Way back when everything was normal (like, two weeks ago), we spent a half-hour on the phone with Margo Price to talk about what looked to be a breakout visit to Austin in mid-March. She was set to headline a free South by Southwest show at Auditorium Shores, in addition to appearances at Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion in Spicewood and the new Campfire Gathering in Dripping Springs, plus a couple of radio station day-party events.
That’s all off the table in the new world of coronavirus-triggered social distancing. But the music remains, most significantly a new album titled "That’s How Rumors Get Started," set for a May 8 release on major label affiliate Loma Vista Recordings. It follows two highly acclaimed albums for Jack White’s Third Man Records — 2016’s "Midwest Farmer’s Daughter" and 2017’s "All American Made" — that led to a best new artist nomination at the 2019 Grammy Awards.
Price recorded the new album largely in Los Angeles with fellow left-of-center country sensation Sturgill Simpson producing. They’d been friends in Nashville since the days before either of them became nationally known, getting to know each other after Price’s husband, singer-songwriter Jeremy Ivey, met Simpson at a grocery store where both of them were working.
"He approached me about producing the album," Price said. "I was kind of unsure at first. I produced my last record myself, and I thought, ’I don’t know how this is going to play out.’ But it was really great. He had a lot of good ideas, and he really brought a lot to the table in the way that it ended up sounding."
It’s no surprise, then, given Simpson’s leanings toward the rock end of the country spectrum, that Price says she was aiming for "a 1970s rock ’n’ roll album" with "That’s How Rumors Get Started." "I think we accomplished that," she says. "I was pregnant at the time we started (in late 2018), so I had a lot of clarity and sobriety during the recording process, and even the writing process. I just wanted to do something completely different."
In Los Angeles, she and Simpson assembled an intriguing band that included 80-year-old drummer James Gadson (known for his work with Bill Withers, D’Angelo and others) and keyboardist Benmont Tench from the late Tom Petty’s band the Heartbreakers. Overdubs were done back home with help from David Ferguson, a legendary Nashville musician and songwriter who ended up getting a co-producer credit on the album (as does Price herself).
"I think it’s a different direction on a lot of the tracks," she says, though she cautions that it’s not a complete 180 from her first two records. "It’s still a rooted album. I didn’t make, like, an EDM record or whatever," she says with a laugh. "I’m sure I’ll probably be classified as country still. But I was going for something completely different."
A single released last week, "Twinkle Twinkle," hints at what she’s talking about. An intense minor-key rocker that apparently grew from a backstage conversation with country-bluegrass great Marty Stuart, the song partly addresses the lotterylike nature of stardom. Its message is enhanced by a frenetic video from Matthew Siskin, who’d previously done videos for Beyonce and Father John Misty.
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Last week’s official announcement about the album indicated its tracks also will tackle subjects ranging from motherhood to Nashville gentrification to relationships to growing pains to the national health care crisis.
The one other track from the album that has been released early, "Stone Me," is filled with personal reflections and reckonings. "I won't forget what it's like to be poor/I could be there again, baby, that's for sure," she sings early on, later assuring listeners that "I won't be ashamed of what I am/For your judgment day I don't give a damn."
While the song isn’t the stoner anthem its title might have suggested, Price remains an outspoken and active proponent of cannabis culture. In 2018, she teamed with Willie’s Reserve, a brand launched by Willie Nelson that’s selling cannabis products in states where it’s legal, to market a strain called "All American Made" in California. Another strain she helped develop will soon be sold in Colorado.
"It’s been pretty incredible to actually see that come to fruition, because it was a high idea that started at Luck four years ago," says Price, recalling her first appearance at the Luck Reunion in 2016. Her trip to Austin that March was essentially the launch event for "Midwest Farmer’s Daughter," her debut solo album. It came out a week after she’d played several high-profile gigs at SXSW, including the NPR showcase on the outdoor stage at Stubb’s.
Price’s first visit to Austin for SXSW was in 2010, when she and her husband were still touring and recording with a band called Buffalo Clover.
"I was only playing Red Gorilla Fest; I didn’t have an official showcase," she says. "But I was down there during the madness, trying to do it. I was pregnant with twins, and I played anywhere I could get booked. Like, basically just corners of bars. I was walking around with my boots on; I had to cut my boots off of my feet at the end of the day because I was so pregnant and we were walking so far."
An accomplished multi-instrumentalist, Price recalls that she also had some side gigs as a drummer that year, including one with fellow Nashville singer-songwriter Lilly Hiatt at the Belmont. "I remember the sound guy took one look at me as I was taking my shoes off and setting my drum kit up and said, ‘You’re the drummer?’"
He quickly explained that his surprise was not that she was a woman but rather that her pregnancy was fairly far along. "I was about six and a half months pregnant with twins, so I was definitely showing," she says.
WATCH: Margo Price and Shawn Sahm sing Doug Sahm songs atop Doug Sahm Hill in Austin
Another SXSW memory involved a Sunday show a few years later at the now-shuttered Red River Street bar Headhunters that was booked by Sturgill Simpson. "He hit me up to see if I wanted to do it," she remembers. "Everybody was really hungover, and it wasn’t very well-attended at all."
That year, her band, Simpson’s band and others shared floor space in a large house owned by parents of one of Price’s friends. "There had to be 30 people there between all the different bands," she says with a laugh. "It was like a hostel."
Price and Ivey had another child last year, and Ivey has been playing shows himself lately after he released an album of his own that Price produced. She says she’s interested in doing more of that, and she sounds particularly excited about a record she’s been making with Jessi Colter, widow of country legend Waylon Jennings.
"We’re in the mixing process right now," Price says. "It was an absolute honor to work with her in any capacity, let alone that she gave me the reins to produce her record. I can’t wait to get that out; it’s a monster. It’s absolutely brilliant writing. I had my band play on it here in Nashville, and now Shooter is mixing it. I’m just so proud of it."
RELATED: Our review of Margo Price at Emo’s in January 2018