Nick Bollinger comments on the classic country and contemporary causes of Nashville's Margo Price.
When Jack White moved from his native Detroit to Nashville in 2005, it wasn’t clear whether he was planning to inveigle his way into the country music industry or just pursue his diverse musical whims from a new base. The answer seems to have been both.
All American Made is Margo Price’s second album for White’s Nashville-based Third Man Records and there is no question what genre you would file it under. It’s country in both sound and subject matter.
Price, who hails originally from the Midwest, has been a fixture on the Nashville fringes for longer than White has. And part of the reason the Nashville mainstream never really picked up on her in the decade-plus she has been based there might be that she’s - not to put too fine a point on it - too country. Her records have qualities entirely absent from today’s drum-machined-and-auto-tuned country radio. The instruments are live; they include fiddle, steel guitar and honky-tonk piano, and her albums are filled with the kind of casual virtuosity once found on even the most routine country records.
When Price pushes the musical envelope it’s not into hip-hop or arena rock as contemporary country acts are wont to do, but again into more vintage styles. ‘A Little Pain’ matches her unreconstructed country voice to an R&B groove that might have come out of Muscle Shoals in the soul era, while she quotes Levon Helm in the lyric.
As for the album’s one duet, it’s not with some current designer-stubble-wearing country star, or even Jack White, but rather that eternal figure Willie Nelson. Having Willie on your record is the country equivalent of a papal blessing, and he adds not just his well-preserved and instantly recognisable pipes but also one of his singular guitar solos.
In perhaps the ultimate gesture to southern roots, Price recorded both her albums in Memphis, the first at the historic Sun Studios, the new one at Phillips Recording, the larger studio Sam Phillips set up after Sun. But if the sound is steeped in history, Price is singing from the present; a fact that becomes especially clear in ‘Pay Gap’, where she laments the ongoing lack of equity between women and men.
Given country music’s traditional association with conservative politics, it’s encouraging to find an album full of sentiments unlikely to be espoused by Trump voters. Of the several songs here that touch on social issues, the most powerful has to be the title track, which incorporates snatches of news bulletins while Price gives that phrase ‘all American made’ an ironic spin as she targets poverty and arms sales.
The songs – mostly written with her husband Jeremy Ivey – are memorable and meaningful, the playing crisp and classy. And if Jack White followers hear it as simply another strain of his beloved Americana, one can also hope that mainstream country listeners will recognise in it an authentic contemporary voice.
All American Made is available on Third Man Records