Margo Price is the new voice of country

A Q&A with the rising star on her way to Portsmouth

Nashville’s Margo Price is one of those singers who grabs you immediately upon first listen. While her voice harkens back to country legends like Tammy Wynette or Loretta Lynn, her bare, confessional lyrics place her at the forefront of today’s most poignant songwriters. After several years with the band Buffalo Clover, Price released her first solo album, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, this spring. At only 33, she’s already a veteran of the road, and has had life-rattling experiences that inform songs such as “Hurtin’ (on the Bottle)” and “Hands of Time.”

Price’s music transcends the boundaries of country, and her themes are universal. She is a truly honest and important new voice in music. She brings her band to The Music Hall Loft in Portsmouth on Friday, July 8.

Your music is unabashedly country, but I hear lots of soul, rhythm & blues, and classic pop in your songs as well. What is country music to you, and how do you feel like you fit in the music world in general?
Give me a second… I’m gonna tell my husband to turn down the Paul Simon… Give me just one second… Country music to me is, the cliche is three chords and the truth. I think there’s a lot of different elements to what we’re doing. I love the really traditional sound, but you can’t just regurgitate something that’s already been done. I like to pull from these other kinds of music that I like as well, like soul as well as blues. Blues and country music kind of go hand in hand, at least in my opinion. They tend to influence each other. I’m happy that I’m accepted in other genres, the places that people might not normally have a country musician come sing. It’s a good thing I fit in there, because I don’t always fit in the country world that is deemed the country world today.

Do you find yourself singing other kinds of music when you’re not performing for your audiences?
The live show has a lot of different instruments. The live show is a lot different than the album. You know, I sit around and mostly sing country and folk songs. I like, obviously, singing the blues. Actually, the other day I went in with a friend and recorded a gospel soul song. I like to do all sorts of things. I was brought up singing classical music. My mom put in me voice lessons, and I had a teacher who taught mezzo-soprano Italian classical kind of stuff. So, it takes all kinds of stuff

I first heard you on “Saturday Night Live” and was immediately taken by your music. What was the experience of playing the show like?
Yeah, it was definitely the coolest thing I’ve ever done. I grew up watching that show, and I always actually wanted to act on it. I would re-enact a lot of the skits. I was like watching it with Will Farrell and Molly Shannon and that cast. It was great. You go there, and you’re there all week, and you get your dressing room, and you kind of settle in, and you get really comfortable on the stage. The second I walked out there, I felt at home. I didn’t really have nerves, and I think that everybody was expecting me to have nerves and be nervous, and I was almost making everyone else have anxiety because I was calm. It was good. A very surreal experience. I got home and it took a few weeks for it to sink in. It kind of felt like a dream.

You pawned your wedding ring and sold your car for the money to record your album at Sun Studios in Memphis. Why Sun, and why was it so important to go “all in” for this recording? Did the recording of “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter” feel like a make-or-break moment for you?
Yeah, definitely. I wanted to get these songs out long ago, and I had been writing labels, and I had been telling them I had been making all these demos at home, and I was about to make the best country record you have ever heard. So please give me money, and you can help me record this album. Nobody was biting on it, so my husband was just dead-set that we were gonna make the best record no matter what, and we knew we needed a substantial amount of money, so he went and sold the car. And we got in there and we had to do it very quickly because we didn’t have that much money. And it all went before it was mixed or mastered or anything. And then the guy that mastered it, I definitely was like, “I’ll give you an IOU on this. I’ll get you the money” And he mastered it before I could pay him. All the money from the car was gone.

What is your songwriting process like? Do you work by yourself, or do you write the songs with the band?
I write by myself a lot, but I also love to write with other people, in particular my husband. I feel really comfortable writing with him. He’s always coming to me with ideas. He writes constantly. We’re both trying to do it as much as we can and we get very competitive with each other. If he writes a song on his own, then I’m like, that’s really good. I’m like, “Ah, I gotta write something today. Can’t let him get ahead of me.” Or if he has something that I really like, then I make sure that I get in there and work on it really hard with him. We both really enjoy co-writing with each other.

Did you two work together on the “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter” songs?
Yeah, he had a hand in writing several of the songs on there. I wrote “This Town Gets Around” by myself, and “Four Years of Chances,” and “Hands of Time,” “Weekender.” Those are all songs I wrote with no help. He helped co-write most of the other ones on the album. And then Caitlin Rose and Mark Fredson helped my husband and I, we all four wrote “Hurtin’ (on the Bottle).”

Like so many that are perceived as overnight successes, you’ve been paying your dues on the road for years with Buffalo Clover. How do you feel that experience shaped you?
It’s odd when somebody I don’t know comes up to me and says they’re proud of me. I guess that’s usually people who know what the backstory is. And I’m glad that I’m not playing terrible shows anymore. A long period of hit or miss. Sometimes you’d go to a city, and it’d be a good show, but when you’re out there and you’ve never been to a town before, without a lot of exposure, it’s not easy. I always wondered if anybody was watching or if anybody was going to sign me. I just knew that I had to get out on the road and do it regardless. Just to show people that I had the work ethic. Even though I had a kid, I was willing to travel a lot and chase the dream — the elusive dream. Also, I am kind of a restless spirit anyway. I like to travel, and if I can make a little bit of money doing it while I go along, then all the better. Then, once I had a kid, I realized that I had to make this a career or I had to give it up.

papercut illustration by Dylan Metrano

papercut illustration by Dylan Metrano

Do you take your kid with you on tour?
Sometimes, if it’s a show that’s good for children to be at. But it’s not very fun to be in a van eight hours a day for a 5-year-old. Right now, school just let out, and my husband, he’s going on the road with me, and my mom has my son up in Illinois. She still lives out in the country there, where I grew up. And there’s a pond across the street from where they live, and he can go over there and catch tadpoles all day. He’s pretty content to do so.

Who’s your favorite singer, or who’s voice is your favorite?
Well, you’re asking two completely different things. I really love Dolly Parton. I think she has got amazing control and pitch. And Patsy Cline, I really love Patsy Cline’s voice. As far as writers go, I like Bob Dylan and Neil Young, so a good voice isn’t necessarily important to me. I just have to enjoy the song and the content.

Who would your dream duet partner be?