Listening: Margo Price’s “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter”

As a longtime fan of Saturday Night Live!, two aspects of the show are outrunning me, generationally. The first is the humor – the new cast have pinned their hopes on aimless stupidity and uncomfortable irony about race prejudice – and the other is the music. I finally accepted last season that I’m out of the show’s demographic now, and didn’t watch many whole episodes. In a cultural era wherein Kanye West is considered a “genius,” I’ve been consistently disappointed by the musical guests— except for the week they had Margo Price.

Price’s debut album, “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter,” came out earlier this year, in March, on Jack White’s Third Man Records. (Although Jack White looks what would happen if Robert Smith and Jello Biafra had  a love child, he must have some sense about country music, since Loretta Lynn’s latter-day Van Lear Rose album is a damn fine one.) The album combines traditional country style with a sprinkling of other styles we know and recognize from the past: a little early ’70 R&B/Soul and even a twinge of the 1950s. But it’s the lyrics, the storytelling, and the gritty honesty that make “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter” a winner. Anybody whose sick of pop country’s tired plastic emptiness will find a reprieve here.

The album opens with the six-minute “Hands of Time,” a thoughtful little narrative that smacks of 1960s country-rock with vocals that reminded me immediately of a young Emmylou Harris. In the opener, Price sings about leaving home with a few dollars and old suitcase, but now wanting to get her family farm back and bring her mama home. However, the trappings of the nightlife and an affair with a married man gave her a “couple of babies” and stood in the way of her best-laid plans. In the song, we hear the musings of a woman who didn’t really seem to have ever had a chance, but is still trying to “make something honest with my own hands.” Wouldn’t it be nice just to turn back the hands of time?

In track two, “About to Find Out,” Price swings around and picks up the tempo. With a two-step beat and a some good ol’ twang, the lyrics this time are about letting some guy have it.  This is a song to get up and dance to, and if you don’t have anybody dance with, you at least have to sing along.

Next, the album shift gears again. The drums thump and Price wails, “Let’s go back to Tennessee!” before the band kicks in joins her. Where track one is sentimental and track two is biting, this one is heavy.  As I listened to “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter” through, it had become clear by the third track, Margo Price is versatile.

Track four is the lost-love song we’ve been waiting for on a classic country album: “Since You Put Me Down.” Price sings, “I killed the angel on my shoulder with a fifth of Evan Williams . . .,” and we know where this is going. Her man has left her for another woman, and what is there to do but weep . . . and drink.

After that one, I thought I had accidentally switched over Curtis Mayfield on shuffle, but it was just “Four Years of Chances,” an invective against unreliable men, which followed by “This Town Gets Around,” another invective – this one tongue-in-cheek – about the correlation between success in country music and sleeping with the right people. In the chorus, Price sings,

I can’t count all the times I been had.
Now I know much better than to let that make me mad.
I don’t let none of that get me mad.
From what I’ve found, this town get around.

About halfway through “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter,” I had fallen in love with Margo Price’s worldly sense of humor. As I listened, I couldn’t help but think that song after song was saying, Life is just plain hard, what’re ya’ gonna do?  Heck, Margo, I don’t know . . . Get through it, I guess.

In “How the Mighty Have Fallen,” Price switches gears again, this time to 1950s doo-wop, but what follows that one is much stronger. “Weekender” is an old-school country number that whimsically strips bare the ugly realities of jail, who ends up there, and why. In one of the best songs on the album, Price channels the gritty social problems that result in short-term jail sentences and funnels them to us in a most unlucky form. The honesty here is heartbreaking and lovable and witty and darkly humorous— in short, it’s real.

The album’s first hit comes late, at track nine: “Hurtin’ (on the Bottle),” a rip-rarin’ number straight out of the tough bar scene of the 1970s. This is one of those songs that could be an instant classic. The way that Price belts out the first line – “I put a hurtin’ on the bottle!” – with the band breaking in is just as powerful as Conway Twitty’s “Hello darling . . . it’s been a long time . . .” What makes me sad for Margo Price is that country music establishment today has only a bare-ass hint of a clue what good country music actually sounds like.

To close out, Price goes quietly but not without consequence. The very short “World’s Greatest Loser” comes in at just over a minute long, and reminded me once again of classic Emmylou Harris, and the bonus track, “Desperate and Depressed” takes us out with an Americana twinge, tinkly dobro and all.

Maybe I’m a throwback. Call me a neophobe. Regard me as someone who is out of touch. But I’m far more interested in good music than in new music. Here’s the plain and simple truth: overly polished Luke Bryan may sell tickets, and squinty-eyed Kenny Chesney may describe places we’d rather be, but in a few years, we’re going to laugh at them like we laugh at Joe Diffie’s mullet. I really hate that acts like Margo Price (and Sturgill Simpson and Shovels & Rope) get less air play than cheesy, formula-driven acts like Jason Aldean or Toby Keith. Call me old-fashioned, but I expect music to be good.

And Margo Price is damn good. The qualities that the great female country singers of the past had – honesty, wit, charm, humor – are all there in Price’s music. Her lyrics are as true as “Stand By Your Man” or “Coal Miner’s Daughter” or “Love Hurts,” and they are built on classic American styles (that don’t include 1980s soft rock). While pop country fans spend their time arguing over which singer will be among People‘s Sexiest Man Alive, or wondering which one will be a guest judge on “The Voice,” the rest of us who actually like country music can dig in with some Margo Price.

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