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MARGO PRICE: AN OUTSIDER’S CINDERELLA STORY

One thing’s for sure—alternative/traditional country sensation Margo Price is tenacious. Over 13 years, she lived in, left and returned to Nashville, trying to get a foot in the door. Buffalo Clover, her Southern rock/soul band, never clicked. The industry never noticed. Like many hopefuls, she sold everything and moved away, but then, unlike them, she came back—“because I wasn’t going to let that town beat me.”

She installed siding, worked as a waitress on Lower Broadway, taught children tap dancing. But she kept writing and playing; eventually taking a fistful of pages from the George Jones/Tammy Wynette songbook, she hocked her wedding ring, sold the car and went to Sun Studios in Memphis to make a record. After the finished album was rejected by seemingly every label, word got to Jack White—and Midwest Farmer’s Daughter found a home on Third Man Records as the indie label’s first country release.

Since then, the onetime leader of Margo Price & the Price Tags has played Saturday Night Live, soon after becoming the first female in history to debut on the Top 10 country albums chart without having a radio hit while also sweeping the critics off their feet with her modern/throwback take on honky-tonk music. MFD’s whiskey-soaked songs are redolent of cigarette smoke, hard living, jail time, busted hearts and—shall we say—inappropriate business practices.  After years of banging around Nashville and getting doors shut in her face, the girl from Aledo, Illinois, is suddenly the sweetheart of the rodeo.


After all those years when it seemed like no one cared, you’re now getting acclaim from everywhere. How does that feel?
It’s definitely a lot of work [laughter], and the schedule’s been pretty grueling. There’s a lot of things happening, and that’s great. Putting my nose to the grindstone, I want to take advantage of every opportunity. And there’ve been a lot of shows. When we go out to play, there definitely seems to be a buzz and an energy in the room.

You’re in the U.K. right now. Those fans really like traditional country. Are they more rabid than American crowds?
They can be. I go out after my shows to meet the fans and sign records. In England, they’re more likely to buy something and not ask for a photo. They’re very sweet. 

What was it like to be asked to perform on SNL?
It was one of the defining moments of the last year.

How did you find out you were being booked?
I was in the bathroom in a towel with my hair wet. My manager called, and there was all this noise in the background. He said, “Sorry about the crying baby; he’ll stop once the car starts moving. Anyway, I just wanted to know if you wanted to do Saturday Night Live?”


You don’t really expect to get a call like that.
No, you don’t. 

Describe the experience of performing on SNL.
The room was a lot smaller than I thought it would be, and the area where everyone was changing was like a little community. There’s a long hallway with mirrors, and everyone was running around, really friendly. I went to the party after, and Lorne Michaels came over. We talked for a long time. It was really great. Oh, and it was the first time I ever had paparazzi following 
me around. 

I remember seeing the handbills for Buffalo Clover shows all over. That was such a great name for a band.
It’s actually a flower. It’s a weed that grows all over. My grandmother used to talk about the buffalo trampling the ground, and then this is flower would grow wherever they’d been.

Buffalo Clover was a pretty rocking band. Are you using any of that now?
I recently shut my finger in a car door and haven’t been able to play my guitar, so I’ve been playing tambourine and just singing. That’s what I did in Buffalo Clover—all that CCR, Sam Cooke and James Brown stuff; that’s what that band was all about. There was kind of a swampy groove to it, but how it came off—with my voice—people read it as country. There was an innocence to it, it’s true. And that band was all about performing. I miss playing guitar right now, but it’s really freeing to just be able to stand up there and sing, to play to the people. 

There is a guilelessness in the way you write—and you go places with your songs most people don’t. Not even Loretta Lynn.
Merle Haggard was looked down on way back when for being a convict. And women with tattoos, drinking and going to jail—that stuff was never written about. Going to jail is not something to be proud of, but it happens. It happened to me. But it’s important to remember that just because you do something wrong once, it doesn’t mean you’re a failure for life. 

People have mentioned Loretta a lot regarding you and this record.
I love Loretta, but I’m not trying to be her. I don’t want to try and steal her identity. She’s so completely original, I could never be her. I loved that [Jack White-produced] Van Lear Rose record; I lived with it for a while when we were living in Colorado. We were living in a tent. We’d had a yard sale and sold everything—and this wasn’t the first car we sold. We were busking to make money. 

Your husband sold the car to finance Midwest Farmer’s Daughter—that’s crazy.
The plan was just to make this record. I remember thinking, “We’ve got to get these songs down.” You know when you first write a song, that’s when it means the most to you. I’d wanted to make this record for two or three years. Finally, we just did it. 

With no label.
I’d written down a New Year’s resolution: I was going to make this record. It still took two years. Then we shopped it around to all the labels in Nashville, Atlanta, Chicago, L.A. All the indie labels. And we’d been courted by labels—one in Chicago came down to Joe’s Bar. Then they asked, “Do you have any happy drinking songs?” And I asked him, “Would you ask George Jones that?” I keep joking I’m going to get all my rejection letters framed.

But you get to a point—I’d been through the ringer on jobs. I’d waitressed at Layla’s for a month, I’d taught kids tap dancing at the Y, sold siding. I didn’t really know what I was gonna do. I had a kid, and my husband was working a series of bad kitchen jobs. I was struggling with depression. 

And then came Third Man.
I would’ve kept making records, no matter what. It was never about being famous, but maybe making a living, a modest living at that. I just wanted to play. So, it’s crazy we ended up on Third Man after we’d shopped it around and around.

How did it happen?
[Third Man co-founder] Ben Swank had come out to a show, and he was absolutely floored by it. He said, “Come by the office. Let’s talk.” When I got there, he wanted me to sing. I hadn’t even brought a guitar with me. So he put a guitar in my hands and had me cut a song right there in the Blue Room. I sang “Desperate & Depressed.” Jack and [artist/staff member] Ben Blackwell were in the other room behind the double-sided glass watching me. That was that. 

Seriously?
I just had a lawyer. No manager, no press or P.R. on my team. Third Man helped me get a booking agent. It all came together, but it was…fast. 

You’re not afraid to tell the truth. In “This Town Gets Around,” you come right out with it: “The saying goes, it’s not who you know/But it’s who you blow/ that’ll put you in the show.” But it’s funny, the way you do it.
I’ve seen it happen. You know, humor takes the sting out of everything. I think it was Kurt Vonnegut, who said, “You can have laughter or tears—and I prefer laughter. It’s easier to clean up.” And it’s true [laughs]. A spoonful of sugar sure helps make the awful truth go down. 

You have an uncle who has written hits for George Jones and Reba McEntire, yet you didn’t use him to get a foot in the door. Is it that you weren’t sure that country was the music for you?
For a long time, I did steer away, thinking it would be easier. My grandmother was into Loretta and Dolly and Elvis and Patsy Cline. My other grandmother would play me all the songs my uncle wrote. But I was a kid. I listened to Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre; I liked hip-hop. Later, I got into Skip James and Elizabeth Cotton, really went to the root of it all. My dad was always listening to The Beach Boys and The Beatles, Eric Clapton. It was an amalgamation. But living on a farm, I was hearing Dwight Yoakam, George Strait. We definitely listened to country music, even Garth Brooks and Randy Travis. Suzy Bogguss is from my hometown.


How would you describe what you do as a songwriter?
My music is a step outside the box, but it’s also a step back to what country was. Sometimes people are scared to change things, but the only way to keep it interesting is to do something different. To me, a song that’s completely detached that seven people wrote?  I don’t know. I come from a nowhere town in Middle America; it’s pretty small, there’s not a lot going on. People gossip, but they look out for you too. There’s a lot of places just like that all over the country—and those people know.

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