Margo Price, poet laureate of the dive bar
Matthew Munhall | Monday, October 30, 2017
Margo Price opened her 2016 debut “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter” by sketching out her origin story: a childhood in rural Illinois, the loss of the family farm, a decade spent playing gigs in Nashville, the death of her firstborn child, the hard drinking and prison stint in the years that followed. Despite her tumultuous backstory, she expressed modest ambitions: “I want to buy back the farm / And bring my mama home some wine / Turn back the clock on the cruel hands of time.”
Price has been branded a revivalist for her embrace of old-school country sounds, but her new album “All American Made” reflects the urgency of the present moment. “Don’t clear your throat if you’ve got nothing to say,” she sings on the opening track, as if issuing a challenge to herself. On “All American Made,” however, Price more than delivers, with her razor-sharp songwriting making her the reigning poet laureate of the dive bar.
The record starts with an exuberant one-two punch that bolsters Price’s outlaw country credentials. “Don’t Say It” is a tequila shot of an opening track, with Price rattling off one-liners to an awful boyfriend — “Don’t call the doctor with a broken heart” — over her band’s rockabilly stylings. She follows it with the honky-tonk stomp of “Weakness,” a rollicking song about wrestling with one’s demons. (I highly recommend watching the track’s brilliant outlaw fantasy of a video, in which Price robs a liquor store and starts a gasoline fire.)
“All American Made” lives up to its name, both in its sound and its lyrical concerns; political without being didactic, it is an album about how hard it is to make it in America. While the country music of the ’60s and ’70s is an obvious influence — one hears hints of Loretta Lynn, Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard — she and her band also draw from a number of quintessentially American genres, including soul, funk, R&B and gospel.
As a storyteller, too, Price often recalls Haggard, offering a working-class view from the heartland. On the plaintive “Heart of America,” she tells the autobiographical story of her family losing their farm in Aledo, Illinois. Price describes the hardscrabble life of farming, through a series of folksy adages: “You can pray to anybody’s Jesus / And be a hardworking man / But at the end of the day, if the rain don’t rain / We just do what we can.” Backed by the gospel quartet The McCrary Sisters on “Do Right By Me,” Price recounts the mundanity of growing up in a small town where there “ain’t much for a girl to do except get knocked up and settle down.”
Most affecting is the title track, which posits that alienation and disaffection are as American as apple pie. “I wonder if the president gets much sleep at night / And if the folks on welfare are making it alright,” Price sings. “I’m dreaming of that highway that stretches out of sight / That’s all American made.” It is that specific, empathic lens on American life that makes Price such a great songwriter and “All American Made” such a triumph.
“All American Made”
Label: Third Man Records
Tracks: “Weakness,” “Do Right By Me” “All American Made”
If you like: Waylon Jennings, Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard