The View from the Mountain
Margo Price draws a line from her past to the future
By Randy Fox
Photography by Alysse Gafkjen
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In the summer of 2015, the album that would become Margo Price’s breakout debut, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, had been sitting in the can for months. A disastrous summer tour left her and her husband, Jeremy Ivey, broke and disgusted. Record label rejections were piling up.
As she writes in her new memoir, Maybe We’ll Make It, the entire year “was like a short purgatory for me. I had that ace in the hole and nowhere to play it.”
“I was really low at that point,” Price recalls, speaking to The Nashvillian just days after a triumphant performance at Farm Aid 2022. “We had sold the car and put everything in on [recording that album], and nobody was biting on it. I was getting turned down left and right.
“During that time, I was really abusive to myself and hard on myself. But if I could go back, I’d tell myself, ‘Be patient and give yourself a break, because it’s all going to work out and be fine.’ ”
That earlier version of herself is the subject of the book that Price refers to as her “first memoir.” It’s the story of an Illinois farmer’s daughter who dropped out of college at 19, following a ’shroom-assisted revelation, to become a musician navigating her way through early-aughts Nashville. It’s a rough, rowdy, and brutally honest story of dreams and frustrations, good and bad choices, pain and joy.
While writing an autobiography at this point in her career might seem premature, artist stories rarely begin at the mythic moment of “overnight success.” Rock icon Patti Smith’s award-winning memoir Just Kids is perhaps the best example of the genre, chronicling her days in in early 1970s New York and her relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe when they were both completely unknown.
“I think Patti Smith’s, in particular, is one that really motivated me, because of how it was written and the time period she wrote about,” Price says. “I wanted to write down the stories for myself for later in life. I knew remembering the details could be challenging.
“I started writing when I found myself pregnant with my daughter, Ramona,” she recalls. “I wasn’t touring as much, so I started it to keep myself busy. If the pandemic had not hit, it probably would still not be completed. It was serendipitous that it worked out the way it did with so much free time on my hands.”
But making the jump from writing songs and poetry to long-form prose wasn’t an easy transition. “I had written some prose, but never completed anything of length,” Price says. “The book went through a lot of transformations. The first draft was very different. It wasn’t as personal, and it didn’t have as much vulnerability in it.
“It started to change as I worked with my editor, Naomi Huffman,” she adds. “She asked a lot of good questions and got me to elaborate on things, instead of skimming over the hard stuff. My husband, as well, he was instrumental in recalling a lot of the dates and specifics, and he also gave me his blessing to be completely transparent about what we’d been through in our marriage.”
Price’s willingness to be open and honest about her experiences and mistakes is one of the most fascinating aspects of the book. She also avoids the twin traps common to memoirists, neither amping up her tales for exploitative shock value nor casting her past in self-pitying justification. Instead, she presents her stories of substance abuse, bad choices, and infidelity as simple facts.
“There shouldn’t be as much shame in this world in general placed on all of us,” she says. “Everyday things are coming at us and we’re just trying to cope. I did the best I could with the tools that I had at the time. Of course, if I could go back I would do things differently, and I do have regrets. I’m not here to say that I have all the answers, or that from here on out I’m going to do everything exactly perfect, but it’s really freeing to say, ‘Here are my flaws as a human.’
“I wanted to write down the stories for myself for later in life.”
“I’ve spent so much time feeling bad, ashamed, and alone, and feeling like I could have done better. But as I’m aging, I’m just really trying to not feel that way. I hope people reading [the book] might give themselves a little grace and forgiveness, too.”
While Price’s personal journey centers the book, a larger story unfolds alongside it. Price’s encounters with the 21st-century mainstream Nashville music-biz complex are informative, entertaining, and, at times, unsettling.
Even at the outset, Price was never comfortable with the industry’s obsession with American Idol-atry showbiz polish and “factory farmer” bro country cultivation.
“When I first found myself here, I struggled to fit in,” she says. “I always had people giving me advice like, ‘You should go on Nashville Star,’ or ‘You gotta do this or gotta do that.’ Those are amazing talents to have, and I’m not trying to knock anybody that does it, but when I found a group of people that weren’t trying to do the polished pop-country thing, it seemed like a paradigm shift. We wanted to get Nashville back focused on the songs and the music, and not focused on whether somebody looks like a movie star or can sing like a virtuoso.”
Price’s story winds through a distinct era that might best be described as the birth of the Metamodern Nashville Sound. It’s the tale of pre-“It City” Nashville, when first-wave millennials and similar travelers — Price, Sturgill Simpson, Tristen, Lilly Hiatt, Caitlin Rose, and others — started fusing Nashville’s hillbilly heritage with a 21st-century stylistic egalitarianism, creating their own spaces on the musical genre identity spectrum.
“That was a piece of the story I wanted to share,” Price says. “That time didn’t belong to just me, and there are a lot of people who influenced me, shaped me, helped me along the way. There was a great sense of camaraderie and excitement, like a volcano about to explode. We were all there together, and the music was great! We were just playing in clubs and cutting our teeth. It was a brilliant group of people, and I count myself lucky to stand with them.”
While the creative forces at play were exciting, Price makes it clear that ambition was just as central to the scene. “It was great to have that camaraderie, but it was still very competitive, even at that lower level. People were fighting to get write-ups [in the press] and good opening spots. You’d hear about someone cool coming to play, and everybody would be putting their name in [to open for them].”
“When Shovels & Rope played at The 5 Spot, they had a massive buzz going at the time,” she continues. “I knew the show was going to be packed and there would be a huge crowd of people there that might like me. It was a Two Dollar Tuesday, and I begged Derek Hoke, ‘Can I please open that show?’ It was the first show my band played, and we got a huge response, and that seemed to be a big turning point, just getting that opening show.”
Price ends Maybe We’ll Make It with her April 2016 appearance on Saturday Night Live, a week after the release of her first album, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. But that is hardly the end of her story.
A whirlwind year followed, with rave reviews, successful tours, and a record-setting chart performance, as her album became the first country album by a woman to debut in the Top 10 of Billboard’s country albums chart since Connie Smith’s debut in 1964. In 2017 Price released her follow-up, All-American Made, also to rave reviews and healthy sales.
By the beginning of 2020, Price was living in a different world from the one she depicts in Maybe We’ll Make It. She was prepping for the release of her third album and a lengthy tour that would include several dates with Chris Stapleton, and busy looking after toddler Ramona and her 10-year-old son, Judah. That’s when the biggest plan-changing event in a lifetime happened: COVID-19.
“Once the pandemic hit, I just felt purposeless,” Price says. “I felt my career was over. I had a baby and I was just a mom. That in itself was so hard, but having my daughter, Ramona, was the biggest blessing.”
In addition to focusing on her children and writing her memoir, a persistent and familiar demon crept up on her. The occasional binge drinking that had been a part of her life since her teenage years began to intensify, and Price finally reached a breaking point.
“I wasn’t planning to quit [drinking] forever. It just happened,” Price says. “Somehow, I’ve reprogrammed my brain to not want it anymore. It’s been such a blessing to remove [alcohol], and I actually feel really grateful to the pandemic.
"Once the pandemic hit, I just felt purposeless"
“When I was touring a lot, I thought I was in a pretty good place in my relationship with alcohol,” she says. “The travel and the music were saving my soul and keeping me fed. But at the end of a tour, I would party some, have some drinks, kick back with my friends. It was a demon that would sneak up on me.” She took her last drink on January 8, 2021.
Even while sitting in lockdown, Price was starting to look toward the future, and the arrival of vaccines meant it was time to get the band back together. The result is her forthcoming album, Strays, which is set for release on January 13 on Loma Vista Recordings.
“The album was so much fun to make — I can’t wait to get it out!” she says enthusiastically. “It can be a challenge to keep a band together for a really long time. While I’m a solo artist, my band has taken me through the ups and downs. We were really grateful to be back together and were on cloud nine after being separated by the pandemic. We’re family.”
The songs of Strays had their origin a year earlier during a six-day, psychedelic mushroom-filled retreat that Price and her husband took in South Carolina. “Mushrooms have been a powerful tool in my life,” she says. “As I say in my book, I wouldn’t have become a musician if it wasn’t for that first experience.”
With a fistful of inspired songs that pushed her musical stylings toward previously unexplored realms, Price and her band cut the album in the summer of 2022 at Fivestar Studio in California’s Topanga Canyon. Price co-produced the sessions with Jonathan Wilson. “We would put in 12-hour days, but it never felt like work. We were out there in Topanga Canyon hanging out with Jonathan, who is gentle, kind, and soft-spoken — an incredible producer, musician, and human.
As for the future, Price already knows she has another book to write eventually, and she may even have the title: You Belong to No One. “I almost used that as the title for this book and my new album,” she says. “It was something my husband said to me.
“I had finished the book and the new album, and I started second-guessing myself. ‘Is the album going to be too out there? Is the book going to make a lot of people angry with me? Is it too vulnerable and am I going to regret having all of this out there?’ We were sitting by a fire, and I was bawling my eyes out. Jeremy asked me, ‘What are you so worried about?’ I said I was afraid I was burning all my bridges and I’d never be able to go home again.
“He turned to me and said, ‘You belong to no one.’
“For him to say that to me as my husband, that was powerful,” she says. “We’ve been together for 19 years and I don’t even belong to him. And he’s right. Life is short. We’re here for just a blink of an eye and then we’re gone, so I’m just going to keep running and keep pushing ahead.”
Maybe We’ll Make It by Margo Price is available from the University of Texas Press and independent booksellers. Price’s new album, Strays, drops on Jan. 13, 2023, from Loma Vista Recordings and is available for pre-order through margoprice.net. Margo Price will be appearing at the Ryman with Jessi Colter on March 9, 2023, tickets and info at ryman.com.