Around 2:00 at Farm Aid, the sounds of Margo Price’s “Tennessee” began filtering out of the cavernous Jiffy Lube Live amphitheater. The sounds were of an impending jam about to unfold with the melting pot of the Price Tags’ keys, drums and bluesy howls of Willie Nelson’s harmonica player Mickey Raphael underscoring the foreboding mood of the song. It sounded as epic as you could get for an early afternoon.
Of any of the day’s performers, Price’s life story most closely paralleled the plight of the family farmer as well as Farm Aid itself. Price was just two when the first Farm Aid occurred. As she told the audience before her second song “Hands of Time,” it was the same year her family lost their farm. “I want to buy back the farm,” Price lamented in her signature song. “I want to turn back the cruel hands of time.”
Later in the set she elaborated further in detail in the song “Heart of America.” It was the first time she played it live and she dedicated it to her grandparents, Paul and Mary Price. The song takes you inside her family’s daily life but soon bills begin to pile up and men in suits come “to take every field we owned.” The song’s chorus was at the heart of the emotional telling:
“No one moves away with no money
They just do what they can
To live on the heart of America
Gettin’ by on their own two hands
You can pray to anyone’s Jesus
And be a hard-working man
At the end of the day
If the rain it don’t rain
We just do the best we can”
By the time she got to the last verse about Willie Nelson and Neil Young stepping in, you were so caught up in the narrative, the appearance of Farm Aid’s co-founders seemed as real as it was metaphorical.
Price’s night ended singing the gospel of “I Saw The Light” and “Amazing Grace” alongside all of the day’s performers. By the time she left Virginia and headed back to Tennessee, it was the week of AmericanaFest and the Americana Music Awards where she was nominated for Best Emerging Artist. As Price said at Farm Aid, she’s from Illinois, but home is Nashville where she’s lived for thirteen years.
The afternoon on the day of the awards, she sat onstage at the Country Music Hall of Fame for a special program called Songs We Love, Americana Edition: Margo Price And Friends. It was hosted by Ann Powers of National Public Radio. NPR helped introduce Price to the world when they previewed Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. She was also featured in NPR’s Front Row earlier this spring during SXSW.
The inveterate journalist and host of the Americana Music Awards’ on-air pre-party, cajoled the singer when she welcomed her and began introducing friends and guests. “Margo Price, this is your life,” she said to the singer.
The afternoon featured guest musicians included Jeremy Ivey, Erin Rae, Lily Hiatt, Darrin Bradbury, Kenny Vaughan, and Matt Ross-Spang. It was a real treat in showing the musicality of Price who cut her teeth in the clubs of Nashville, a stone’s throw from the storied Hall but a world away–at least until this year.
When Lilly Hiatt joined her onstage, the two friends reminisced about their early days as struggling artists. One included a regular gig at a biker club called Windows on the Cumberland. The place was so dodgy the singers could hear CB radios coming through the monitors. But they had a believer in a man named “Boots” who ran the club.
On this afternoon the two sang a duet of Lucinda Williams’ “I Lost It.” Price’s steel guitarist Luke Schneider gave the song a whirl, with Micah Hulscher on accordion and husband Jeremy Ivey on acoustic guitar as Price and Hiatt traded verses and gorgeous harmonies.
Price’s country pedigree was in evidence when Powers brought on her uncle, the great songwriter Bobby Fischer, who inspired Price to make the move to Nashville and pursue a music career. Fischer has written songs for Conway Twitty, George Jones, Eddy Arnold, Faron Young and Charley Pride. One of his co-writes for Reba McEntire sold eight million copies.
Back in the early Seventies, Fischer set out from his native Iowa for Music City. He was in his mid-thirties, married with children and held a secure job at a farm implement company. He left to pursue his dream and when he got established initially as a record promotion man, his wife and children followed.
His niece observed how he was always thinking and listening and prone to writing down a good phrase when he heard it. Fischer gave her some advice, telling her to get rid of the TV and computer and just write, advice that has served her well.
Guitarist Kenny Vaughan joined Price onstage to play on “Hurtin’ On The Bottle,” a song Price co-wrote while sitting around a fire with her husband Jeremy Ivey, Caitlin Rose and Mark Fredson.
Vaughan remembered walking into the 5 Spot one night, each song getting more and more intense as Price’s band played. Vaughan came up to compliment Price, who admits she was having a low week at the time. “It kept me going for another five weeks,” Price remembered. Her path to “overnight success” in 2016 was filled with years of trials and tribulations.
Price found her sound at the 5 Spot. At one point she had a big band she likened to a “Joe Cocker kind of thing.” She jumped in for tribute shows whenever she could and she and Hiatt talked about playing at the club hundreds of times.
“You have to play at the 5 Spot a ridiculous amount of times if you want to get anywhere in Nashville,” Hiatt laughed. It reminded me of another era, when Blondie drummer Clem Burke once told me he must have seen the Ramones at least two hundred and fifty times at CBGB in the punk heyday in New York.
Erin Rae, who wrote and sang her song “Clean Slate,” brought back Lilly Hiatt to the stage and the three sang as a trio. Hiatt remembered that at one point she enlisted Price on drums and Ivey on bass to be her rhythm section.
Aaron Lee Tasjan and Darrin Bradbury played back to back songs about the hard life of musicians. For the latter, Price sat in and played drums.
Powers suggested the 5 Spot provide them all with drinks that night. But Price had something to do. This night she had to play “Tennessee” one more time at the Americana Music Awards. The singer went home named Best Emerging Artist.
The next night she and Ivey played a set with Shovels and Rope. It was fitting as the first time she played with her band at the 5 Spot it was opening for them.
AmericanaFest ended over the weekend but Price found herself onstage on a Monday night at a benefit singing onstage with Emmylou Harris. The show was a live stream on AOL to preview a month-long tour to address the refugee crisis as Lampedusa: Concerts for Refugees. It will feature Harris, Steve Earle and Buddy Miller.
Price belted out “Two More Bottles of Wine” with Harris and came back later to sing a few songs of her own. Stepping up to the mic, she noted how the next song was inspired by listening to Earle and Harris.
“It’s a factual account of my life, unfortunately,” she said as she went into her sweeping autobiographical “Hands of Time.” Margo Price, who wasn’t even considered for the Country Music Association Awards this year, then sang a song that already seems like a classic.
It had been a very good week and a half in a very good year–one that’s far from over.