honky tonk bars in Nashville led nowhere, and, as told on “Hands of Time” and another track, “This Town Gets Around,” a business manager and a producer took advantage of her. The first made grand promises of a successful career and convinced her to fire everyone working for her at the time. Half a year later, he stopped returning her calls. The well-known producer, who also owned a studio and a publishing company, did something more menacing, in an all-too-common story.
“One night, he just pushed things too far, and he and his friend put something in my drink,” Price said. “They told me it was vodka, because I started not feeling right. At that point I had only had one glass of sangria. … I started feeling very disoriented and sick. They wouldn’t tell me the address [when] I said I was going to call a cab. I tried to get out of there…”
More recently, Price experienced some local success in Buffalo Clover, a rock and soul outfit that earned praise locally but could never get over the hump.
But during this time, Price suffered her most unbearable loss: the death of one of Price’s and Ivey’s twin sons during childbirth. Price spiraled out of control, drank too much, and eventually ended up in jail. She doesn’t flinch from the details of her experience in her music, and over time she has been able to talk about her loss more easily. The only thing she hasn’t gone on record about is the exact circumstances that landed her behind bars.
“My grandmother doesn’t know yet,” she said. “I kept all that from my family back home. I haven’t really gone into detail about what that was about, but it was a side effect of everything that had happened to me.”
There was a time that all Price could do was feel sorry for herself. Over the years, she has met other mothers who have lost their children, which has helped her cope, and she decided to learn from and share her experiences in her songs. All of the songs on Midwest Farmer’s Daughter were written between 2013 and 2015, starting with twangy first single “Hurtin’ (On The Bottle)” and the two-stepping, broken-hearted, vengeful “Since You Put Me Down.” On “Tennessee Song” and “Four Years of Chances,” Prices channels the blues through the eyes of slide guitar, while “About To Find Out” is a rockabilly kiss-off to bad times.
The songs were inspired by the great country songwriters of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s like Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. But Price’s influences are not limited to other great women.
“I don’t get many comparisons to their writing, because I’m a woman, but I love Willy (Nelson) and Waylon (Jennings), Neil Young and Bob Dylan,” she said.
Price recorded Daughter in February 2015 on her own dime, not in one of Nashville’s many music houses, but at Memphis’ iconic Sun Studios, where Elvis and Johnny Cash made their mark. After more than a decade of trying to make Nashville work, she said she was ready to try something different. At Sun Studios, she and her band could only afford nighttime recording sessions. And even then, she and Ivey had to pawn their wedding rings and music gear, and sell the many dresses she had collected over the years to pay the bills.
The bulk of the album was recorded in three days with Price’s friends Alex Munoz producing and Matt Ross-Spang as engineer. No songs took more than two takes.
“We did harmonies, percussion (and) overdubs, later,” she said. “That was because financially, we just didn’t have a lot of time to screw around.”
After finishing the album, Price shopped it around to any label that would listen. Around 30 different labels passed on Price until White’s Third Man Records took notice. Their first meeting took place at Bonnaroo, where she was asked to perform a song early in the morning with no notice. The performance sealed the deal. Price believes the partnership was the best match for her and her band, because Third Man is not too big to want to change her as an artist, but not too small to drop the ball and mess up her chances at success.
Price’s ascension onto the Nashville stage is coming at a time when the genre is transitioning from glitz to grit, and ass-kicking stories such as Price’s are worth their weight in gold. Price has garnered comparisons to Kacey Musgraves, but thinks the similarities end with two strong-willed women who are doing their own thing in country music.
“I think (country music labels) kind of filled all the spots with men and so now they’re thinking, ‘Oh, we’d better also look for women who are also trying to do something genuine and honest,’” she said. “It’s always a little different for women; people expect you to look a certain way. That’s what dictated who was on the radio for so long. It was more about a look and someone else filling in the words that you were singing.”
Now that her career is quickly gaining speed and her life turning around for the better, how will that affect the songs Price is writing, and is it possible to have success with happy songs? She hasn’t stopped writing and is thankful that people now care what she has to say, which has made songwriting easier for her. But that doesn’t mean listeners should expect wine and roses on a follow-up record.
One song, already completed and titled “Wild Women (Don’t Worry, They Have No Time for the Blues),” is about the double-standard for travelling female musicians, who get questions about their motivations to leave their families in order to tour, while no one bats an eye toward men who do the same. A handful of other biographical songs remain in her pocket, but her newer material will likely not all be personal stories, she said.
“There’s still something inside me that still feels restless and unsatisfied,” she said. When everything first happened and Third Man signed me, I hadn’t felt happiness like that, maybe ever. … I was floating on cloud nine for quite a while and then I realized that there’s still troubles out there; everything between the black community and the cops, the water crises in Michigan. I still feel very deeply for people and still, sometimes, struggle with depression. But there’s always music as a place to put that energy.”