Nashville-based singer-songwriter Margo Price’s debut album Midwest Farmer’s Daughter evokes a time when AM radio was ruled by pop, country, R&B and soul — sometimes all mixed together in one boundary-defying hit song. The album sounds like it could have sprung from the kaleidoscopic late ’60s-early ’70s music scene that gave us Tammy Wynette and Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin and Bobbie Gentry, Jackie DeShannon and Loretta Lynn.
The track “Four Years of Chances” opens on an R&B bass line that puts you in mind of Aretha’s “Chain of Fools,” adds in a swampy blues-rock guitar that wouldn’t have been out of place on Bobbie Gentry’s “Mississippi Delta” and tops it off with a Fender Rhodes electronic keyboard riff (think Billy Preston). Several tracks are adorned with a string section that recalls Billy Sherrill’s lush Nashville productions for Wynette and George Jones. The most pop-pedigreed song, “How the Mighty Have Fallen,” is pure girl-group bliss, with a “Be My Baby” heartbeat drum and “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” string filagrees.
And if the music doesn’t twig you to the old-school vibe, the typography on the CD cover and disc label might: It’s similar to the swirly font used on posters for the classic 1974 Pam Grier blaxploitation flick, Foxy Brown (and later for Quentin Tarantino’s homage Jackie Brown).
None of this is to suggest that Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is an exercise in empty hipster retroism. Far from it. Price, her band The Price Tags and producers Alex Munoz and Matt Ross-Spang infuse their melting-pot sound with the excitement of rediscovery. (And really, isn’t the Fender Rhodes one of the coolest sounds in popular music, unjustly relegated to the Goodwill bin of history?) Recorded at Memphis’s Sun Studios, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter fuses the sounds of a specific musical moment of the past with a modern sensibility; the honky-tonking “About to Find Out,” for example, sounds like a lost Loretta Lynn followup to “Fist City,” except that it references selfies and the tech-fuelled class divide.
Price has been a working musician for years, but Midwest Farmer’s Daughter represents a last-ditch effort to make the kind of outsider country music she and her husband-collaborator Jeremy Ivey wanted to make without deferring to the hit-making-machinery of Music Row. (The album was released on Jack White’s Third Man label.)
Much of Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is autobiographical, beginning with the staggering leadoff track, “Hands of Time,” a catalogue of losses that finally arrives at an uneasy peace of mind. Price’s father really did lose their Illinois family farm when she was a child; Price really did suffer the death of one of her infant twin sons; she did grapple with depression and drinking. Her slightly nasal voice is softly brushed with just a hint of vulnerability, soaring to a clarity by turns sweet as a bell and sharp as glass. “I’m gonna buy back the farm/And bring my mama home some wine/And turn back the clock on the cruel hands of time,” she repeats throughout the song; the farm is redemption, those words are a mantra.
“Hands of Time” is a modern folk song in the way that Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” and “The Promised Land” are modern folk songs; they bear the stamp of a songwriter who carries their musical and lyrical antecedents so deep in the bone, they become their own.
Price has been promoting the album with several high profile TV appearances. On Saturday Night Live, she displayed a smart bohemian fashion sense, wearing a thigh-slit royal blue gown with long fringe on the sleeves that was absolutely on-point without being too much. And the album is filled with songwriting as elegantly edited as that dress. Price wrote the matter-of-fact “Weekender” about a stay in the county jail after a DUI. Achingly yet economically detailed, “Weekender” describes the humiliation of the experience (“They took me down to Cell Block B and stripped off all my clothes/ Put me in a monkey suit and threw me in the throes”) without jerking us around for sympathy or wearing the incident as a badge of honor.
Price sings “Weekender” much the same way Merle Haggard sang “Mama Tried” — with the deep shame of having screwed up and the acceptance that it was nobody’s fault but their own. That “Weekender” swings along with a chorus made for sing-alongs only makes the self-lacerating pain of the lyrics more devastating.
Similarly, on “Since You Put Me Down,” a litany of bourbon and Tequila benders, Price’s half-sweet, half-sharp-edged vocals suggest neither self-pity nor bad-girl swagger; what comes across is a scrubbed-clean directness about using the bottle to banish depression. “Since You Put Me Down” begins with Price strumming and singing solo: “Since you put me down/ I’ve been drinkin’ just to drown/ I’ve been lyin’ through the cracks of my teeth/ I’ve been waltzin’ with my sin/He’s an ugly evil twin/He’s a double-crossin’, back-stabbin’ thief.” When the band kicks in after “waltzin’ with my sin,” “Since You Put Me Down” becomes a sultry-rolling tale of self-destruction with lyrics that feel freshly lived and raw. Yet, like the rest of Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, it leaves you feeling as if you’ve been hearing Price’s voice your whole life.
©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016