All American Made
Third Man Records
Just as Janet Frame released To The Is-Land as a volume of her autobiography and then Owls Do Cry as fiction – the two linked, and it could even be argued that there’s more truth in her fiction, more creativity in her alleged non-fiction, the same sort of argument plays out across Margo Price’s first two albums. Midwest Farmer’s Daughter was her story, All American Made is the history, the consequences of her story and the history combined, it’s a deliberate move towards fiction in her songwriting, but the stoicism and the subject-matter, a bent, broken, battered America, makes for sober news, a new type of autobiography, or biography – just as Midwest Farmer’s Daughter was the truth of the exciting parts of her own backstory – but written up with a sparkle in its eye, a gleam, a nod, and a wink.
So, once again the writing is key. The voice has found its form – particularly across the more recently-released stop-gap EP, Weakness. She has elements of Dolly and Tammy and Loretta all sewn up, but what’s now very clearly emerging is the voice of Margo – a composite of those and so many things, and her own life experience. There’s a scratchiness that never feels too raw, a playfulness that never undermines the integrity of the material, an earnestness that yearns when she sings.
Weakness and A Little Pain are early highlights here, but the weight of the record kicks in when Price duets with Willie Nelson. He is somehow sounding great with each record and every passing year. At 84 he is very much living legend and the weariness sits deep here for Price to waft over. From there it’s to Pay Gap – a rewrite of Loretta Lynn’s proud feminism-in-song, Nowhere Fast reminds of Neko Case’s earliest country leanings.
Then we hear about the Cocaine Cowboys, Randy Newman’s Good Ole Boys let loose across the Midwest. No cattle for these cowboys from Seattle, just a different line to ride. They’re hopped up and haughty and there’s a country-soul framing to their tale from Price and her excellent band. Why, you could almost hear this as something Donald Fagen would write.
Wild Women feels like mid-70s Linda Ronstadt, Heart of America is more Emmylou, Do Right Me returns to the country-soul feel, a little Dan Penn-like groove. In these songs are the characters from Steinbeck novellas, from road-movies, from Lucinda Williams records…
There’s a deft balancing of first and third person in Price’s narration and the country-rock, swamp, funk, soul sound of her band continues to churn, buttering up the wheels, adding grease.
Where Midwest Farmer was all about confession, about owning up to past sins, All American Made is about sitting on the side of the road and being a stoic witness to the madness, the brokenness – it’s perfectly heart-breaking in the closing, title track that Price calls out the president – wondering if he gets much sleep at night while folks are on welfare. She goes on to dream about Springsteen-like highways, but before all of that she puts the call out to Tom Petty, asking him directly what he makes of it, and what will happen next. It’s fitting, albeit grim, that he’ll never be able to answer that. It adds a potency and power she couldn’t have ever planned, but it’s further thought-provoking of course. Where are our heroes these days? Will they be able to guide and help us? And what do we do when they’re no longer around?