“I think all that strife, it kind of helped me and Margo both break down the barrier of caring what people thought about what we were doing,,” Mr. Ivey said.
The couple had twins, then lost one to a rare heart ailment in 2010. Ms. Price dealt with the loss, along with feelings of professional failure, by self-medicating with alcohol. Over the years, she and Mr. Ivey hocked a house’s worth of prized gear and personal possessions to buy food, cover touring expenses and record “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter” at Sun Studio in Memphis.
“It kind of felt like there was the symbolism of it: We’re willing to put up the car, the wedding ring,” she said. “We would rather have this album exist out here, even if nothing would have happened to it. Maybe 20, 30 years down the road, or after I’m dead, somebody would find it and it would become a cult thing like Nick Drake, you know?”
Things could have gone that way. Several indie imprints and at least one major country label passed on her music. She was hesitant to approach Third Man again, but eventually scheduled a meeting and was asked to cut a direct-to-acetate record on the spot. “I didn’t find out until months later that Jack was listening through the wall,” she said. “I guess they wanted to see that I could sing and play and that the album wasn’t all Auto-Tuned or something.”
The involvement of Third Man turned heads, and buzz morphed into bankable popularity and institutional recognition. She was booked on “Saturday Night Live,” then on a Chris Stapleton tour; won Emerging Artist of the Year at the Americana Awards; saw her prairie hometown Aledo, Ill., erect a sign declaring itself “Home of Country Music Stars Suzy Bogguss and Margo Price”; and lent the dress she wore on “S.N.L.,” along with an old guitar and strap, to an exhibition at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
“That was surreal,” she said of watching the curators treat her clothes like artifacts. “I was like, ‘So you guys want to put this in a shiny glass case, and it’s just laying on my dresser collecting dust?’”
The success of her debut allowed Ms. Price a comparatively leisurely recording process at the newly refurbished Sam Phillips Recording for its follow-up. She varies her singing approach, here projecting a note with the blazing, bell-like clarity of Neko Case, there summoning her voice’s sweeter, more lilting qualities. “If the groove wasn’t sitting exactly the way we wanted or we couldn’t get the vibe right,” she recalled, “it was like, ‘Well, there’s no stress. Let’s go eat some ribs and then come back and play it again.’”
Mr. Ivey played guitar and bass on the album and wrote seven of the songs with Ms. Price and one alone, but he stepped away from full-time touring when a finger injury sidelined him last year. Now he typically stays home with their son, Judah, a role she called “every bit as important as mine,” although outsiders haven’t always agreed — giving her more fuel for songs.
Writing “Wild Women,” “I was at a point where I was so tired of being asked those same questions that I didn’t think were fair,” she said. “Like, ‘I bet you feel a lot of guilt leaving your kid at home.’ Would you ask a man that? No, you would not.”
In “Pay Gap,” Ms. Price reckons with the income disparities that women and minorities still face. In “Heart of America” and the title track she shifts from detailing the loss of her family’s farm to telling the stories of others who have been victims of the system. She said she tried to get the exact story of what happened from relatives, “But it’s so complicated and the farming industry has so many layers.”
Ms. Price has surrounded herself with a team that supports her speaking her mind. “None of us are trying to edit her or to temper anything that she has to say,” said Ian Montone, the manager she shares with Mr. White. “It’s her music. Those are her songs. When it comes to her writing, [we’re] really not trying to edit or say, ‘Hey, look, mainstream country radio won’t play this song if you talk about this. You might want to be conscious of that.’ No way.”
The barriers are sonic too, said Jim Asker, the country charts manager for Billboard. “If you listen to country radio, that’s just not where it’s at right now,” he said of Ms. Price’s sound. “If you ask programmers who are aware of her, they might tell you, ‘Oh, she’s an Americana artist.’” He added that hit country singles are the results of “a lot of setup at radio,” which requires considerable promotional muscle.
After briefly experiencing the gauntlet of glad-handing that is a country radio tour, Ms. Price had concluded, “This isn’t working.” But “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter” made her the first solo female act to debut in the Top 10 of the Billboard country albums chart without ever having landed a single on the Hot Country Songs chart.
Ms. Price has found it far more comfortable currying favor with a more nonconforming power broker: Willie Nelson. He’s invited her to open shows and to play both his annual Fourth of July picnic and Farm Aid, the long-running benefit concert for family farmers he co-founded. He’s also her jazzily wayward duet partner and guest guitarist on “Learning to Lose,” and her most immediate model for building a variegated body of work on a country foundation.
“She’s an amazing talent,” Mr. Nelson said in an interview, adding that he listened to Ms. Price’s show before his own set several nights in a row, “and she was just nailing everything, knocking it out. The fact that she wanted me to do a duet with her is a great compliment.”
Regardless of where the new album lands her, Ms. Price isn’t inclined to take her groundedness for granted. She’s been doing her best to stay plugged into the bohemian East Nashville scene where she’s long found kindred spirits among musicians who thrive on refracting the city’s music history through the recalcitrance of indie rock and idealism of folk. One night, she sang three songs at the Grand Ole Opry, then jumped in her Ford F-150 and sped over to a tiny rock club to participate in a Neil Young tribute with friends.
In August, she made a vague announcement on Instagram that she was going to play a show somewhere on the city’s east side, and most locals knew to find her at American Legion Post 82. Couples waltzed to a band of old-timers that opened the night, but the dance floor was too packed to move by the time Ms. Price went on. She closed her set by climbing down from the stage and singing “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle)” from the middle of the crowd. The move was one part rock star bravado and three parts sweaty solidarity.
Continue reading the main story