Earlier this year, in a round of interviews to promote her third album – its release ultimately delayed by the coronavirus pandemic – Margo Price announced her intention to publish a memoir. On the face of it, that seems a little presumptuous. It is, after all, just four years since her debut album, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, which unexpectedly crash-landed in the US country Top 10. She garnered comparisons to Bobbie Gentry and Loretta Lynn, and was placed in what’s been dubbed the “outlaw country renaissance”. The latter is a loose collection of artists reanimating the unbiddable spirit of 70s albums by Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard, which numbers Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell among its participants, a position further cemented for Price by a duet with original outlaw Willie Nelson.
But by the time she became a celebrated figure, Price had already lived enough to fill a book. Her parents lost their farm when she was a toddler in the mid-80s downturn that provoked the Farm Aid benefit gigs. Her musical career was jump-started by a psilocybin-fuelled psychedelic epiphany. Her hardscrabble years on the Nashville sidelines saw her reduced to petty theft in order to survive, involved a period sleeping in a tent, and the death of her infant son, the latter precipitating a descent into whiskey-fuelled chaos that culminated in a car crash and a brief stay in prison. Self-funded, the recording of Midwest Farmer’s Daughter was a last roll of the dice that Price pawned her wedding ring for.
You don’t have to be a walking encyclopedia of Nashville’s musical history to realise that Price’s life could provide the lyrics of a country song. Her experiences were duly poured into her debut album, and evidently still haunt her. Elsewhere on That’s How Rumors Get Started, she sings: “If it don’t break you, it might just make you rich,” on Twinkle Twinkle, over a rough-hewn riff with a distinct hint of Led Zeppelin in its DNA, adding, darkly: “You might not get there, and on its way it’s a bitch.”
Nevertheless, Nashville itself remained unmoved. Her breakthrough came not via the country establishment, but when she was spotted by Jack White and signed to his Third Man label. White’s endorsement helped her pick up an audience outside of the Music Row mainstream – her Top 10 success was achieved without the aid of a hit single, a rare state of affairs in the world of country – but it also fuelled the resentment detailed on That’s How Rumors Get Started’s title track and Stone Me. Her insistence that she “almost went broke from paying my dues” is one thing fuelling the lyrical angst that prickles throughout the album, at odds with the arrangements’ frequently ear-caressing, session musician-bolstered velvet.
Elsewhere, there’s fear that success might be fleeting – “I won’t forget what it’s like to be poor, I could be there again, that’s for sure” – and concerns about the impact of fame on Price’s marriage and her absence from her children’s lives. These are topics she writes about sharply, with a noticeable lack of gooey sentimentality, no mean feat when your subject is missing your kids. Like the album itself – 10 songs done and dusted in well under 40 minutes – her lyrics are punchy, pointed and fat-free.
Listening to That’s How Rumors Get Started, it seems a little mystifying that country radio won’t play her, her past lyrical tendency to wonder “if the president sleeps at night” or rail at American exceptionalism notwithstanding. Price specialises in the kind of grabby, effortlessly commercial melodies that can power songs straight on to playlists and up the charts – and could have done so at pretty much any point in the last 40 years.
But she is clearly not hidebound by Nashville’s oft-noted conservatism, its firmly held ideas about what is and isn’t permissible. She could probably have got away with the material that leans closer to mid-70s California than Tennessee, and possibly What Happened to Our Love? and Prisoner of the Highway, their gospel organ and backing vocals evoking the music made 50 years ago on the faultline between country and southern soul. But not Heartless Mind, which feels more evocative of new wave, or the second British Invasion of the early 80s than anything else. It’s a bold step, but it works: its siren-like synth and tense rhythmic pulse an unexpectedly appealing backdrop for Price’s voice.
It’s a solitary moment when That’s How Rumors Get Started vaguely recalls its producer Sturgill Simpson’s last album, the synth-heavy Sound & Fury. Elsewhere, it’s far more gentle in its approach than Simpson’s blazing screw-you to expectations, but its overall message feels similar: a shapeshifting disinclination to be pigeonholed, whether as a honky-tonk-friendly revivalist or a political protest singer. Along with the autobiography, Price also announced her next album might be a psychedelic gospel record. That’s How Rumors Get Started underlines that she’s got the talent to take on whatever the future holds.
What Alexis listened to this week
A necessary, momentary escape from current events: queer auteur Rod Thomas’s new single is lovelorn, retro-electronic pop perfection.
• That’s How Rumors Get Started is released 10 July on Loma Vista.