As it was for many of us, 2016 was a helluva year for Margo Price — except while we were trying to keep our heads from spinning over presidential politics and mourning the deaths of one beloved musician after another, she was also having one of the biggest artistic breakthroughs of the year. After a decade of trucking away with various bands in the East Nashville scene, Price finally released her masterful debut, Midwest Farmer's Daughter, via Third Man Records. She received the Americana Music Association's Emerging Artist award, played with idols Kris Kristofferson and Loretta Lynn and earned the fierce loyalty of many a hard-country fan.
But through everything that happened last year, Price continued to pursue her songwriting, encouraged by Third Man founder Jack White. "He was like, 'I know you're really busy right now, but keep your ear to the ground and keep writing,' " she says.
So she did keep writing — and some of the fruits of her labor can be heard on her new EP, Weakness. It's a four-song collection that reveals Price's eagerness to stretch her craft, both musically and lyrically. It also finds her returning to an old haunt, in a sense: Midwest Farmer's Daughter was recorded at Sun Studios in Memphis, Tenn., where record man Sam Phillips once helped launch the careers of Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins. For these new songs, Price and her band (including her husband and longtime cowriter, Jeremy Ivey) returned to Memphis, this time working out of the larger studio where Phillips had moved his operations after outgrowing Sun in 1960. Price says it's impossible to ignore the space's history.
"When you're alone in there at night, you can feel this kind of energy radiating in the halls," she says. "To go in and look at Etta James' name on the side of a roll of tape and know that Etta James recorded in there ... It definitely has some spirits walking around."
Price is performing a few upcoming dates with John Prine and preparing to go on tour with fellow country luminaries Chris Stapleton and Brent Cobb. In the meantime, NPR asked her to talk us through some of the stories behind Weakness, track by track.
"It started out as just a poem that I wrote one day, or one night — I think it might have been a late-night scribble in my notebook. And my husband just found the first couple lines. I had written, 'Sometimes I'm Virginia Woolf / Sometimes I'm James Dean.' ... It's probably something that nobody would have heard, had it not been for him going back through my notebook and telling me what was salvageable and what was not. ... We're always very critical of each other. So if something's good, we tell each other that it's good, and if something's s***, then we toss it out the window.
"I definitely feel the counterplay of feeling like — sometimes things feel really nice, as far as where we're at now. But there still is pain and temptation and all of these things that kind of make up a human."
Just Like Love
"Those words came from definitely a darker place, just questioning what's going on in the world and what goes on with humans and their inner turmoil that they face — 'Why are we here, no one knows.'
"I've been traveling more in the past two years than I have in my whole entire life, and just kind of seeing things and looking a little bit more outside of myself. ... You can only write so many songs about your personal struggle. I think it's a little more about what's going on outside than what's going on inside."
"I've been hearing that song for a really long time, back when I played with my rock and roll band Buffalo Clover ... My guitar player, Matt Gardner — I remember him showing me that song and thinking it was just such a smart song. ... And the way that he did it was the way that it is in the first verse — he did it all in that 3/4 time. There was no picking up the tempo on it at all. And so it just developed in practice, where we made it this really psychedelic, kind of funky — this country-funk, gritty thing. I remember sending it to him — I actually sent him the performance from NPR — and I don't know if he likes it that way, but he's given me the blessing to perform it either way. ... One night I'm gonna have to do it just in that waltz tempo, just for him.
"I'm just so proud of my band and the players that I have with me. They've worked really hard and stuck with me throughout thick and thin. ... Luke Schneider plays the snot out of the pedal steel on that one. ... There's a lot of people [in Nashville] playing really smart, classic licks on the pedal steel, even young cats, and I chose Luke because he wasn't afraid to put pedals on there and make things gritty and psychedelic and weird, and just kind of rough it up a bit."
"I was out on the road and my husband, Jeremy, sent me a demo of that song. ... He wrote that song speaking to a friend of ours that we hadn't really seen in a long time — and we'd kind of had a falling out, felt really distant from him. So that song started off being about this one person. And then just a couple weeks ago, we lost a really close friend of ours. He was a drummer and just a really great friend — we've known him for almost a decade. And he was only 28. His name was Ben Eyestone, and he was diagnosed with cancer, but before he even got a chance to fight it ... we lost him.
"And so we're dedicating that song to the memory of him. ... It's crazy how the words kind of transform sometimes, and sometimes really come at a time when you need them. We sang that song for him a couple times in the last few days. I wound up at a dive bar up in Madison, just right outside of East Nashville, at a little bar called Dee's, and we found ourselves in there singing that song acoustic for him. And it was really cool that we have a little piece of something that we can dedicate to his memory and sing for him every time."