KIOS-FM

Margo Price Sings About The Heartache And Beauty Of Small-Town America

May 29, 2020

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. As our country has reached the grim milestone of over 100,00 deaths from COVID-19, we thought about a program in our archives featuring songs about hard times and the ability to survive them. Margo Price is a country singer and songwriter based in Nashville, who describes herself as a songbird, thunderbird and jailbird. The jailbird part, that's literal. Price once spent a weekend behind bars after she was arrested for driving under the influence. That was the subject of her song "Weekender," which we'll hear later in the show.

Like most of us, Margo Price has been sheltering at home - in her case, in Nashville. She's there with her son, a newborn baby daughter and her husband and songwriting partner Jeremy Ivey, who has been recovering from what is suspected to be COVID-19. She's been working on a new album called "That's How Rumors Get Started," which is expected later this summer. In the meantime, she's just released an online album through the website Bandcamp, featuring her live 2018 performances with guest artists at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. It's titled "Perfectly Imperfect At The Ryman," and it's proceeds go to the MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund.

Terry spoke with Margo Price in 2017 after the release of her album "All American Made." Many of her songs are autobiographical - about family and growing up in a small town in the Midwest. This song, "Heart Of America," is about growing up on her family's farm, which was eventually bought out by a large corporation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEART OF AMERICA")

MARGO PRICE: (Singing) Some time back in '86, when big banks took the throne, they asked that every local farmer try to dry his own corn. But the men in suits had a bigger plan than to let it be our own. When the crops came in that spring, they were blown. And Neil and Willie tried so hard. And battles they have gone. But that was still long after the much bigger war had been won. No one was there to save the wheat and the cattle at my home. They took every field my family owned. No one moves away with no money. They just do what they can to live in the heart of America, getting by on their own two hands. You can pray to anybody's Jesus and be a hardworking man. But at the end of the day, if the rain it don't rain, if the bank, it don't break, we just do what we can.

TERRY GROSS: That's "Heart Of America" from Margo Price's new album "All American Made." Margo Price, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for coming to our show and for bringing your guitar with you. I really appreciate that. So...

PRICE: Yes, thank you for having me.

GROSS: My pleasure. When you started writing songs, did you think you'd be writing about anything as personal, as autobiographical as losing the family farm?

PRICE: You know, I think from the time that I was really young, I was always trying to, you know, express what was going on in my life and inside me. And a lot of times that came out through song. I feel like I've been trying to write "Heart Of America" and "Hands Of Time" - I feel like I've been trying to write those songs my whole life.

GROSS: You were - according to your songs, you were 2 when your family lost the farm. So you probably have, like, no memory of actually living on the farm. Can I ask what the circumstances were that led to your family losing the farm?

PRICE: Yeah. I was about 2 or 3, and I do have a couple kind of vague memories of my grandparents packing up all their things in their home and getting rid of their dogs that they loved so much and all their animals. So there is a little bit of a memory there, just knowing the gravity of it all, just how much it affected everybody.

Big farming was coming in. And the banks weren't very generous in helping out the family after a hard year. So they had been told to install these grain bins that dried their corn, which, typically, I guess, they would ship off and have that done. So they had invested in a lot of farming equipment that was very expensive. And then a drought came. And the combination of those two things, then, the bank just kind of swept it out from under them and sold it to a large corporation.

GROSS: So on your first album, there's a song called "Hands Of Time," which is about, you know, leaving your home and hitting the road and, you know, launching a music career. It seems very connected to the first song that we heard. Can you play - can you perform some of that for us?

PRICE: Yeah, yeah. Well, I wrote this song actually sitting down at the piano. And I'd had the words for a really long time and could not find the right chords or the right tempo or melody. And I just kept working on it and working on it. And one day, I went down and used the piano to figure out what was going on. So, yeah, here's a little piece of it.

(Playing guitar, singing) When I rolled out of town on the unpaved road, I was $57 from being broke. Kissed my mama and my sisters and I said goodbye. And with my suitcase packed, I wiped the tears from my eyes. Times they were tough growing up at home. My daddy lost the farm when I was 2 years old. Took a job at the prison working second shift. That's the last time I'll let them take what should be his. 'Cause all I want to do is make a little cash 'cause I've worked all the bad jobs busting my ass. I want to buy back the farm. Bring my mama home some wine. And turn back the clock on the cruel hands of time.

It was kind of strange 'cause when I wrote that and I showed my husband, he said, I don't know if that key change works or whatever kind of modulation you're doing there. Just, I don't know. I just kept playing it over and over. I said, yeah, it does. And then later, everyone said it was genius. But right off the bat (laughter), it was - felt a little strange.

GROSS: So the song that you just did, "Hands Of Time," refers to your father after the farm was taken away, working a job at the prison. And so - is that the job that he took?

PRICE: Yeah, it was. I think it's a hard job for anyone who has it, you know? Nobody wants to be in a - working in a prison. But he did what he had to do to put food on the table. And him and my mom worked very hard, very modest jobs to make sure that we were never without.

GROSS: You know, I'm wondering there so much - like, in America, there's so much emphasis on, like, the heartland and the family farmer. And there's a whole set of kind of, like, stereotypes that go with that of what we're talking about when we talk about the heartland and the family farm. Do you feel like you fit into any of those stereotypes? Do you know what I'm saying? Because you actually lived that experience.

PRICE: Yeah. Growing up in middle America, I always kind of wished that I was from somewhere else that was more romantic. It just kind of felt like there just wasn't much going on. It was so flat, the landscape. And just the winters were very cold. The work was hard. And I always, you know, dreamed of a more romantic backdrop. But, you know, now when I go back, I see the beauty in it. And, you know, the more I'm away, I think the more I appreciate where I came from.

GROSS: When you started singing and writing songs, why was it country music?

PRICE: I always loved the stories and, you know, being able to get out an entire plot in just three minutes. And I think it's just the way that I sang, also, because I was drawn to so many different types of music. And, of course, there was a lot of country music being played in my town. But there was something about my voice that just always - I don't know if it was nasally or what or that I was scooping the notes. But kind of no matter what I did, I felt like I couldn't get away from singing country music.

GROSS: And you went to Nashville, where you still live. And your great-uncle is a songwriter. And I don't know that I know any of his songs, but he is a songwriter who went to Nashville and kind of made his way there. Did that open up any doors for you, at least a door in your mind thinking someone from my family did this, so maybe I can do it, too?

PRICE: For sure. We would come down for family vacation and stay with my uncle Bob (ph) and my aunt Helen (ph) for a couple days. And, you know, he had gold records hanging on his wall. He's written hundreds and hundreds of songs. He wrote for George Jones a song called "Writing On The Wall." You know, he wrote for Reba. He wrote for Charley Pride and Tanya Tucker and so many people.

And he had a, you know, just a regular job. And he was living in Iowa. And his wife was supportive enough when he said, I want to go to Nashville, I want to be a songwriter, that they picked up everything and moved down here. And it did seem to be this impossible dream that he had conquered.

But, you know, I do think that probably my mother thought that he could open all the right doors for me, and there would be a nice smooth transition. And I came to his house. He lives in Green Hills. And I played him some songs like the first week I was here. And he sat there real quiet and didn't say anything. And I said, well, what, you know, what do you think? And he gave me the best advice that he could.

He said, you know, go home, throw away your TV. Throw away your computer. Just sit there and just keep writing. And it hurt my feelings, but I needed that tough love, you know, to tell myself I did need to keep working at playing and hearing other people's songs and seeing what made a good song. So I started going out to lots of open mics and listening to everybody and cut my teeth.

BIANCULLI: We're listening to an interview and performance with country singer-songwriter Margo Price, who spoke with Terry Gross in 2017. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN DOE AND THE SADIES' "PINK MOUNTAIN RAG")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. LEt's return to Terry's 2017 interview with Margo Price, the country singer and songwriter who currently is sheltering at home with her family in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: I'm going to ask you to play a song from your new album. And this is called "All American Made." It's the title song. Would you introduce it for us and play a little bit of it?

PRICE: Yeah. So yeah, this song my husband and I co-wrote. And it's been around for a minute. You know, it's funny how songs kind of change their meaning as the world seems to change them for you.

GROSS: How has the meaning of the song changed?

PRICE: I think there's just more weight in it than at the time that I wrote it. And, you know, we wrote it during the Obama years. And I feel like I've always been one to question the people in charge. I enjoy playing the devil's advocate and being the protagonist. And so, you know, when I wrote this song, you know, I was still upset with things that were going on. But I think, you know, America is just in such a divided, heavy place right now. And I love my country so much. I - you know, I don't want to leave. I just day-to-day wake up and read the news and feel confused. And so this song has helped on some gray mornings.

GROSS: This song has a lot of verses. Do you want to choose a couple of your favorite and play them?

PRICE: Yeah. Starting after the lead, about halfway through the song is where my favorite one starts.

(Singing) 1987, and I didn't know it then. Reagan was selling weapons to the leaders of Iran. But it won't be the first time, baby, and it won't be the end. They were all American made. But I was just a child, unaware of the effects, raised on sports and Jesus and all the usual suspects. So tell me, Mr. Petty, what do you think will happen next? It's all American made.

GROSS: That was Margo Price performing for us the title track of her new album, "All American Made." Tom Petty slips in there (laughter). This was when he was still alive that you wrote the song. Why are you asking him a question?

PRICE: Well, I think there's nothing more American than Tom Petty. And so when I started writing those later verses there, I thought he'd be the person who'd know what actually is all American made. And I'll just ask him. And, of course, I thought maybe if I asked him a question, he would answer me and then I would get to meet him.

(CROSSTALK)

PRICE: Yeah. I mean, because the album came out on his birthday, you know, what would have been his birthday. That was just a really hard time, I think, for people on both sides of the battle right now. Everybody loves Tom Petty.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. What was the first music you sang? Was it country music? Did you sing in church, in school musicals?

PRICE: I did a little bit of all of that. I grew up singing - and in church, for sure. And I was in choir, so I did jazz choir, and show choir and all those things. My mom heard me singing one day. I was auditioning for, like, a variety-type show that they put on in my school. She was washing dishes, and her and my grandmother walked in, and they were shocked that I could sing the way that I could.

And after that, my mom really nourished my love of singing, and she would drive me an hour away to get voice lessons from the best voice teacher that was around. Her name was Sue Clark. And so I was singing mezzo soprano Italian songs when I was even 11 or 12. And I still find myself, you know, trying to utilize that technique of breathing and phrasing and - but it's a little early for me to be singing right now. I think my voice always warms up after 8 p.m. (laughter).

GROSS: We're recording this in the afternoon, but I think you sound great.

PRICE: Thank you.

GROSS: Share with us something that you learned from your voice teacher that you otherwise might never have known.

PRICE: Sue Clark, she's - you know, I found out she's not around now. I tried to look her up so I could get back in touch with her and thank her. She taught me to try not to clear my throat and not to cough because it can damage your vocal chords. You know, one thing she always told me not to do was belt and switch over into my head voice.

But after I started getting into, like, Led Zeppelin and Janis Joplin, I wanted to, you know, blow my voice out. So it's been a learning experience to, you know, use that classical training but then also try to figure out ways to make my voice sound edgier or louder or just more rock 'n' roll at times.

BIANCULLI: That's country singer and songwriter Margo Price speaking with Terry Gross in 2017. We'll hear more after a break. And we'll remember Larry Kramer, the writer and AIDS activist who died of pneumonia on Wednesday. He was 84 years old. Here's more of Margo Price's song "All American Made," which is included in her album of live performances recorded at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. The album is called "Perfectly Imperfect At The Ryman," and it's now available online with proceeds to benefit the MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL AMERICAN MADE")

PRICE: (Singing) Woke up from a movie I immediately forgot. Got a heartache on the bottom and a headache on the top. The part of me that hurts the worst is the one I just can't spot. And it's all American made. The levee where I go, somebody puts me in the dirt. And everything I say somebody says they said it first. But I don't need 10 million, baby. Just give me one that works. It's all American made. Well, all the Midwest farms are turning into plastic homes. And my uncle started drinking when the bank denied the loan. But now it's liver failure and his mad cow being cloned. And it's all American made. Well, I have been all over, but I can't help feeling stuck. Something in my bloodline, or something in my gut says drive on out to Nashville in a rusted pickup truck. It's all American made.

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. We're listening back to an interview Terry recorded in 2017 with country singer and songwriter Margo Price. At the moment, she's sheltering at home with her husband and two children in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: So you write a lot of songs with your husband, Jeremy Ivey, who's also a musician, who's featured on your album playing bass, guitar, harmonica. How did you start writing songs together? Like, which came first, having a relationship or writing songs?

PRICE: Well, we met through music. We met at a Belmont College party, where neither of us were going to school. We were just hanging out with all these hip musicians, and I had wanted to go there but couldn't really afford the tuition. And so we were hanging out, and we met, and he was coming out of a divorce and really didn't want a relationship.

But yeah, the first night we hung out, we both played a song for each other, and then the relationship kind of grew out of our love for music. And he sold me this eight-track digital recorder. And so I would call him all the time to figure - I didn't really know how to work all the buttons on it, and I would call him and be like, oh, I got the reverb stuck on this. I can't get it off. And then we started playing together.

I actually started backing him up first. And I would - I was playing drums in a band of his. It was called River Bottom. And then I kind of - I broke up that band. I - there were problems going on in there, and I called it out. And so then the two of us just kind of started writing together and singing together and playing together and haven't stopped yet.

GROSS: So when you're writing songs with your husband, how is the process different from when you're writing a song by yourself?

PRICE: Well, you know, a lot of times, we'll bring ideas to each other that we can't finish, or other times, we will just sit down and start writing a song together from the get-go. It's always different. But it's really nice to be able to write with someone where you just talk things out in the room. And, you know, we just have this kind of communication where I feel like sometimes when I'm talking out loud, I don't know if I'm saying it to him.

We just share - we share a brain at this point. We've been together for about 14 years, and so it just feels kind of like we're talking through things, talking the song out. And if an idea is dumb, then we are very quick to tell the other person, and if it's great, then, you know, we nourish it and encourage it. So yeah, it's always different.

GROSS: One of the songs that you co-wrote with your husband that's on the new album, "All American Made," is called "Learning To Lose," and that's a duet with you and Willie Nelson. So you were lucky enough to have him sing with you on the album. So of all the songs you could've chosen to say, sing this one with me, why was it that song?

PRICE: Well, when we were writing that song, we were listening to a lot of Willie Nelson records. And you know how it is when you get inspired by an artist and you kind of go through long phases of listening to them and really digging in deep. And so yeah, that song we wrote in our bedroom. I had a cup of coffee. I was wearing my robe. We just barely woke up. And Jeremy grabbed the guitar. And we just sat there. And it came out so quickly. And right when we finished it, we started thinking and saying to each other, wouldn't it be amazing if we can get Willie Nelson to sing on this song?

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear that song with you and Willie Nelson? This is "Learning To Lose." And it's from my guest Margo Price's new album, "All American Made."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEARNING TO LOSE")

WILLIE NELSON: (Singing) And the only devil I've ever seen was in the mirror. And the only enemy I know is in my mind.

MARGO PRICE AND WILLIE NELSON: (Singing) Won't you tell me how long must I pay off these dues? Won't you tell me, is winning learning to lose? You said it, oh, but say that it's not true. Is winning really learning to lose?

GROSS: That's Margo Price and Willie Nelson dueting on a song she co-wrote with her husband Jeremy Ivey. The song is called "Learning To Lose," and it's from her new album, "All American Made."

So, you know, in terms of, like, moving to Nashville to, like, launch your performing career there, one of the kind of central stories about your early career was how you and your husband sold the car and pawned your wedding ring so that you'd have enough money to pay for the studio time to make your first album.

PRICE: Yeah, we kind of put all our eggs in one basket. And it was really scary. He just came into the kitchen one morning. And he's like, that's it. We're never going to be able to save up enough money to make the record that you need. And so I'm just going to sell the car. And I tried to talk him out of it, but he went down to Gallatin Road and sold it to Carmax. (Laughter) And he came home, and then we booked the studio time the very next day.

GROSS: And your ring, too, you pawned that?

PRICE: Yeah. We went - I went to about three different pawn shops. And none of them wanted to give me very much because there was a crack in it. And it's missing one of the little diamonds on the side. But they were going to give me 300 bucks. And we just agreed to get rid of anything that didn't suit us. And we did sell some music equipment, too. But, you know, the ring, it did kind of hit home. And my husband said, it's just a material possession. It doesn't matter. And while I agreed with him, I still liked my wedding ring with the chip in it. And so he eventually went back and got it out of the hock for me.

GROSS: And you have it now?

PRICE: I do. I'm actually looking at it. It's still got a crack. And it's still missing one of the diamonds.

(LAUGHTER)

PRICE: Haven't even went to go get it fixed.

BIANCULLI: We're listening to an interview from our archives with Margo Price. We'll continue her conversation with Terry Gross after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HADEN FEAT. ROSANNE CASH SONG, "WILDWOOD FLOWER")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's return to Terry's 2017 interview with Margo Price, the country singer and songwriter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: So you've said that your parents were afraid that you'd - they weren't sure how it would finally work out. So it's working out really good, but they didn't know that at the time. You have a song called "Weekender," which is about spending the weekend in the county jail. Did that happen to you?

PRICE: It did. Yeah, that was one of the lowest points. I - you know, I feel like I'd been running wild for quite some time, and it was really only a matter of time before it was all going to catch up with me. And came home one night after staying at a friend's - and I had tried to call a cab, and the cab didn't come. It was kind of before Uber and Lyft were really in cities.

And I just made some bad - I shouldn't have driven. I thought I was fine. I - you know, I gave it time, I ate some food, I waited a long time, but I ended up hitting a telephone pole in front of a couple police officers and then thought about outrunning them for a little bit. And then I realized that wasn't possible, so I finally pulled over and walked the line.

And yeah, I got a good lawyer, but I've still - still had to go do this weekend in jail. And he had told me - he's like, oh, it's just - it's a white-collar thing. It's not going to be a big deal. It's really not going to be scary. And when I showed up at the Davidson County jail, I realized that I was in there with, you know, people who had murdered people and done some really bad things.

And just being in there was a eye-opening experience in more than one ways, more than just, you know, for self-motivation to get better and never end up back there again. But it was also - it was just sad to see women who were in that situation and whose lives had taken them there, and so...

GROSS: Were you injured in the accident?

PRICE: No, I wasn't. Yeah, I was wearing my seat belt, and, you know, it was late at night. Nobody else was around. But it was really scary for my husband because they called him, and he thought that I had died, the way that they, you know, kind of explained it at first. Yeah, after that happened, I really realized that I was not taking care of myself. And I quit drinking for a good long time, at that point.

GROSS: Can you do, like, a verse of "Weekender"?

PRICE: Yeah, yeah.

(Playing guitar).

Let's see.

(Playing guitar, singing). Well, I went down to the county jail, turned myself in, spending all my weekends here, far from my good-timing friends. Things went bad. Things went worse. I guess you know the end. The only thing I know for sure is I ain't going back again. They took me down to cell block B after stripping off my clothes, put me in a monkey suit and threw me in the throes like a rat in a maze, a cow in a herd or a sparrow with broken wing. Now I know the reason why the caged bird has to sing because I'm just a weekender in the Davidson County jail. My old man ain't got the cash to even go my bail. Should've listened to my mama, maybe quit my life of sin before I went backsliding again.

This one is - this one might be my favorite.

(Singing) Now, the bed is hard, and the room is cold. My cellmate's got a cough. She takes her meds and sleeps all day, got six more weeks till she's off. She said she beat her boyfriend up while high on crack cocaine. Now she sits and watches her young life go down the drain because she's just a weekender in the Davidson County jail, and her old man ain't got the cash to even go her bail. She should've listened to her mama, maybe her quit her life of sin before she went backsliding again.

GROSS: Aw (ph), thanks for singing that. That song, "Weekender," is on Margo Price's first album, which is called "Midwest Farmer's Daughter." Margo Price, thank you so much, and thank you for being so generous and singing and playing for us. It was really just wonderful. Thank you very much.

PRICE: Yes, thank you.

BIANCULLI: Margo Price visited FRESH AIR in 2017. Her online charity album collecting some of her live performances with special guests at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, is called "Perfectly Imperfect At The Ryman." It's available now at the website Bandcamp. She's also working on a new album due this summer. After a break, we remember Larry Kramer, the writer and AIDS activist who died Wednesday at age 84. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL FREEDMAN'S "LOVE TAKES TIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.