On Margo Price Leaving Country Music Behind

For the last half decade, an insurgency among the ranks of independent country and Americana artists has enacted a significant incursion into the market share of popular country music, eating away at the dominance of radio and Music Row-controlled labels and imprints. For a while, all the media wanted to talk about was Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, and Jason Isbell as the triumvirate most responsible for the return of authenticity and substance to country and roots music. Then further names added themselves to the conversation—Cody Jinks, Tyler Childers, and now even artists whose music could be considered niche like Colter Wall and Billy Strings are seeing resounding success often reserved for mainstream-backed stars.

But similar to the obvious imbalance in the mainstream, there were no women who firmly ensconced themselves within this insurgent country wave. There was Kacey Musgraves, but she tended to be a little too kitsch, and a little too pop to fit the mold perfectly, and find reception among traditional country and Americana fans. She was a phenomenon all to herself. Miranda Lambert made for an interesting candidate, but as someone who was so firmly established in the mainstream winning Female Vocalist of the Year awards in succession, she didn’t fit the mold just right either.

Then there was Margo Price. Brash, country, from insurgent east Nashville, who once had Sturgill Simpson play in her band, she fit the model much better than any other nominee. And most importantly, she was afforded the opportunities and avenues to succeed, even more so than many of her male counterparts. She played Saturday Night Live very early in her arc after label owner Jack White of Third Man Records pulled some strings for her. Price went on to play the rest of the late night TV circuit on a fairly regular basis early in her career. The press was absolutely in love with her. Critics praised her records. She even received a Best New Artist nomination from the Grammy Awards in 2019.

But unlike her male peers, Margo Price never turned these huge, mainstream opportunities into major independent music success. Cody Jinks and Tyler Childers have not received nearly the opportunities Margo Price has, but outsell, outstream, and outdraw Margo Price many fold. Sturgill Simpson, Tyler Childers, Aaron Watson, Blackberry Smoke, Whiskey Myers, and Jason Isbell have all now registered #1 records on Billboard’s Country Albums Chart as distinctly non radio-supported artists, while Cody Jinks has registered three #2 albums. The best debut Margo Price ever had was #10, with her last record coming in at #12.

You could point to this as being the inherent bias against female voices in country and Americana, but that’s not entirely true either. Take Sarah Jarosz for example, the bluegrass-oriented singer and songwriter from Texas who also resides well outside the mainstream, and who just released a new record called World On The Ground in June. Just taking a gander at the amount of attention her songs have generated on Spotify, Jarosz’s top song “Build Me Up From Bones” has garnered over 63 millions streams—about in line with the top songs from Cody Jinks, and Tyler Childers. She also has a bluegrass cover of Prince’s “When Doves Cry” with 20 millions streams. Her next highest original is “House of Mercy” with 7.6 million streams.

Comparatively, Margo Price’s top song on Spotify, “Hurtin’ (On The Bottle),” only has 3.7 million streams. Her second-biggest track, “Tennessee Song,” has 2.8 million streams. Then also consider how Sarah Jarosz has received a tiny percentage of the press of Margo Price, and never has been afforded big opportunities like an SNL berth. Granted, some of this discrepancy could be due to playlisting, and Margo Price selling more physical albums on the vinyl-centric Third Man Records label resulting in less strong streaming numbers. This also isn’t to present music as a competition based solely on numbers. But despite the incredible favor from the media and opportunities most independent artists never receive, Price has never backed those opportunities up with any sort of measurable resonance with a greater audience, while artists with little or no similar opportunities do show more measurable, organic traction with listeners.

So why is there such a gulf between the perception of Margo Price as an independent superstar, and her sales and streaming numbers, good as they may be for some independent performers, but nowhere near many of her peers? It’s partly due to her public persona making her quite polarizing among the core fan base of the country insurgency, even more so than someone such as Jason Isbell. And despite all of her opportunities and positive press (Rolling Stone Country alone posted 30 articles featuring Price in 2018—a year she didn’t even release a record), Margo has just never resonated with the public through her studio albums.

Saving Country Music has experienced major backlash for sharing honest criticism and concerns for how Margo Price’s first two records turned out—2016’s Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, and 2017’s All American Made. Though the ultimate prognosis was more positive than negative, there’s just a palpable disconnect between the passion and energy Margo Price brings to her live performances that tend to earn universal praise, and what ends up on her albums. It’s not that Margo Price is a subpar performer. It’s that her records are subpar compared to her live performances. Pointing this out was always done in the effort to be constructive to an important artist in country music.

Nonetheless, you cannot even constructively criticize Margo Price in independent country and Americana. You will be accused of bias, and sexism because she has become one of these artists deemed untouchable. An echo chamber has persisted around her career demanding universal acclaim for all her efforts if you want to maintain your positive status in Americana, while privately many in the music industry recognize Margo Price’s lack of resonance. A Saturday Night Live berth, an all genre Grammy nomination, big tour opening opportunities, major endorsements from the media, and still people just don’t listen to Margo Price in comparison to her peers. And now after country music and Americana has expended unprecedented opportunities to make Margo Price the answer to the question, “Who is the woman to help lead the country music insurgency?”, Margo Price doesn’t even consider herself country.

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Margo Price’s new album That’s How Rumors Get Started was described by American Songwriter as “very un-country.” Talking with The Nashville Scene, Price herself foretells how people will still try to sell her new album as country by trying to use “fancy words.” But she states decisively, “Nope, I made a rock ’n’ roll record.” In interview after interview she underscores this point, even telling The Ringer that she expects her next album to be rock ‘n’ roll as well. Don’t even call it Americana. Speaking to the L.A. Times, Price says, “I wanted to do something different so I could maybe break the Americana glass ceiling.”

It’s official. Similar to the co-producer for the new album Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price has left the country genre.

The first thing Price supporters will say is that genre doesn’t matter. But it definitely matters to Margo Price, so much so that she has gone out of her way to implore the press to refer to her new album as rock ‘n’ roll, and not try to twist it into country.

The second thing Price supporters will say is that her creative expressions should not be hemmed in by expectations of any genre, or by so-called “country purists.” But this is missing the greater point as well. What was so important about the career of Margo Price was that she was a woman in the country insurgency that could help return some gender balance to the genre. This is one of the reasons so many resources and opportunities were extended to Margo Price, from the Ameripolitan and Americana Awards, all the way up to Grammy nominations and SNL. The press lauded her as country music’s healthy alternative. Now as she exits—similar to Taylor Swift—Margo Price leaves a gaping hole in country music since so many resources were ultimately spent on an artist that had no loyalty to the genre.

Margo Price should have the creative freedom to make whatever kind of music she wants. Let’s repeat that: Margo Price should have the creative freedom to make whatever kind of music she wants. No artist should be obligated to anything. However, by country music and its institutions so obsequiously focusing on Margo Price—-even as she continued to prove her poor resonance with listeners—she took away precious attention and resources from other important artists—especially other women artists—who were showing much more positive resonance with listeners, and personal identity and loyalty to country music. Margo Price built her career off of country music and its fans. Now, she can’t be bothered by it.

The obsession of the media with Margo Price—primarily born from her political stances shared on social media—resulted in a unhealthy bias and echo chamber in coverage on her career that has been extended to the coverage of That’s How Rumors Get Started, especially from media decidedly outside of the country music community who love to use artists such as Margo Price, Kacey Musgraves, and Sturgill Simpson to make personal attacks on the country music populous.

The title for the L.A. Times feature on Price’s new record is, “Mask-wearing, BLM-backing country singer Margo Price on alienating fans: ‘You can’t argue with stupid’.” Not only is the title incorrect since Margo Price spells out in that very article that the new record is rock, it makes many wild-eyed stereotypical assumptions about country artists and fans, while Margo’s “You can’t argue with stupid” perfectly encapsulates her down-looking persona that put her on the wrong side of the country music audience, regardless of their political views.

As for the music of That’s How Rumors Get Started itself, once again it feels like Margo Price does okay, but falls short from her potential in the recorded context. She is correct in calling the album rock ‘n’ roll. More specifically it’s a classic rock-inspired effort. Instead of recording with her band, she used a band partially picked by Sturgill Simpson—a common mark of Sturgill’s production efforts. The album features Matt Sweeney on guitar, drummer James Gadson, Pino Palladino on bass, and Benmont Tench on keyboards.

Removing any genre discussion, That’s How Rumors Get Started definitely has its moments. One of the early singles “Letting Me Down” proves that Price has some of the right acuity and attitude for rock. Margo first performed the final song on the record called “I’d Die For You” at a Nashville benefit in early March right before the COVID-19 lock down. As was observed then, “I’d Die For You” is an incredibly powerful composition that Margo Price knocks out of the park, even if once again, the live version far surpasses what is captured in the studio. And if you’re looking for something with a little country swagger, check out “Prisoner of the Highway.”

Only a few tweaks and That’s How Rumors Get Started could definitely be considered country rock or Americana. It’s certainly more country than what you might hear on country radio. The record is in no way offensive to roots audiences, nor it is overtly political, even though certain country reactionaries will take it that way simply because Price’s name is on the cover. But the fuzz rock of “Twinkle Twinkle” reminds one a little too much of the post-Apocalyptic universe Sturgill Simpson constructed for his recent rock record Sound & Fury, while “Heartless Mind” reminds you of the dated synth rock of that “Maniac” song from the 1983 movie Flashdance.

And even though many Margo Price fans will be unwilling to read this deep into a think piece, and will simply navigate to the comments section to lob unfounded accusations of bias, or use ambiguous of “axe grinding” charges, or selectively pull quote certain segments to portray this entire work as sexist in lieu of a salient argument against the points expressed here, all of this will overlook the underlying and very important concern with Margo Price going rock with this record.

Margo Price was supposed to be about empowering women in country music. She was supposed to be a part of taking country music back from the money changers on Music Row, who had no respect for country music’s traditions, or the contributions of women performers. It was about fighting for something bigger than any individual artist, and believing in something bigger than yourself. The hope when we heard Sturgill Simpson was producing Margo Price’s new record was that we would finally get the Margo Price album we knew she was capable of, that would match her amazing live performances, and hopefully finally win her the wide audience her critical praise clamored for. Instead, we got another decent but improvable record, and the pronouncement she’s left the country genre behind entirely.

The reason that we cared so much about Margo Price was not just because she was a woman, or because she was country. It was because of both, and together, because we needed women in country to help return some gender balance to the genre, to broaden perspectives, to speak to the women in the country audience, and broach important issues from a feminine perspective. And after all that effort to prop up Margo Price—which was sometimes misguided as much more worthy women and music were overlooked and undervalued—now we can’t even count Margo Price among the ranks of country performers.

Margo Price was important to country music. But more important now is to learn the lessons of her departure, primarily on how important it is to focus important resources on women in country music who will show loyalty to the genre, and see country music not as a stepping stone or a “glass ceiling,” but as a home. Because with so few resources and opportunities going to women already, we can’t afford to spend them on artists who will ultimately just leave.

© 2021 Saving Country Music