Photo by: Angelina Castillo for Third Man Records
I can’t remember an opening track of an album that dealt with such a rich narrative as “Hands of Time” on Margo Price’s stunning album Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. The album begins with the expansive “Hands of Time” that’s allowed to unfold and develop over six minutes in which Price enumerates a life’s confessional – losing a family farm at the age of two, seeing her father’s spirit broken when he’s forced to take a prison job, her move to Nashville, the ensuing broken relationships and the realization that alcohol is not the cure for her pain. “I thought I found a friend but I only found a thief,” she laments in a homespun but learned way.
Just when Price settles down and you think the story will brighten, Price bears the grief of telling us that one of her children has died. The storytelling that unfolds goes against conventional wisdom for what an opening track should be. The great detail is a kind of mini-movie and autobiography that she lays out like a musical resume. It also conjures another golden age as the singer and her band the Price Tags summon the sweeping, panoramic sound of country music’s greatest eras.
Throughout Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, Price, who channels the great country singers Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette among others, is like a reporter writing from the front lines of her own heartbreak, her bouts with alcohol, dealings with jilted lovers, and even weekends in jail. But everything is not always as what it seems. In “Tennessee Song,” at first blush you might be wanting to come along on this road trip. “I don’t know what suits you best, 65 or 40 West,” Price sings seductively. It’s hard not to fall for Price’s subtle twang and accent. “Pump the craank, get your dinner from the river baank,” she sings in this get back to the land and set her soul straight kind of song.
Tennessee might be the promised land but there’s a sense of danger lurking. Against a thunderous drum intro that sounds like Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks,” you really feel the floodgates are about to explode. Maybe it’s the lovers’ fate that’s already sealed or a greater meditation on our own mortality. “In this world we won’t be long,” Price concludes in a song that demands you crank up the volume.
Price lives in a world in which her own demons surround her. In “Since You Put Me Down,” she can toss out a great line like “I’ve been drinking just to drown” and walks with her evil twin (his name is sin). She laments her woes in which she kills an angel on her shoulder with a handle of tequila and a former love makes her “feel like an orphan and act like a clown.” But Price also declares that if she falls from grace she’ll have the last word – and vows to land with her feet back on the ground.
Price is not the first to broach broken-heartedness or jilted love but she has a way of personalizing her subjects that make you feel like you’re hearing the themes for the first time. In “Four Years of Chances,” she cuts a sleek R&B groove that grows in its intensity as she becomes more indignant and bemoans every blown chance of a failed lover. Price belts it out in a straight-out honky tonk romp in “This Town Gets Around,” a kind of 21st century rejoinder against the Nashville establishment, seemingly the vampires she references sucking the blood out of the town in “Since You Went Away.” Best lines: “They say it’s not who you know… it’s who you blow” and “I’ve been trying to tell the riff raff from the fake.” Singing this is a kind of vindication for someone who had been rejected by Music Row and self-financed the making of Midwest Farmer’s Daughter by pawning her wedding ring.
The instrumentation throughout the record is not gratuitous – you hear string instruments where they feel right and are supposed to be subtle string nuances that color the arrangements. The current underneath “Hands of Time” and “Four Years of Chances” is a nod to how R&B and soul melded with country. For “Four Years of Chances,” it’s as if Price looked into a crystal ball and saw Janis Joplin making Pearl and went back in time to borrow her Full Tilt Boogie Band to record this session. The arrangement and sound of “How The Mighty Have Fallen” even has a kind of nod to Ben E. King’s “Spanish Harlem” and its producer Phil Spector.
I could say that Margo Price had me when she sang that great line how she put a hurt on the bottle. But that would be disingenuous. I’m still immersed in all of the implications about the cruel hands of time. And there’s so many good things to say about Midwest Farmer’s Daughter that I almost didn’t know where to start when I sat down and started to write this review. The truth is I’ve lost track about all the enthralling moments, there are so many.
Sometimes the expectations and buzz are so enormous when they circle around a new artist that they become their own beast of burden. For Margo Price the good news is she’s been through so much and lays it out for all to see, hear and feel. In doing so she also over delivers, and Midwest Farmer’s Daughter may not only be a contender for best album of the year but a reference point we’ll look back on – and a classic we’ll be talking about for years to come.