Margo Price. Bluebird Theater. 10.24.16
We were in Nashville, Tennessee exactly one year ago today. A group of us decided to book a mini-vacation around Jason Isbell’s residency at the famous Ryman Auditorium. My wife and I were among the first to arrive in the city and our Airbnb in East Nashville wasn’t quite ready for check-in, so we decided to explore the city. We walked around Music Row, hit Third Man Records, and then found ourselves in one of the many touristy dive bars off Broadway. It was there, while drinking overpriced cocktails and cold beer, that we heard our first live music of the trip.
A woman was singing in the corner of the bar, right next to the entrance, while a man slowly strummed his guitar. They sounded great, but there was no one around to hear them. It was noon on a Friday and the place was dead. I got change for the vending machine from the bartender and I dropped what I had left into the empty jar in front of the musicians.
I know that woman wasn’t Margo Price, but it very well could have been. Before her husband sold his car to raise the money to record Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, and before Third Man finally took notice after so many failed submissions, Price spent her time in a number of similar dive bars; singing about bad luck and hard times in hopes of a better future.
When Margo Price took the stage at the Bluebird Theater on Monday night, she was that girl I’d seen in Nashville. I realize it was just my faulty memory convincing me so, but Price presented herself as just another hard-working singer trying to make a way in the world. Despite all the positive press and the backing of someone like Jack White, she is a far cry from the ‘female Chris Stapleton’ everyone made her out to be.
And I don’t mean that in a bad way at all.
Stapleton’s instant rise to fame was a great thing for country music but wasn’t without its downside. True fans instantly found themselves outnumbered by bandwagoners at ridiculously sold-out shows. Not just Stapleton shows either. It also affected Isbell, Simpson, and Musgraves when they next came to town. Margo isn’t quite at their level of popularity, although that may very well change once word about this tour gets around.
Far from sold-out, with tickets being given away out front, Price may not have packed the house like some of the artists she’s been associated with, but that didn’t stop her from performing as if she were headlining the Ryman herself.
After showcasing his incredible guitar skills from the comfort on a stool center stage, William Tyler made way for the headliner, but not before giving thanks to his Nashville neighbor. “She’s saving country music one night at a time…it means a lot that she asked me to come out with her.”
Following an age-old tradition, the men set the stage for their female lead. “Ladies and gentlemen, Margo Price.” Walking out with her own guitar that looked as worn and seasoned as Tyler’s did before, Price joined her five-piece backing band. Consisting of guitar, bass, steel pedal, keyboard, drums, and the occasional piano accordion, they presented a tight knit group who gave the impression they had been playing together much longer than they truly had.
With a voice, reminiscent of those who found fame before she was born, Price can channel Loretta Lynn, but her stories are the real draw. Even without all the publicity around her (almost too perfect for country music) history, there would be no doubt that she’d lived the songs she sings.
“Hands of Time”, which came mid-set, provided the cliff notes (her father lost the farm, so she went to the big city to try to make money to buy it back, only to find heartache and pain along the way), but songs like “Since You Put Me Down”, “This Town Gets Around”, and “Weekender” provided the much-needed color to flesh out the traditional rags-to-middle-class tale. The stage banter just added more depth to each life event…
“This is a story about going to jail and being depressed. I went to a friend’s house. She sold wine and had really good bourbon and I had a glass and I had another glass and I had about 15 more glasses and then I started playing drums and then it was 3am and I had to go. Husband is gonna be so mad at me. Called a cab with one eye open…back before Uber and Lyft and all that shit. Ate some crackers and cheese and all that shit and then called the cab company and asked where it was. Decided I’m gonna drive. It was only 5.5 miles. I took a left turn a little too wide and hit a telephone pole, in front of two cops, and then those lights came up. I was going pretty fast and thought I could outrun them. Do not try this, it won’t work. Luckily they didn’t find my weed. I walked a crooked line and then saw the judge and he said you’re guilty and sent me to jail. And that’s my story.”
The set contained almost the full Midwest Farmer’s Daughter album (except for “How the Mighty Have Fallen” and “World’s Greatest Loser”), as well as a handful of covers. She brought her “baby daddy” out to perform harmonica on an unreleased track called “Pick n Save”, which just happened to be written when they were living “along the road” in Winter Park and Grand Lake. Her husband also made an appearance, along with William Tyler, to close out the encore with Rodney Crowell’s “I Ain’t Living Long Like This”.
When the show was over, I couldn’t help but think back on that woman who performed in the middle of the day in Nashville. Was she as talented as Margo Price? Could she write songs like Margo Price? Did she have the life experiences to pull from? I don’t even know who she was, so I’ll never know the answer to those questions, but I have to believe there are literally hundreds of struggling artists out there who are being ignored.
Margo Price was the first country artist Jack White ever signed to his label. Would he have done so if Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson and Kacey Musgraves hadn’t paved the way? I can’t know the answer to that either, but I’m just glad things are heading in the right direction. I’m not looking forward to having to wait in a mile-long line to see Margo Price play the Fillmore (although I will be happy for her), but I am looking forward to seeing the next Margo Price play for a small crowd at the Bluebird Theater. Who knows, I might even recognize her from my short time in Nashville.
I’m Gonna Live Forever (If It Kills Me)
We Can’t Go Home Again
A Portrait of Sarah
About to Find Out
Since You Put Me Down
Desperate and Depressed
Pick n Save
Me and Bobby McGee
Hands of Time
Gotta Travel On
This Town Gets Around
Hurtin’ (On the Bottle)
Four Years of Chances
I Ain’t Living Long Like This