Margo Price's tough life leads to record deal with Jack White
"Hands Of Time," the first track on Margo Price's debut album, Midwest Farmer's Daughter, tells a sad, sad story.
In the first verse, the song's protagonist says a tearful goodbye as she leaves home with $57 to her name. In the second, she remembers her father's losing the family farm, when she was 2 years old, and going to work at a prison.
Then, tragedy hits hard: Price, who will play Thursday at the World Cafe Live, sings: "My firstborn died and I cried out to God / Is there anybody out there looking down on me at all?"
"That song came out very quickly," Price said, in an interview this spring at the SXSW music festival in Austin, Texas, in advance of Midwest's release. "I wrote that down in the basement. My husband heard it and said, 'Yeah, man, that's good.' I was proud of it. It was one of the first things I could look at objectively and say, 'I'm not trying to make anyone feel anything. I'm just trying to make myself feel something.' "
Price, 33, gets teary when talking about her family's travails, like losing the farm. "I remember it really affecting my grandparents," she said, "my grandmother packing their things, and giving away their farm dogs. We moved into the edge of town, and my grandfather would sit at the table and look out the window at the farms that were still there."
Growing up, Price wrote songs, and studied ballet and theater as a teen. She continued with the latter pursuits for two years at Northern Illinois University before moving to Nashville.
She spent her 20s working jobs to pay the rent -- selling tuxedos, making biscuits and gravy for hotel breakfasts, waitressing -- while getting a musical education at open-mike nights.
Her projects included Margo & the Pricetags, an alt-country supergroup of sorts, whose rotating members included Sturgill Simpson and guitarist Kenny Vaughan, and a band featuring Ivey called Buffalo Clover.
The wife and husband unsuccessfully tried their hands at the time-honored country practice of writing, under aliases, commercial songs for other artists. "I was Sylvia Slim and he was Sam Pickens," she says with a laugh. She found that sleazy, casual, casting-couch misogyny was alive in Music City: A former manager she declines to name inspired Midwest's "This Town Gets Around."
"I had a sense of frustration while I was seeing a lot of my peers going places," she says. "I wrote up these crazy, ballsy emails: 'Hi, I'm Margo Price, and I have these amazing songs and I need someone to front the money to record them and I promise I will make the money back.' "
No bites. So she and Ivey sold their car -- a Mini Cooper that their families had given them. They used the cash to pay for studio time at the legendary Sun Studios in Memphis. In three days, they cut the 10 songs that moved Jack White to make Midwest the first country release on his Third Man label.
"I knew we had a great record in our pocket," says Price, who was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live a few weeks after Midwest's release in March, singing her stone-cold honky-tonk classic "Hurtin' (on the Bottle)." "I think the honesty was showing through. You come to the end of your rope, and it comes pouring out. I always knew this is what I wanted to do. I couldn't fathom doing anything else."
She was a little nervous about so directly evoking Loretta Lynn's Coal Miner's Daughter in her album title. (She also had the Beach Boys' "Farmer's Daughter" in mind. ) "I'm not from the South, but I love country music. And country music is really big in the Midwest. Connie Smith came from Ohio. Jessi Colter was from Arizona. The title says who I am."
Margo Price with Hugh Masterson, 8 p.m. Thursday, World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut St., $16, $18. 215-222-2400.