Price is an important contemporary songwriter.
Margo Price’s solo debut Midwest Farmer’s Daughter succeeded on its own merits, but its context didn’t hurt. Price used detailed autobiography (opener “Hands of Time” provides a masterful introduction) unafraid of such personal challenges as financial hardship, professional rejection, familial tragedy and more. With a story so compelling and earnest, a sound that circled just outside of Nashville and sharp lyricism, her debut put all the pieces together to end the first chapter of her career with a feel-good flourish.
For the quick follow-up All American Made, Price had choices. Her touring band had a heavy R&B feel touching on Stax at times, and it was easy to imagine her pushing further from country music center. Having relied on memoir, she needed new places to look for content. Her politics keep her in a bit of an outsider camp, and she could chase those down or keep to more traditional tales. Despite the tease of surprise EP Weakness, the wait for the new album carried with it a measure of curiosity.
The first few notes could go either R&B or country, but Price settles into more of the latter. She recorded the album in Memphis, but Nashville still has its pull on her. Even so, she doesn’t settle into form, mixing in a little of that funk with some sophisticated strings, gospel vocals and even some sound collage. Price maintains her outlaw country roots — it’s fitting that Willie Nelson joins her for “Learning to Lose” – but references to her looking back ignore her own expansive tastes.
On the paradox-laden “Weakness,” Price sings, “Sometimes I’m Virginia Woolf/ Sometimes I’m James Dean,” and it characterizes her approach to the album. Price blends artistic and reflective sensibilities with a rebellious side, revealing that these aren’t separate elements but parts of a coherent whole. “Wild Women” looks at the challenges of being, “a mother, a singer, and a wife” while longing for the freedom of the title characters and occasionally and unapologetically indulging in it. When Price sings, “A little pain never hurt anyone,” she knows she’s half-lying to herself. The album considers injuries and perseverance but doesn’t rely on them. There’s too much to think about and too much to say to stop over a little pain, but it’s part of the package and warrants more than a dismissal, hence the song’s irony.
Turning from the personal, the album expands on Price’s unexpected politics, from the disc’s title on down. “Pay Gap,” despite its easy tropical groove, launches an explicit attack on the unequal pay offered women, an issue that Price has previously addressed. Aligning herself with Nelson and alluding to Farm Aid, “Heart of America” is less an argument than a description of the cultural, political and natural forces working against the small farmer. In a few stanzas, she avoids polemic in capturing the human side of the issues, almost casually raising questions and challenges for anyone willing to listen.
The biggest step in this direction comes with the album’s closing number, its title track. With a political speeches running in the background, Price turns a patriotic phrase on its head, making it known that there are tough situations that are “American made.” The gentle guitar, distant vocals and speeches combine for a strange take that sees the challenges – whether Iran-Contra or anthem debates or personal crises – but doesn’t shirk from them. As the song spins back to talk of unity and coming together, the artistic context undercuts this language even as the literal content lingers hopefully.
If Margo Price had questions between her albums, she’s answered them with the clarity of expanse. She’s finding ways to play with her country sound without losing her roots, and she retains her personal openness while further exploring her cultural concerns. That vision builds to a fully developed statement on All American Made and secures Price’s position as an important contemporary songwriter.