REVIEW: Margo Price – ‘All American Made’

Margo Price’s recently released second album, All American Made, is a perfect example of what country music does best; communicating from the heart. This and her debut, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, released only 18 months ago have propelled Price swiftly and deservedly up the country music popularity stakes. What makes Price’s fame all the more worthy is the way she blends the deep traditions of country with her own originality. As we approach album of the year season, this has to be a contender for top spot.

Her own struggles give Price plenty of material as featured on her debut. She has lived through the huge loss of the family farm after which life was a constant struggle, that plunged even greater depths with the death of her infant child. Price wrestled with that loss as booze and other intoxicants took hold. A couple of nights in jail represented the nadir after which, though making ends meet wasn’t easy, her determination to prove herself musically drove her to making these excellent records. During that time she had to sell her car and pawn her wedding ring to pay for studio time. However, along that tough road she has had then support of husband and co-songwriter, Jeremy Ivey, whose contribution cannot be underestimated.

The first album told stories but All American Made feels almost like a confessional. Emotions are laid bare and while the anguish and pain Price must have gone through are starkly evident, she has turned such experiences into a thought-provoking album. Alcohol is there in abundance as you might expect but Price also pulls no punches in her detestation of the sexism in the music business, its politics and those nationally. The album is well-titled, if not a great advert for today’s USA.

While classified as ‘country’, this record does not really conform to any categories. As with her debut, Price recorded in Memphis but this time not at Sun studios but at the Sam Phillips recording studio. Either way, there is a definitely soulful feel to the record that deepens the connections made by her lyrics. At the same time there is a fresh vitality to the record reflecting its live recording.

The album starts at a lively pace with ‘Don’t Say It’. Price stamps her pure country credentials as she sings of love being returned by being wronged. The keys stand out among a tight guitar line. “Sometimes I drink Beaujolais, sometimes I drink gin” is the weakness in ‘Weakness’. Here comes the confessional bit, “sometimes my weakness is stronger than me”. A fast honky-tonk song combining fiddle and pedal steel, this is pure country in every sense. Price combines respect to previous generations of musicians with her own take to give a well-worn theme new life.

If, after these two openers, you think you are settling into a country album, ‘A Little Pain’ reminds you exactly where the record was recorded. Price’s voice soars with soulful emotion, “I’m breaking my back working like a mother…a little pain never hurt anyone”. Accompanied by some rich organ, few would doubt Price’s qualification to sing about pain.

A highlight of the album is Price’s duet with Willie Nelson in ‘Learning to Lose’. A thoughtful ballad, it confirms that life’s lessons don’t come free, and who better to offer advice than the great man himself?

‘Pay Gap” doesn’t need any explanation. With lines such as “ripping my dollars in half”, “in the land of the free”, “women do work yet get treated like slaves since 1776”, and second class citizens”, Price lays into all the inequities not just of the music business, but the wider world, for women and anyone who has suffered at the hands of “rich white men”.

A simple opening to ‘Nowhere Fast’ about how life can just become becalmed builds into a swirl of delicious slide and an almost orchestral feel before subsiding to the end. It is a perfect complement.

Country is about cowboys but Price brings this right up to date, if rather depressingly, in a different sort of cowboy that has nothing to do with John Wayne. The contrast in ‘Cocaine Cowboys’.is striking, “they don’t plant the fields, they won’t work the farms, the boys round here well they talk too fast”.

‘Wild Women’ goes back to confessional mode, where with almost brutal candour, Price sings of her own struggles. “Riding down the highway, masquerading every night, it’s hard to be a mother, a singer, and a wife”. Wild women on the other hand don’t worry about such problems. You can feel her wrestle with these two forces. This work ethic reappears immediately on the next track, ‘Heart of America’. An upbeat tempo belies the hard life extracting a living from the land and all its uncertainties. Again, this comes from experience, there nothing made up here.

Jeremy Ivey’s harmonica and a sultry bass line open ‘Do Right By Me’. With soulful backing vocals courtesy of the gospel quartet, the McCrary Sisters, the song just underlines the importance of doing the right thing, in this case the need to get out of “this one horse town”. ‘Loner’ is plain bleak. What is the point of just about anything? If these are the thoughts going through Price’s mind then she was in a very bad way. This song contains one of the best examples of her understated, yet razor-sharp perception, “and you can take your pick, you either came from an ape, or the dad of a magic man up on a cross”. Creationists or scientists, who could put it better?

The final and title track paints a gloomy picture of the state of America both at home and overseas. Its grim message fades into a babble of political soundbites but perhaps the end isn’t the demise of the American dream? “I’m dreaming of that highway that stretches out of sight” suggests there may still be a glimmer of hope.

This is a big record that does not so much explore, but confronts some serious and sensitive issues. Margo Price shows honesty and though there’s a lot of pessimism, she shows that facing problems head on as she has, is the only way. This is a powerful album that confirms Margo Price’s place among the best of contemporary roots music.

Lyndon Bolton