Hard-luck tales thrive in the province of traditional country, and Margo Price taps a wellspring of such memories with candid, poetic grace in “Hands of Time,” the opening track on her March debut, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter.
Over six minutes, the Illinois native sings of her dad losing the family farm and taking a prison job, and of her own grief grappling with drinking, men and the loss of her firstborn son. “I cried out to God, is there anybody out there looking down on me at all?” Price sings in her clarion voice. “I want to buy back the farm, and bring my mama home some wine, and turn back the clock on the cruel hands of time.”
The 33-year-old singer says that she didn’t feel like she fit in during her tumultuous childhood. “Even back then, I had a tendency to be depressed,” Price says. So when one of her twin boys died from a heart ailment shortly after birth in 2010, she says, “It seemed like a cruel joke. I just didn’t want to be in this world anymore. But I had something really beautiful in my [other] son, and I just realized that I had to pick myself up, dust myself off and keep going.”
Her trials have turned to triumph on Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, its title a line from the Beach Boys’ “California Girls” as well as a nod to country icon Loretta Lynn’s Coal Miner’s Daughter. Ditties like “This Town Gets Around” (a sharp jab at male chauvinists) and “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle)” bubble in a familiar country vein. Yet even when Price digs deeper in “Weekender”—about a night in jail after a drunken-driving arrest—or “Hands of Time,” she’s to the point without self-pity.
Farming ran in her family, along with a love for old-time country. She remembers her grandparents’ farmhouse from her youth, as well as the drought that hit the same year that farmers invested in expensive silos to dry corn. “They just had a bad year,” she says of her dad’s fate, “and the banker was kind of an asshole.”
The music business proved as precarious a pursuit as agriculture. Price, who was singing and playing guitar and piano before her teens, dropped out of college to follow her dreams in Nashville. She played in bands (including soul-rock outfit Buffalo Clover) with future husband and current bass player Jeremy Ivey. They also spent time busking in Colorado—and were still on a shoestring budget when it came to recording Midwest Farmer’s Daughter at Memphis’ famed Sun Studio, selling their car and home-recording equipment (including a reel-to-reel deck snapped up by Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard). “We had this whole little studio set up in our basement,” Price says, “but it wasn’t good enough.”
Even with a finished product recorded in the same studio that Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash used, Price was dealing with record labels that showed little interest. One wanted her to drop the countrified touches. “I told them where they could stick it,” she says. “It was a lot of rejection emails that I’ll probably get framed.”
Salvation finally came from Third Man Records, whose owner Jack White once recorded with Loretta Lynn. “They’ve definitely given me a newfound respect for industry people,” says Price, whose album became Third Man’s first country release.
Steeped in pedal steel and fiddle, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter certainly sounds country. Yet Price conveys rock-savvy energy and verve that’s more pronounced when playing live with her band, which winds from the Green River Festival on July 10 and Newport Folk Festival on July 23 to Brighton Music Hall on Nov. 11.
Clearly the hands of time have turned for Price. “Yeah, I’m very excited for what the future holds,” says the singer, who performed on Saturday Night Live in April. “It’s very surreal.” Her parents are basking in Price’s fortune as well. “My mom helps me with my son a lot, and they’re proud of me. It’s a nice feeling. I’m not feeling like a loser or the red-headed stepchild anymore.”
Margo Price plays the Green River Festival at Greenfield Community College on July 10.