Margo Price (photo by Bobbi Rich, PR)
That's How Rumors Get Started
Loma Vista Recordings/Concord
Autobiographical activism isn’t a Nashville subgenre, but it could be; it fuels country music’s best songwriters, from Dolly Parton to Willie Nelson to Johnny Cash. Converting blistering personal agony into a hit song or album is one thing, but it’s what comes after that really sticks: taking that success, that elevated platform, and choosing to make a genuine difference in the world. Not every musician can (or wants to) sign up for that responsibility; it’s tough enough navigating the ruthless music industry, especially in Nashville.
Margo Price has always bucked convention since her impressive debut, 2015’s Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, fully aware that her own dramatic backstory of poverty, profound loss, and dubious decisions speaks to far bigger issues in America of economic inequality, misogyny, systemic racism, addiction, and rural or small town desperation. Big topics for sure, but Price handled them with arresting ferocity and cut-glass clarity on both Midwest Farmer’s Daughter and 2017’s All American Made.
True to the issues she writes about, she also pushes for something beyond clambering up the Billboard charts: Price speaks out and steps up, whether supporting the ACLU, advocating for gun control, raising money for her roadies, or releasing a surprise live album, Perfectly Imperfect at the Ryman, back in May to benefit Covid-19 relief. The pandemic directly affected her family and friends, as she told WFUV earlier this year in a Q&A. Her husband and collaborator, the songwriter Jeremy Ivey, struggled to recover from the coronavirus and she lost a beloved friend, John Prine, to it. “I have tried to remind myself that without spending some time down in the valley,” said Price, “you can’t fully enjoy the view of the mountain peaks.”
There are plenty of spellbinding summits found on Price’s third album, That’s How Rumors Get Started, pushed from May to a summer release due to the quarantine. While her personal candor and poignant character studies are as evocative and incisive as ever, she’s clearly turned in her honky-tonk hall pass, slipping to the other side of the music cafeteria where the leather-jacketed rock kids sit.
Collaborating and co-producing with another genre-defiant iconoclast, her old friend Sturgill Simpson, and Dave Ferguson (Johnny Cash, John Prine), Price has never sounded more gritty or riveting as a singer, whether sweetly seething though "Stone Me" or the blasted, profane crunch of “Twinkle Twinkle.” There’s a reason for that — something she told FUV had a lot to do with Ferguson’s support and Simpson honing in on her live sound: “He had me sing all of my vocals with no headphones on and facing a set of speakers with the tracks coming back at me at a quiet volume. I could hear myself better that way.”
It’s also, as Price has said, an album about relationships. Family figures in a rather poetic way too: Price was pregnant with her daughter Ramona while recording at Los Angeles’s East West Studios and Ferguson’s The Butcher Shoppe in Nashville. She co-wrote seven of the album’s ten songs with Ivey, including the intimate closer, “I’d Die for You,” and “Gone To Stay,” a rollicking lullaby written for Price’s nine-year-old son Judah and a touring musician's lament of time spend away from a child's side. (That road-weary regret is repeated on "Prisoner of the Highway" too.)
The hyperactive, runnin' down a dream thrum of “Heartless Mind” and “Letting Me Down,” a blissful, never-ending hook with minor key mood swings and labyrinthine lead guitar, mirror classic Tom Petty or Stevie Nicks in a deliciously deliberate way — and yes, Benmont Tench of the Heartbreakers is part of Price’s Rumors session band. Along with Tench, a cadre of rock ‘n’ soul heavyweights, rounded up by Simpson, backs Price here: bassist Pino Palladino (The Eagles, the Who), guitarist Matt Sweeney (Adele, Josh Homme), drummer James Gadson (Aretha Franklin, Bill Withers) and Simpson and Ashley Wilcoxson on additional vocals. The Nashville Friends Gospel Choir is a heart-thumping addition to several songs; Price's spiritual detours on Rumors are especially resonant in these doleful days when hope seems so hard.
Like rambling wild rose branches, Tench’s plangent piano and Price’s wistful vocals entwine and slow dance on the title track; it’s one of Price’s prettiest recordings ever. There's a faint retro rumble of Derek and the Dominos angst (with a woman's alternate take) in the epic blues psychedelia of “What Happened to Our Love,” which sensually builds to a cyclone before de-escalating to a cautious breeze; an apt metaphor for a marital argument (“What is this life and what does it mean/Time it runs out and rips at the seams/Like oil and water, hellfire and rain/We fight, we make up, just to make love again”).
One of the innumerable sorrows of Prine's passing this year is that he won't have the pleasure of watching his cherished friend flourish with her bold gamble of a record. For sure, Price's Rumors will flummox rigidly formatted country and rock radio. But unpredictability is a charm for Price; restlessness and discontent with the status quo is a reliable muse. While That's How Rumors Get Started might have splashed down in the midst of a global crisis, Price has endured bad storms in the past and persevered. Her survivor's intuition—and boundless empathy for others facing similar pain and heartbreak—is what makes Rumors the album we need right now.