DAN JACOBSON reflects on Margo Price’s 2017 album All American Made and the state of country music.

In his illuminating podcast Revisionist History, author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell dedicates the episode ‘The King of Tears’ to a discussion of American country music, and its extraordinary ability to evoke emotional intensity. One example he cites is Tammy Wynette’s hit 1968 song ‘D-I-V-O-R-C-E’, a heartbreaking story of a broken marriage, and a young boy whose parents hide the harsh realities of life by not saying the word out loud. Another is Emmylou Harris’ 1975 song ‘Boulder to Birmingham’, where Harris says that she would “walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham” in order to see her love’s face again. Whilst this makes little sense to anyone outside of the Southern states, the locations specified — the progressive Boulder, Colorado, as compared to the far more conservative Birmingham, Alabama — give the song its pertinence. In Gladwell’s words, the most painful, relevant songs arise “when melancholy collides with specificity”.

These moments were what I was searching for in Margo Price’s second album, All American Made. Following her debut record Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, released in 2016, Price’s popularity has exploded. Her deeply personal lyrics, soothing voice, and mastering of the country music tropes have managed to extend her sound far further than the secluded country music world she sings about. Often, the ‘specificity’ sought in early country music, and present on Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, only limits the music’s audience; this is fine, as country music is designed for those who can empathise with the singer. The question was: would Price continue down this path, in lieu of her wider appeal?

Margo Price; photographed by Danielle Holbert; image courtesy of www.rollingstone.com

In contrast, All American Made sounds far more like a crossover album. The specificity that pervaded her previous release is still present here, yet most of the jauntier songs seem to be written for her new audience. From the opening lines of ‘Don’t Say It’, Price sounds like she is speaking to a faceless figure instead of a person: 

       Don’t call the preacher when your car won’t start

       Don’t call the doctor with a broken heart

       Don’t count your money til it hits the bank

       Don’t say you love me when you treat me this way.

This lyrical hollowness is an atmosphere which continues on her single ‘Weakness’, in which she sings on the chorus:

      I’m worried for no reason

      I’m worried and I’m blue

      There’s no better cure for it

      Than being next to you.

Price’s lyrics stray dangerously close to cliché, here, as she sings about a lover in a relatively mechanical way. Whilst the quality of her lyrics picks up as the album wears on, but it often sounds like what Price is gaining in popularity she is losing in authenticity.

Perhaps this is because Price is adding a political slant to her music. An outspoken feminist, she is one of the few country stars to actively speak out against Trump. Appearing on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, when asked about people requesting her music to be apolitical, she replied with “If we wanna keep celebrities and politicians separate, then we shouldn’t elect a reality TV star as the president.” As ostensibly political as Price is, it is unsurprising that on this album, she is opting to be more generic and universally acceptable.

Margo Price; image courtesy of www.npr.org

This is most obvious on the song ‘Pay Gap’, a fearless, uncensored manifesto for the album as a whole. The final line of the chorus, “Pay gap, pay gap, ripping my dollars in half”, conjures up vivid images of fat cats smoking cigars in a boardroom, as Price gets ripped off backstage at a gig. This song may be lacking in nuance, but this is only a drawback when discussing the song without context — such explicitness is necessary within the largely conservative, misogynistic industry of country music.

Price’s talent and insight come together most effectively on the title track which closes the album. The term ‘All American Made’ sounds like it should be a term of pride, especially for a nation which prides itself on its isolationism and self-sufficiency. However, Price takes a more holistic view, instead opting to focus on the political and corporate structures which she deems responsible for the uneven power dynamics within the United States. This is put most eloquently in a verse she normally only uses in live performances:

       Well all the Midwest farms are turning into plastic homes

       And my uncle started drinking when the bank denied the loan

       But now it’s liver failure and there’s mad cows being cloned

       And it’s all American made.

The song possesses the political and societal disillusionment similar to that of Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy, cynically commenting on a commercial culture gradually losing substance.

Whilst, to an extent, All American Made does retain the varied, colourful production, and the talent displayed in Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, on a purely lyrical level, there is the impression that Price is giving her politics centre-stage, somewhat sacrificing the emotional complexity of her work in the process. This isn’t entirely negative – it may actually be a positive step toward making country music more aware and progressive, diversifying its audience in the process. What I hope is that, in the future, Price restores a balance between her newfound political voice and the emotional complexity that made her a worthwhile artist to begin with.

 

Featured image courtesy of www.metrolyrics.com