The songwriter finds inspiration and hits a career high with a new tour, acclaimed album, memoir, podcast and CBD lines
“Margo is genuine, in her writing and her voice.
She sings honestly and we all love that.” – Willie Nelson
The lava lamp projections on the walls of the high-ceilinged East Nashville room lend an exploding plastic inevitable vibe to the album release party for Margo Price’s brilliant new release Strays. Inside the Riverside Revival Nashville, a place seemingly designed for weddings, the 2018 Best New Artist Grammy nom plops down behind a drum kit wearing what could best be described as a red peek-a-boo skater’s costume with strings of beads dangling off the lower portion. She says they learned this next song for an indie movie, then blasts through Elvis Costello’s no holds barred “Pump It Up.” It’s exhilarating.
After COVID derailed Price’s European tour on the brink of 2020’s That’s How Rumors Get Started, she went into creative overdrive. If she couldn’t tour, she would create, seek new platforms, find other inspirations. She wrote – and published – her acclaimed memoir “Maybe We’ll Make It.” She started a podcast “Runaway Horses” for Sonos and released two separate cannabis lines – Mom Grass in collaboration with Dad Grass and herbal mints from Nature’s Grace and Wellness with a family- owned farm from her home state of Illinois.
She quit drinking, kept writing songs that scraped down to the bones, played shows with Willie Nelson and Chris Stapleton.
If the live velocity slowed, Price had come too far to pause. As manager Amy Schmalz of Monotone says, “The successful campaign for [Rumors] is really down to Margo’s hard work and Loma Vista’s innovation in promoting the album. … As a performer, an artist and a writer, she is constantly pushing herself creatively.”
Price and her husband/frequent collaborator Jeremy Ivey even took hallucinogenic mushrooms during a getaway to South Carolina. That trip – literally and psilocybinically – led to many of Strays’ songs.
Watching the euphoria onstage on the eve of Strays, the cosmic production values, the dive into the crowd where she sings to the attendees, even the armful of long-stemmed roses she tosses to the fans and friends in attendance, it’s a triumph that transcends record release. For Price, who enlisted Jonathan Wilson (Father John Misty, Dawes, Erykah Badu among others) to produce Strays at his Fivestar Studios in Topanga Canyon during what she’s calling the band’s “Hot Vax Summer,” the project marks a broadening of her Americana/country roots. With collaborators who include Sharon Van Etten, Mike Campbell and Lucius, the record is closer to Neil Young’s realm of rock, canyon country, atmospherics and crunch with a little power pop when necessary (“Time Machine”); stark truths and desires cloaked in vulnerability, the music matches those emotions.
“The live show has been a big part of my evolution,” she explains the next afternoon, readying for an in-store at Grimey’s New & Pre-Loved Music, of these new musical turns. “We’ve been trying to put on a really dynamic show. We introduced the second drum kit in 2017, because I love playing the drums. (The Band’s) Levon Helm really inspired me to pick it up, jump around and not have to be anchored. I’ve been working on the light show for a long time, but I think it’s very effective for this show, especially. It means I’ll make less money, but art or money, right?”
Price pauses, recognizing the restlessness that drives her to always push is a blessing and a curse. She knows the risks, and understands for true artists, there’s no choice. You can, however, slowly expose the fans. “We’ve been playing some of the songs out on the road for a while,” she says.
“But I do have to thank the mushrooms for leading me here, because it is scary,” Price says. “When you have Midwest Farmer’s Daughter and All American Made and people love that, you worry. But when you look around country music: Waylon having that rock edge, everyone was a little punk rock. Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, the subject matter. I was told I was the only one who could perform that song [Lynn’s 1972 single ‘Rated X,’ which Price performed at Lynn’s tribute] – and only Loretta could’ve written and released something like that, so controversial because it was so real.”
Like Price’s epic ballad “Lydia,” performed with strings added at the last moment and delivered with an almost surreal mini-movie playing onscreen, the song unravels the reality of a woman facing a hard life and harder decisions. Inspired by walking by a woman’s clinic while on tour, Price explains Strays’ overall gestation, “I was going through this personal reckoning, closing chapters of my life. It’s vignettes of all sorts, friends, enemies, lovers, outlaws, the bands who broke up, the characters you meet on the way, the ones who don’t make it.
“I moved to Nashville nearly 20 years ago, and music’s what I ate, slept, breathed and obviously drank. I got my education going to songwriter nights, guitar pulls, listening to records and getting lost in them. I’d found Jesus: The Missing Years [by John Prine] on cassette in grandmother’s basement along with [Bob Dylan’s] Blood on the Tracks, and it’s all there.
“I definitely wear my influences on my sleeve.”
And also on the odometer. Like her influences, she embraces live. Wasserman’s Kiely Mosiman, who witnessed one of Price’s first headlining shows at West Hollywood’s iconic Troubadour, cites her stage-conquering passion. “Margo has played with everyone from Goose to Bob Weir to Chris Stapleton since shows started back up. It feels like she can truly conquer any crowd or genre… Her music is genre-bending, while also giving reverence to the ‘outsiders’ who came before her.”
Jen Hass, booker at the 9:30 Club where Price will headline on her “Til The Wheels Come Off Tour,” concurs. “Margo is unapologetically herself. Her music doesn’t just fit in a neat little box, there’s depth and passion.
“She doesn’t follow the rules of what is expected of her. I feel like that couldn’t be more in line with the ethos of the 9:30 Club… in simplest terms, [those artists] have something to say in the music they create. They have a restless urge to push the boundaries and make something that connects with their fans. Margo embodies all of this and more.
“Her music has a raw honesty that can break your heart and make you dance at the same time, and those are the types of artists we love to work with.”
In between building up her own headlining career, Price has joined legends on tour over the years including Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Prine, Tim McGraw and Old Crow Medicine Show with six- and seven-figure hauls as well as huge festival plays. She’s also shared bills with a younger generation of performers, including Stapleton, Raconteurs, Nathaniel Rateliff and My Morning Jacket, all of whom co-sign her prodigious talent.
As Willie Nelson, “a big fan,” explains of his decision to tour with the copper-haired guitarist: “She’s great. I knew they would love Margo… everyone loves Margo.”
“When I’m opening,” Price says, “I’m on a mission to win over the people who may not like me. Maybe it’s something they think or heard. So, I’ve got a chip on my shoulder, something to prove. But I’ve always believed in the work, the art I was making. I haven’t had big budgets; I don’t travel with a semi for lights. But it’s made me grow in other ways.
“I’m a low-key perfectionist. I can be tough on myself, tough on the band – and some of these guys have been with me over a decade. I hear about some singer/songwriters who have their bandleaders run rehearsals, but I’m there every day with them. The band is tighter than a duck’s p***y, as my bass player says. I wanted to be a band that made the headliner feel like they gotta get their ‘A’ game and really work for it.”
Price’s team is now focusing on the taste-making rooms to anchor Strays, as a way to showcase her strength live and move her into bigger venues.
The first announced 2023 leg of her “’Till The Wheels Fall Off Tour” kicks off Jan. 30 and runs through early March with stops at Webster Hall, the Fonda, Scoot Inn, the Fillmore, First Avenue, Chicago’s Vic Theater, Variety Theater and the Ryman Auditorium. It’s not about how many, but how fitting.
Wasserman Nashville head Jonathan Levine ratifies the art of it. “Knowing the album and touring cycles will be extensive, and she’s not headlined since prior to the shutdown, the goal was to play places that allow the buzz to build, and for folks to discover the new music and Margo’s extraordinary live show in the more intimate settings.”
Levine stresses her global reach, the emphasis on hard ticket sales. In a business where there’s plenty of soft festival money, Price wants to build something enduring and know she can continue to do the thing that feeds her.
“We just thrive live,” she says. “That’s the place we excel. That ’60s, ’70s, ’80s really ‘bring it now’ thing is what we do. There was no auto-tune, get rich, blood sport game show that made you a star. To me, it’s kind of insulting to see someone auto-tuned or lip syncing … it’s what comes out of your mouth, not the vintage hat some stylist bought to make you look authentic.”
Authenticity is everything to Price, who is her own stylist. Honestly addressing budget, her early thrift-store fabulous was necessity. But it also allowed her to create a style that was not only her own, but iconic the same way Stevie Nicks, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt were back in the day. Perusing her Instagram, beyond the “road verité” behind the scenes glimpses, it’s the kind of fashion fare that’s inflamed young women since the Youth Quake of the ‘60s.
“Working within my budget, I always styled myself – and I changed three times a day,” she laughs now, talking about her preteen self. “My Mom had a bin of vintage clothes: bridesmaid dresses, high-waisted jeans from the ‘70s, all this stuff. I know I’ve got to look respectable if I’m going to court, but if I’m going to a biker bar or to hang out with Lucinda Williams, that’s something else.”
For all the DIY glam, Price prefers being out in the world. Whether crawling through a city on tour or hiking, she’s seeking truth and beauty where it exists. For the cover – again like those Laurel Canyon denizens whose music echoes on Strays – she went to nature: Bentonite Hills in Utah to hike as well as capture the images to define the album.
“It’s hard to keep that inspiration burning,” she explains of constant seeking. “You only have forward momentum. Or else you only have standing still, looking backwards, but that’s old news. When we got to California, we got a rental house with a pool. It was a really peaceful place out in the country. There were hawks in the air, snakes – and there was a path behind Jonathan’s house where we were recording, we could hike … Everything fell into place.
“I was someone who refused to play with a capo for a long time, because you’re still playing the same chords all the time. I’d made it my mission to really learn bar chords, figure out the ones that stretch your fingers.
“I enjoy shredding, putting on an electric guitar and just going. That’s such an instrumental part of my songwriting process. It’s surreal incorporating all those things into an album – and then building this show around it.”
Another pause, another truth falls from her lips. “You don’t have to be pigeonholed. I grew up on folk music, soul and rock bands, tribute nights and Ray Charles. I know that I am all of that, it’s just how we put it together.”