Album Review – Margo Price’s “All American Made”

photo: Angelina Castillo

photo: Angelina Castillo

In the last few years, the art, importance, and appreciation for true artistic criticism in the modern music sphere has been relegated in the minds of the popular consciousness to nothing more than a subversive and often bias form of internet bullying, and virtually eradicated from existence in lieu of most major media outlets and professional journalists being transformed into little more than a promotional arm and proxy for the music industry.

And this is not just true in the mainstream of music. If anything, this trend may even be more epidemic in the ranks of independent music where the element of “scene” and the smallness of the scope makes truth and honesty that much harder to speak. Compared to the honest, and often harsh criticism that movies, theatrical performances, even food and architecture regularly receive, true criticism of music has been virtually ostracized, and anyone who would engaged in it banished to the pea-shooting relevance of little independent blogs, bad mouthed industry wide by most all other participants in the business, including, if not most especially, artists and their fans.

But the point of criticism is not to score points against whomever, or whatever is being criticized, or to tear someone or something down to prop the critic up, or even to entertain an audience to generate “clicks.” The true point of any artistic criticism is to give constructive observations to the artist in hopes of improving whatever is being criticized, as well as a guidepost to the public of what deserves their time in an incredibly-cluttered marketplace. The first thing you learn in any art appreciation class is that if you like it, that’s all that matters. The second is that if you don’t like it, how to communicate your concerns for the betterment of the artistic medium.

Margo Price is the Queen of East Nashville, and this goes without question. She has shaken things up on both sides of the Cumberland River, and put a shot of adrenaline into the hipness and relevancy of traditional country where once it was cast aside as something stuffy and outmoded. And live, Margo Price and her band don’t just rival the hottest names in independent country, they often best them. This is the reason she’s received opportunities to open for Chris Stapleton, Willie Nelson, Tim McGraw & Faith Hill, and others.

When it comes to Margo Price the performer, all the buzz surrounding her efforts is probably warranted. But when it comes to her recorded music, especially when measuring it against what you see live and the incredible accolades and opportunities she has been rewarded, it’s passable at best, lackluster in moments, and at certain turns, downright dreadful.

This opinion will be met with shock and horror by many individuals in independent country fandom, in the media, as well as Margo’s fellow performers in east Nashville and beyond. It will be discredited as bias, though no motive will be able to be assigned. It will be ruled as misogyny, even though no such basis for this opinion will be shared. The name of Saving Country Music will be smeared across social media, and couched as an outlier. But it doesn’t make it any less true of an opinion, or valid.

Perhaps to many of the culture and political writers who only pay attention to country music from the outside looking in, they listen to Margo Price and sense it’s the antitheses of the stuffy, conservative, and formulaic fare of the mainstream, and decide Margo must be championed. But for those with their noses to the ground, digging deep into the dark recesses where so much of independent country lurks without the aid of major periodicals, Margo Price’s recorded output is mid pack at best. And this isn’t just an opinion. It is validated by sales numbers that come in subpar compared to artists of a similar sphere, and who haven’t received even a fraction of the national exposure, opportunities, and accolades Margo Price has been showered with.

The problem with Margo Price’s All American Made is the same as her first record, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. Though the songwriting is strong in segments, the recordings themselves are lifeless, the playing and mixing is unimaginative, at times Margo’s otherwise strong voice is exposed and naked-feeling in the mix, as is her fairly formulaic song structures since there’s little to no imagination brought to fleshing these songs out. This music just has no pulse.

Additionally, All American Made is specifically beset by terse, arrogant, and shallow political stabs that have little substance, and even less effectiveness at conveying a sentiment or perspective worthy of an audience, or any value in the realm of political discourse. It’s just divisive, hate-filled venom that if anything, hurts the cause it looks to champion.

All American Made starts off strong, and the criticisms highlighted here should not override or overshadow the positives from the effort. “Don’t Say It” captures the energy and attitude that Margo displays in the live forum. “Weakness” speaks to the tortured soul/fallen angel aspect of Margo’s true to life story that so many of her fans identify with. The dreamy, yet driving “A Little Pain” marks another strong moment for the record, and one of the best illustrations for the sort of 70’s R&B, Muscle Shoals-inspired country that Margo Price and the producers looked to capture.

But from there All American Made becomes a series of missteps that sometimes are downright unbearable to listen to, like the unbelievably-sloppy harmonies of her and Willie Nelson on “Learning to Lose.” Granted, Willie is notorious for turning in some of the most terrible efforts when it comes to duets due to his offbeat phrasing, so this isn’t totally if at all on Margo. But even Willie lending his name to this album isn’t reason enough to allow this monstrosity to see the light of day. It should have been reconstituted, or just downright scrapped.

“Pay Gap” starts a series of songs that also includes “Cocaine Cowboys” and “Wild Women,” where the idea for a song was solid, but the execution left little more than a forgettable effort that relies on one phrase delivered blandly in the chorus to hold the song together—“Pay Gap” especially.

The problem with Margo Price’s politicism is not about whatever side of the political divide she is on, or even just that she chooses to broach political subjects with her music, which is always a perilous prospect. It’s that her opinions are so indolent and boiled in anger, they come across as immature and incredibly amateurish.

“Women do work and get treated like slaves since 1776,” Price asserts.

So sexism was somehow a construct of the Declaration of Independence, and didn’t exist beforehand, including for the 200-something years of puritan white settlement in North America that preceded freedom from England? And are we really going to compare women in America to “slaves”? Isn’t this being a bit hyperbolic, and a little insulting to the women who truly are living in forced slavitude all around the world, or that live under caste systems and other forms of institutional oppression that make life in America look like heaven? Yes, the pay gap and opportunity for women in American society is a real issue. But to say that women are “owned like a dog” in modern American society is such a ridiculous, borderline slanderous accusation, it makes the real issues women face in the workplace seem trivial, or contrived of an extreme viewpoint.

margo-price-all-american-madeThe same goes for the final song on the record, the dreadful “All American Made.” The minuscule energy and momentum this record attempts stimulate is stopped dead in its tracks with this droning, unfortunate effort that even goes as far as to offer a line about arms sales to Iran as some version of “gotcha” politics or intellectual discourse, while the poorly-constructed kid choir is downright nauseating, making Margo come across as if she can soar to the heights once reached by Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones with grand vocal accompaniments, while only delivering a whimper herself.

Similar to Margo Price’s public persona, her political opinions on this record lunge from one sorely-informed political platitude to another, and are presented as if her Saturday Night Live appearance a couple of years back has afforded her the bully pulpit of a huge celebrity when in truth barely anyone outside of the Americana mindset is paying any bit of attention. This bellicose behavior and marijuana references keep Margo’s fans and surrogates fed just fine with the type of public image she’s looking to present, but she’s doing little to nothing in the efforts towards social change in society by issuing canned, bleeding heart lines on Twitter peppered between pitches of live dates and merch promotions.

Compare this to the thoughtful, and intelligent discourse someone like Jason Isbell or even Kacey Musgraves has attempted to stimulate through their music or social media presence (even if you still disagree), and Margo Price once again just comes across as novice. When people say to her, “Stick to singing,” they’re not just trying to say she doesn’t have a right to an opinion, or the right to share it. They’re simply trying to point out that she’s no good at it, and instead should focus on her strengths which reside in the music realm as opposed to punditry. These criticisms aren’t necessarily “mansplaining”—they’re sage advice when it comes to Margo, who really should take a course in rhetoric before she decides to make a daily ritual of talking down to the public.

But the desire of music to be devoid of politics should be a two way street. You may wish that Margo Price and others remain on the political sidelines, but perhaps so should you. Margo’s political sentiments on All American Made are mostly relegated to two songs. And even though one is the title track—making it feel like this album has a political theme (and the point the majority of the press harps on)—if you otherwise like Margo’s music, don’t let whatever her political opinions or affiliations are get in your way. The simple truth is many of our generation’s greatest artists probably have opinions that differ from yours on both sides of the political divide. Don’t put an unnecessary limitation on your musical experience by the elimination of half the artists out there. Just avoid those songs and don’t let it affect what you enjoy from an artist.

Since Margo Price has appeared on SNL, on the cover of major music periodicals and other lifestyle mags, and was once considered early on for a CMA Award, it’s fair to criticize her and All American Made right beside the efforts of the mainstream. And in that case, All American Made is a better effort than most of what you might hear on the radio. The writing on “Heart of America,” for example, reminds one of the similar quality of Price’s signature song “Hands of Time,” talking about the true-to-life Midwest struggles she witnessed from an impressionable age. All American Made is not a bad album. It’s more about being a disappointing album from someone who is supposed to be a leader in independent country.

The biggest issue with All American Made is the lifelessness sitting like a filmy residue over this entire project. “Weakness” is a good song, but already wore off its luster when it was released on an ill-advised EP from earlier this year. Why wasn’t a song like “Paper Cowboy” from the EP included here when it could have delivered some much-needed energy? Beyond the songwriting, the silly attempt at Tex-Mex flavoring on “Pay Gap” is incredibly Caucasian, and almost caricaturist in its feeble attempt at ethnic styling. And the whole “R&B country” thing has become so incredibly tired and trite over the last few years—in both independent country and the mainstream—it’s not fit for an artist being presented as groundbreaking. It was groundbreaking when Justin Townes Earle did it nearly 8 years ago on Harlem River Blues.

Folks will say, “Screw Trigger and Saving Country Music. This album is awesome, and has received amazing reviews. ” I can’t explain the discrepancy between reviews, and what detractors are hearing. Perhaps it’s part of a media echo chamber surrounding Margo. Perhaps it’s that people see her live and fall in love, and overlook the obvious shortcomings of All American Made, and really all of Margo’s studio releases. Perhaps it’s the power of Third Man Records. Even Saving Country Music sang Margo’s praises early on before the release of Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, and continues to in the live context.

But this disconnect with some listeners, and the disappointment in this effort is very real, and that is validated via the numbers. Just as folks will attempt to discredit other opinions, they will say, “Well when have numbers ever been a validation of quality?” In the case of the top-tier performers in independent country, it is an imperative that the numbers line up with the accolades so that it can hold the mainstream industry’s feet to the fire. Otherwise, the numbers expose the unimportant impact of what is going on in independent music.

Simply put, people are not listening to Margo Price in the kind of numbers that even raise any serious blip on the radar. You may personally like Margo Price and listen to her record regularly. But even a lot of Margo Price fans might be surprised how little the album resonates with them. They like it because that’s what you do if you’re an independent country fan. But ultimately, it gets left out of the listening rotation relatively quickly.

On the release date of All American Made, Price was up against some other important releases. A Long Way From Your Heart from the Turnpike Troubadours sold 2 1/2 times more records than All American Made, and with a fraction of the press coverage, no Saturday Night Live or late night television appearances, or an Austin City Limits episode, or opening gigs on mainstream tours. Streams on Spotify for the songs from the new Turnpike album range from 295,000-900,000. For Margo, the streams range from 63,000 to 180,000.

For someone with the amount of exposure Margo Price has received, and the critical acclaim she’s garnered, it is fair to call these numbers a disappointment. Is it due to sexism? Another upstart traditional country independent female, Dori Freeman, released a record on October 20th as well called Letters Never Read. Margo Price’s biggest song on Spotify, “Tennessee Song” has been streamed 1.6 million times. Dori Freeman’s biggest song “You Say” has been streamed 5.2 million times. Yet Dori has received a fraction of the attention, press, accolades, and opportunities that Margo Price has. Dori Freeman’s music is resonating despite the obscurity, while Margo’s is struggling despite the opportunity. Of course some of this has to do with playlist placements, but if Margo’s music was receiving traction, it would be included on more playlist rotations. And this doesn’t even mention the incredible numbers of Aaron Watson and Cody Jinks, and others in the independent country realm who the press seems to patently ignore.

All of this is not to say that Margo Price isn’t good, or talented. It wouldn’t be worth this deep dive into notions and numbers if Price didn’t have the potential to be something great in country music. But the cart was put before the horse with her from the very beginning, and it has enabled her to continue making mediocre recordings. Everyone praised the debut album, so why change the approach? The excuse was given  with her first record that the production value was low because she sold her car and wedding ring to make it. Now what is the excuse?

It’s the arrogance and sense of entitlement from the Margo Price camp that is not allowing them to listen to constructive criticism and take Price’s career to the next level. There is no joy in exposing Margo as a critical darling with dreadful impact in the recorded context. We need Margo Price, or some performer of the female persuasion to rise up and put some gender diversity at the top of independent music. We’re tired of talking about Strugill, Stapleton, and Isbell—Sturgill, Stapleton, and Isbell. Margo Price is receiving every single opportunity an artist can wish for, and it’s still not even getting close to the level of resonance you want to see from a top tier, or even second-tier independent country star.

Yet Margo can’t stop complaining about how the industry is jobbing her, when frankly, it’s other performers getting jobbed because Margo is absconding with so much of the attention and opportunities. Independent music must put its best foot forward, and Margo Price’s All American Made doesn’t even come close to that. This isn’t the record to convert your mainstream buddies to the independent side of music. This isn’t a record to start a revolution. There are scores of other women with groundbreaking projects being ignored in favor of Margo Price all across country and Americana. Margo Price didn’t even put out the best record by an independent traditional country woman on October 20th, 2017.

Earlier this year, Saving Country Music spoke to a fellow journalist for Elle Magazine about Price, saying in part, “The independent country realm is looking for a female to put up on that Rushmore,” referring to Isbell, Stapleton, and Sturgill. In that same article, Margo Price is quoted lamenting, “So this is what it’s come to,” as she waited in a nondescript green room to play for a room that had sold 200 presale tickets. 90% of the artists in the Americana realm would kill to play for 200-plus capacity crowds, and get a green room at all. This speaks to the sense of entitlement that has permeated the Margo Price camp.

This long-winded review will be blown off as garrulous nonsense by the surrogates and supporters of Margo Price. People will misunderstand it as jealousy and spite, despite being unable to name a motive or origin of such impulses. They will rally behind Margo, blame misogyny, and a myriad of other issues on the conclusions presented in this review. That is why folks are so afraid to speak out against Margo Price. You say something critical, and you will be ostracized from the east Nashville scene and places beyond. That is why despite all the praise, behind-the-scenes the murmurs have become almost a roar about Margo Price, and how she continues to be so highly-paraded, while so many better artists are being ignored, both male and female. Margo Price needs villains to keep the oppressed card in play, so she and her cohorts should be happy with a review like this.

But in truth, time might reveal Saving Country Music as Margo Price’s best friend. Because while so many others in the media and fandom build universal acclaim around mediocre efforts that are not resonating, it’s more imperative than ever that someone have the respect for Margo to be honest with her, instead of telling her and her fans what they want to hear. Because her music, and her talent is good enough to be on that independent country Mr. Rushmore. That’s why it deserves the hard and critical assessment nobody else in music journalism is apparently willing or able to deliver.

– – – – – – –

“If you want to be a true friend to them, be honest, and unmerciful.” — Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs

1 1/4 Guns Up (6/10)