Margo Price’s Strong Voice Continues to Ring Out During Shutdown
Taylor Swift isn’t the only recording artist to release two albums during quarantine.
Even though she didn’t write or record them during the shutdown since March, country-rock star Margo Price released a live album and her
third studio record in 2020.
The outspoken 38-year-old native of Aledo, Ill., also has been a powerful, busy voice this year on social media and several media outlets nationwide – addressing urgent issues like racial injustice, Covid-19 financial relief, political polarization, public health and how to get out of this endless pandemic alive and sane.
As a fiery opponent of President Trump and his enablers, “I know I’m losing out on money from people who are far-right,” Price said in a Wednesday phone interview.
“Every hero I ever had stood for something and was not afraid to speak their mind when it mattered. I’m not worried about the money; that’s not why I got into this in the first place. I just want to make good art and honest art. Hopefully, people appreciate that.”
“I think with social media, the dangers and the evils there in that world, with that comes great responsibility,” she said. “You do have a platform for what you say, and what you do, that influences people – whether you want to or not. I don’t want to be a politician. I don’t even like politicians.”
“I do want a world that is safe for my children to live in. That is the Catch-22 that I find myself in,” Price said. She and her husband (singer-songwriter Jeremy Ivey) live outside Nashville, Tenn., with their kids Judah, 10, and Ramona, 18 months.
In interviews and her lively Twitter account (@MissMargoPrice), she doesn’t shy away from politics. On Dec. 15, Price tweeted: “Tennessee is #1 in the world for covid cases…what a complete and total embarrassment, @GovBillLee, you ain’t a real cowboy, you’re a traitor and you have blood on your hands.”
At least 126 new coronavirus deaths and 18,872 new cases were reported in Tennessee on Dec. 15-16. Over the past week, there has been an
average of 8,329 cases per day, an increase of 69 percent from the average two weeks earlier, and a total of 5,610 deaths in the state from the virus.
Tennessee leads the nation in Covid cases by population – a daily average of 122 cases per 100,000 people in the last week, compared to 65.7 in Illinois and 54.3 in Iowa. Nationwide, Dec. 16 saw the highest single-day death total from Covid – 3,611 – since the pandemic began.
“It’s really bad that they won’t even make a mask mandate or shut down the bars,” Price said of her state. “Schools can’t open and hospitals are full. I live out in a rural area in Tennessee. We moved out of Nashville proper, in a town that’s quite similar to my hometown of Aledo – about 3,000 people – and when I go in the grocery store here, which I really try not to, but every now and then you forget something. The amount of people not wearing masks is just mind-blowing.”
“It really just seems so politically divided,” she said. “I thought the United States would come back together and be united through this crisis. Even people who have lost a loved one to Covid still think it’s something created by the Chinese government.”
Price did some livestream benefit shows later in the year to encourage people to support Joe Biden and vote, as well as posting on social media.
Earlier in July, she tweeted about Nashville: “Would be cool if, instead of arresting peaceful protesters, the police would go downtown on Broadway and arrest bar owners like Steve Smith and all the other asshat(s) who are walking around without masks on and spreading Covid.”
On Election Day, Price tweeted a photo of her and her husband holding a sign:
“THIS VOTE KILLS FASCISTS
The sign is red
We voted blue
Let’s bring love
and democracy back to the USA
Like many, she’s hopeful that the compassionate Joe Biden will help heal an exhausted, divided, grief-stricken nation.
“I do have faith that things will be better than they were. I don’t know if we can be united,” Price said Wednesday. “It’s hard to say if people
will start treating each other with decency and kindness and humility.”
“I’m sure Biden will mistakes too; it’s a huge job to fill,” she said. “I am very happy that he will be there and it feels great to be able to point to a president and have him be somebody who is presidential.”
“We’re at such a turning point right now, the Republican Party does not seem very patriotic to me,” she said. “I want to take back the American flag, to be proud to wear the red, white and blue.”
When Price voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, she said she lost a lot of country music fans at that point. “I don’t regret it,” she said, noting the damage President Trump has done may be irreversible. “Children being separated from their parents, the climate issues – it’s been a terrifying four years.”
In a September 2017 interview for the Dispatch/Argus, Price said she appreciated having a voice that people admire, giving concise, cathartic expression to their dreams and worries. “Art has always been the strongest form of protest, a way to speak your mind, your emotions,” she said. “It’s why I started singing.”
Among her many projects, this year, she’s sold over $6,000 in T-shirts for The Bail Project (to pay bail for those in need), to prevent mass incarceration and combat racial and economic disparities in the bail system. The tie-dye T-shirt says, “Sex Is Cool But Have You Ever Fucked the System?”
Honoring Q-C connections
She last performed in the Quad-Cities Oct. 5, 2017, at the TaxSlayer Center, Moline, as part of Chris Stapleton’s All-American Road Show. Price released her acclaimed second album, “All American Made,” that month via Third Man Records.
A Pitchfork review of “All American Made” said:
“America, in Margo Price’s country music, is not majestic, sprawling, or inviting. It’s broken. It’s oppressive. It’s stolen. Her second album, ‘All American Made,’ plays out like a realist, modern Western film, offering a stark survey of a country whose ‘cowboys’ are city-dwelling music industry vampires; whose farms are bankrupt and acquired by corporate overlords; whose citizens are treated like dirt because of their gender.
“The album’s loaded three-word title — a phrase that peers like Kacey Musgraves might sell with a sharp irony or Jason Isbell with a writerly wistfulness — ends up feeling more like an admission of complicity. Throughout the LP, Price tackles Steinbeck-sized issues with a no-bullshit humility in search of answers,” the review said.
With its very political title track, the record was named the best country/Americana album of the year by Rolling Stone, and one of the top albums of the decade by Esquire, Pitchfork and Billboard. It earned Price her first Grammy nomination, for Best New Artist, and a life-changing three-night run of live shows in 2018 at Nashville’s fabled Ryman Auditorium.
In 2018, she earned three nominations for Americana Music Honors, and won Song of the Year for “A Little Pain.” The 1892 Ryman (originally a gospel tabernacle) was home to the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974.
Upon the release of “All American Made,” decrying the decline of the country (in the first year of Trump’s tumultuous administration), Price said: “America is so beautiful to me, but it’s in a really hard spot right now. I feel like I was one of the first and only country artists to speak
out so openly against Trump, and I had a lot of people tell me I shouldn’t be giving my opinion, but as far as I’m concerned, there’s not a lot of doubt about the difference between right and wrong.”
In October 2019, Ivey performed at The Rust Belt, East Moline, but Price was gigging on her own tour at the time. He stayed at her folks’ house.
“I wish I could have been there. I’d love to play there,” she said. “It’s been so long since I played in the area.”
Price’s last formal concert before the pandemic was at the iconic Carnegie Hall Feb. 26, 2020, with Patti Smith and Iggy Pop, for the annual Tibet House benefit concert. Philip Glass curated the show, from which proceeds went to Tibet House US, a nonprofit educational institution and cultural embassy dedicated to preserving Tibet’s unique culture.
Price teamed with her husband and Smith’s band for “I’d Die For You” and “All American Made.” She played the same benefit at Carnegie Hall in 2019, headlining with CBS Late Show bandleader Jon Batiste.
Struggling through a rough year
In March, Ivey got very sick, and Price assumed that’s where her husband picked up Covid, in New York City.
Back home in Nashville, she was recruited to perform at a March 9 benefit, with Jason Isbell, Brandi Carlile, and Sheryl Crow, to raise money to help rebuild after a deadly tornado struck Nashville the night of March 2.
“A lot of people were still hugging, and no one was fully quarantined,” Price recalled of early March. “That was my last night out for sure.”
Ivey, 42, had Covid symptoms, though his tests for the virus (which has now killed over 307,000 Americans) were indeterminate. “He did sleep in another room, but we were all in the same house and we didn’t see anyone on the outside for nearly 100 days,” she said.
“We were definitely struggling,” Price said. “I was scared he was gonna die in his sleep. I was scared the children were gonna die – Ramona was sick as well.”
“I wasn’t sleeping at night, partially because the baby was waking up a lot and partially because I just was stressed out,” she said. “It was one of the most difficult times that we’ve ever experienced as a family, for sure.”
Price was hit hard by the April 7 death of legendary singer-songwriter John Prine (another Illinois native), at age 73, from Covid complications, in Nashville. He was a close friend and major influence on her.
“The fact that we could never have a proper funeral, and you miss – the grieving process is hard, because you don’t see anybody,” she said. “It’s so devastating.”
In May, she unexpectedly released “Perfectly Imperfect at the Ryman,” exclusively on bandcamp.com. Physical copies were not available until early this month.
The 11-song live collection (from her 2018 shows) includes three duets, with Jack White on the 2007 White Stripes song “Honey, We Can’t Afford to Look This Cheap,” Emmylou Harris on “Wild Women” and Sturgill Simpson on Rodney Crowell’s “Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This.”
Price generously decided to donate all album profits to MusiCares, the charitable arm of the Recording Academy. Its COVID-19 Relief Fund is helping those who make their living by music and have been hurt by the coronavirus pandemic.
NPR Music called “Perfectly Imperfect” a “triumphant time capsule, marking Price’s arrival as a Nashville giant and one of Americana’s brightest contemporary acts.”
“I’m so glad I finally got out that live album,” she said this week. “It came at the perfect time – with Covid and everybody missing live music so much. I had the most spectacular time that week.”
Price was thrilled to sing with 73-year-old Emmylou Harris (another inspiration for her career), especially when she asked to sing one of Price’s songs, and she picked “Wild Women.”
“I completely wrote it with her in mind,” she said. “To hear her singing those words back, it was incredible. And for Jack White to join me, and Sturgill (Simpson). It was something really special; I’ll never forget it.”
Price joked that she put more attention into those shows (with strings and horns and a gospel choir) than her own wedding.
On Dec. 2, she took over Tennessee’s Stardust Drive-In Theatre for “A Perfectly Imperfect Night at The Movies.” In addition to a screening of the 2019 documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, the event showed the premiere of Margo’s Perfectly Imperfect at The Ryman concert film, captured during her unforgettable run of three sold-out shows.
That night was at a drive-in an hour outside Nashville. “There was a lot of people, fans who bought the record. I chatted with them and signed it,” Price recalled said. “It was all outside, wearing masks. It was great.”
In place of touring, the artist did several livestreamed shows without audiences, including at the Brooklyn Bowl in Nashville and Grand Ole Opry (which has a seating capacity of 4,372).
“It was strange to play in a room that big with nobody in it.” Price said of the July date at the Opry. “I’ve joked this whole time, I’ve been preparing to play empty rooms my whole career. I made the best out of it. I was excited to do it.”
Speaking out on race
In July, from the Opry stage, she name-checked the popular country-pop group formerly known as Lady Antebellum before suggesting that the show should book blues singer Anita White, whom she called “the real Lady A.”
Price made the suggestion immediately after performing a cover of “Skip a Rope,” a No. 1 country hit from the 1960s that dealt with racism
and other social ills.
Before going into the final number of her set, the title track from her new album “That’s How Rumors Get Started,” Price said, “I would just like to commend the Opry for coming out and saying ‘black lives matter.’ I think it’s so important at this time. And I hope that we can continue to go one step further in so many of these Nashville institutions and support the voices of our Black brothers and sisters when they need it most.”
“You know, Lady Antebellum has had a platform here. I think it would be really wonderful if y’all invited Anita White — the real Lady A — here to come and sing,” she said, according to Variety. “You know, country music owes such a great deal of what we have to Black artists and Black music, and there (is) just no place for sexism, racism in this music.”
In June, Lady Antebellum changed its name to Lady A, saying that its members are “regretful and embarrassed” that they had not previously considered the loaded history of the term “antebellum.”
In social media posts, the trio wrote in part: “We did not take into account the associations that weigh down this word referring to the period of history before the Civil War, which includes slavery.”
Later in June, the country trio Dixie Chicks changed their name to The Chicks in an apparent distancing from a name associated with the Confederate-era South.
On Twitter this summer, Price later referred to some discord over her remarks. “Some people are ‘disappointed’ by my words about ending
racism in this country,” she wrote, “but I will never be ashamed to stand up for what is right.”
She didn’t pull punches in her feelings about the former Lady Antebellum wanting to share the name with the Seattle blues singer who has long used it. Three days before playing the Opry, Price forwarded a news story about the band suing White to establish that both artists could use the name Lady A, tweeting: “Sooooo they changed their name but does the ‘A’ stand for antebellum or a–hole.”
White, who performs under the name Lady A, this week put out a new song that appears to be a response to her ongoing legal battle with the band Lady A. It’s “My Name Is All I Got,” which begins with the line, “They tried to take my name.”
During the song, White also thanks Margo Price for saying “the real Lady A” should be invited to play the Opry. “That’s what true allyship looks like,” White says in the song.
In July, Price released her new album “That’s How Rumors Get Started,” which had been pushed back from the spring due to Covid, but was recorded in December 2018 into 2019, produced by Sturgill Simpson. In the cover image, you can see a tattoo on her right arm, with the full names of her sons, but she has yet to add her daughter in ink.
In 2010, Price gave birth to twin boys, Judah Quinn and Ezra. Two weeks after his birth, Ezra died from a heart condition. On June 4, 2019, Price had their third child, Ramona Lynn Ivey.
Of spending so much more time at home with her kids this year, she said Wednesday: “It’s been amazing in a lot of ways. I really leaned into domesticity in a way I never have, learning how to cook and baking pies, making Christmas card this year. We’ve fixed up our home. And being with my daughter every single day – her vocabulary is through the roof.”
“And being home with my son, at such an impressionable age,” she said. “I’m glad I can at least be there for him, comfort him and go through it together.”
The message of “I’d Die for You” (on the new disc) is that “we have each other through all this and can be there to try to save each other from some of the evils in the world…this country is called the United States of America for a reason,” Price has said. “We’re so divided right now, and I would love to see people come together and lift each other up and think about what’s going on. Because I feel we’re at such a turning point.”
She called the song the most important on her new record. Hailed as “transcendent” (Vulture), “invincible” (The Ringer) and “one for the ages” (Stereogum), the song serves as the album’s epic finale, and Margo first performed it at Carnegie Hall’s Tibet House benefit, as well as at the Nashville tornado benefit. Price filmed the video during lockdown, and released it in September.
Singing to her family about a country overcome with violence, racism, gentrification and healthcare crises, she “documents the pursuit of hope amidst the crushing weight of corruption,” according to a summary. “Between shots of burning flower beds, and the ocean depths she swims through, reaching out for the husband she once thought she’d lose to Covid-19, Margo intersperses images of recent protests fighting for black lives, tornado wreckage in Nashville, the toll exacted by climate change, the struggle for voting rights and more.”
You can watch “I’d Die For You” here.
An Esquire feature in July said: “Being willing to tackle big topics is one of Price’s most wonderful calling cards. She does this in her music, on social media, and in interviews. But, as it has for herself and similarly vocal artists, it also all too frequently results in getting
locked out of the genre’s awards shows and radio rotations.”
A Guardian review of her new record said: “Price specializes in the kind of grabby, effortlessly commercial melodies that can power songs straight on to playlists and up the charts – and could have done so at pretty much any point in the last 40 years.”
Rolling Stone put “That’s How Rumors Get Started” at #17 for its top country and Americana albums of 2020 (Simpson is at #30):
“Nashville’s pre-eminent rabble-rouser Margo Price leaned more toward her classic-rock influences on That’s How Rumors Get Started, produced with the help of like-minded maverick Sturgill Simpson. Shades of Fleetwood Mac and the Grateful Dead course through the songs, which tackle the sacrifices of parenthood (‘Gone to Stay’), fame (‘Twinkle Twinkle’), and the touring life (‘Prisoners of the Highway’),” the magazine says.
“Even more compelling are the blazing vocal showcases, like the astonishing ‘I’d Die for You,’ and out-there sound experiments, such as the pulsing, icy New Wave of ‘Heartless Mind.’ Three albums in, Price continues to refine her restless, disruptive approach to making country music.”
Performing without audiences
On Aug. 2, she appeared on MSNBC with the president of the National Independent Venue Association, to discuss how Covid has devastated the live music industry. The shutdown by then took away $9 billion in revenue from concert venues, and Price noted that touring typically comprises 75 percent of artists’ income.
In September, she and her band live-streamed two shows from an audience-free Brooklyn Bowl Nashville. With special appearances from Adia Victoria and Lucinda Williams, NME said the “conservative-baiting country queen rocked harder than ever,” and Nashville Scene proclaimed, “Neither Price nor her bandmates showed any signs of rust. If anything they sounded readier than ever, unleashing so much pent-up emotion that the lack of an audience couldn’t compromise it.”
“We had to learn this year how to be our own producer,” Price said this week of livestreaming shows, many for charity. “Setting up the microphones and cameras, it’s definitely something I never really enjoyed doing. I had to get good at, to broadcast myself to the rest of the world. It’s been a learning experience this year.”
Not being able to tour to promote the new record was very hard.
“What I do as a singer and performer, that’s my bread and butter,” she said. “I feel like I kinda lost out on what could have been a big crossover moment. I’m thankful there will be time for that in the future.”
On Sept. 26, Price was part of a star-studded lineup for the first virtual Farm Aid festival, which featured festival board members Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Brandi Carlile, Jack Johnson, Bonnie Raitt, and Chris Stapleton.
Farm Aid was started in 1985 by Nelson, Young and Mellencamp to keep family farmers on the land and has to make sure everyone has access to good food from family farmers.
Price performed her song “Pay Gap” for a Ruth Bader Ginsburg virtual tribute event, “Honor Her Wish,” on Oct. 12. The videos were posted on YouTube by Demand Justice, the group that organized the event. Ginsburg died Sept. 18 at 87.
Price aptly prefaced her rendition of “Pay Gap” with a tribute to Ginsburg, calling the late Supreme Court Justice “a feminist icon and a hero to so many. She was the very definition of truth, justice, and honor. Ruth fought for women’s rights and equal pay, but she also fought for equality for all and how it could benefit all.”
Also in the fall, she did a cover of the classic Joni Mitchell holiday-themed “River,” and Price just released a new video of her performing it at an electric piano, alone.
“Now, accompanying herself on keys, she captures the wishful, wistful feelings behind the Christmastime classic, more prevalent than ever as we prepare to face the challenges of a winter like no other,” a release on the song says. “With the song, Margo sends fans a message of peace and love for the rest of the year, and the hope for 2021 to be everything 2020 wasn’t.
You can watch her new video of “River” here.
A New York Times piece this spring said Price has spent these housebound days with a lot of painting, pillow fort building and doing puzzles with her family; citing music as “one of the only things making [her] feel sane right now,” she also started a new internet radio show, “Runaway Horses,” on YouTube.
At the beginning of the show’s first episode, which aired on April 10, Price said she had chosen this format over the more ubiquitous live-stream option because singing directly into a camera just isn’t her style. “But being a D.J. certainly suits her: She riffs like a late-night radio host, with a cozy and conversational delivery,” the Times wrote April 30.
“Unfortunately, she has also taken on the role of eulogizer. The first episode opened with a tribute to Bill Withers, who died on March 30 from cardiac arrest. Last week, she broadcast the first half of her two-part memorial for John Prine, the celebrated country-folk singer who died from coronavirus complications on April 7.”
A favorite song of hers this year was Bob Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul,” a nearly 17-minute epic odyssey about President Kennedy’s 1963 assassination.
“You wonder where the country would be now if that hadn’t happened,” Price said this week. “That song came at a time when I really needed to hear it. Sometimes, you have to listen to a sad song to get your sadness out. I was so excited to hear he was putting a record out. My husband and I cried while we listened to the words.”
What about more songs of protest and pain from her, about this unprecedented year and our hard times?
“I don’t know how focused I will be about writing political songs,” she said. “Songs about humanity, those will always be there. Like Dylan’s ‘Blood on the Tracks,’ that’s not a political record, but it’s a great record. There’s always going to be a song for the mood that you’re in.”
“I think there will be a lot of political songs, but I think it’s very hard to write good political songs,” Price said. “’All American Made,’ ‘Pay Gap,’ “I’d Die For You’ – those are songs I’m really proud of.”
This year, she has been writing, but has also felt stagnant and frustrated in not being able to travel.
“We’ve written a great deal, my husband and I, and are definitely talking about getting back in the studio once this wave dies down and we can feel safe,” Price said. She’s not sure what 2021 will hold.
Her first concert date is scheduled for April 21 in Toledo, Ohio. “I hope to God…” she said. She also had been slated to join Chris Stapleton on his 2021 arena tour, but that’s up in the air.
With a mix of hope and uncertainty, Price looked to the future recently in answering these questions for Rolling Stone:
A word or phrase I never want to hear again is:
Anything that comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth.
The thing I’m least looking forward to in 2021 is:
More of the same old shit.
The thing I’m most looking forward to doing when the pandemic is over is:
Getting onstage and rocking the fuck out. And hugs.
My biggest hope for 2021 is:
For the U.S. to rejoin the Paris Agreement, for children (dreamers) being reunited with their families, for the lower and middle class getting what they need to survive and a more united America.
That’s how progress gets started.