BY STEVE ERICKSON
A sharp collection of autobiographical and political songs with a traditionalist country sound, Margo Price’s 2017 “All-American Made” appealed to fans outside the genre and helped lead to a Grammy nomination. She plays well to rock fans: her first two albums were released by Jack White’s Third Man Records label, and she’s the only country artist on her new label, the Universal Music Group-distributed Loma Vista. In fact, she speaks to people alienated by mainstream country music, which isn’t a welcoming place even for the most conservative women, much less singers with explicitly leftist lyrics. “All-American Made” had a fairly spare sound, with acoustic guitar, pedal steel and honky-tonk piano.
Her latest album, “That’s How Rumors Get Started,” which is released July 10, goes in a more genre-agnostic direction.
As rock music’s commercial niche has cratered, some extremely popular country singers, like Chris Stapleton and Eric Church, would have been filed next to Bob Seger, John Mellencamp, and Bruce Springsteen as “roots rock” in the ‘80s. Produced by Sturgill Simpson, whose last album mixed Southern rock and New Wave, “That’s How Rumors Get Started” trades in the pedal steel for thick, fuzzed-out electric guitars and pianos carrying the melody. While “That’s How Rumors Get Started” does look back to the ‘70s — the gospel-influenced “Hey Child” suggests Loretta Lynn fronting the Rolling Stones — Price’s vocals and lyrics keep it urgent and personal. “Heartless Mind” ventures furthest from country music, with synthesizers and a drum sound off a Cars album.
The lyrics on “That’s How Rumors Get Started” reflect the pressure of having to make a living spending half the year on the road. “Prisoner of the Highway” takes tropes from rock and country lyrics by men — or elsewhere, like Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” — about a life of travel. But where men have celebrated that existence, Price points out the fine line between liberation and loneliness, singing, “I sacrificed my family” over a swooning Hammond organ. “Twinkle Twinkle” looks back at her past, when she was a young girl passively consuming Hollywood movies, but instead of simply celebrating her success in the music industry, she emphasizes the stress of getting and staying there. She went through a period of homelessness and relying on petty theft to feed herself. “But then I won the lottery/ I stuck gold and they picked me,” she recalls, but looking at her rise, she sings, “If it don’t break you/ It might just make you rich/ You might not get there.” Rather than flexing about her popularity, the song ends abruptly on the phrase “it’s a bitch.” Price avoids mythologizing herself on these songs. Instead, they’re so full of anxiety that her ability to make a living from music could vanish at any time.
Price cited Petty in “All-American Made” and has mentioned taking inspiration from his lyrics about girls in Middle America. This album is less pop-oriented than his sound, but “Stone Me” is her equivalent of “I Won’t Back Down.” It alludes to her problems with alcohol: “sobriety is a hell of a drug.” (She already wrote about her drunk driving accident and subsequent brief stay in jail on “Weekender.”) The defiant singer addresses a man who tries to drag her down, using Christian imagery. As a response to fans screaming “Judas!” when he plugged in an electric guitar and switched from folk music to rock music, Bob Dylan sang “everybody must get stoned” in 1966, but it played as a giggly double entendre about weed. Price is at her most serious and passionate using the same metaphor.
“All-American Made” is one of the best protest songs of the Trump era, although Price began writing it while Obama was president. Threading her vocals through samples of presidential speeches, she sang about Iran-Contra, and wondered “if the president gets much sleep at night/ And if the folks on welfare are making it alright.” The subtler “Loner” took aim at American alienation and conformism, while “Pay Gap” offered a working-class feminist perspective. No doubt fearing pigeonholing, Price avoids overtly political lyrics on “That’s How Rumors Get Started.”
We live in a period where genre divisions increasingly seem like marketing niches. The Rolling Stones had a freedom to play with blues, country, gospel, disco, funk and any other style they wanted to while still benefiting from being considered a rock band. This generally hasn’t been extended to women and/ or African-Americans. But if the sound of “All-American Made” looked back at ’70s outlaw country (complete with a Willie Nelson duet), “That’s How Rumors Get Started” has more in common with the music played on rock stations at that time. Price turns to the ‘70s to find inspiration to express the difficulties of her own life right now.
MARGO PRICE | “That’s How Rumors Get Started” | Loma Vista
This story first appeared on gaycitynews.com.