For the most part, I tune out political and/or social commentary made by celebrities. Mostly, I doubt everything from their intentions to their ability to think outside of their narcissistic echo chamber. Music, however, differs in its ability to provide a nuanced take on the successes and challenges of society. Music is more like a novel, in that way, able to conjure up ghosts within our own consciousness and lead us on a journey of self-discovery.
You can argue whether or not the Obama administration was good for our country. I’ll leave you to your own devices there. I can assure you, however, that music and other creative ventures like books are, unfortunately, far more interesting in times of unrest. For some reason or another, it just so happens that female country artists seem to be better than everyone else when it comes to relaying this.
During the second Bush administration, country mega stars, The Dixie Chicks, started a firestorm with their comments about George W. That, in turn, inspired their fantastic Grammy winning album Taking the Long Way, as well as the documentary Shut Up and Sing.
Now, just over a decade later, Margo Price is here to stir things up again in Nashville. Price’s first album, released a year and a half ago, was an autobiographical journey (including the title Midwest Farmer’s Daughter) through her childhood up to all the tribulations that come with being a struggling female in Nashville. It succeeded in large part because she sounded authentic as hell, maneuvering in the rare vocal space and themes of Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton.
On her second album (released October 20th, once again on Jack White’s Third Man label), Price finds herself less in autobiographical territory and more in a bewildered headspace. The album title is All American Made, which seems less like a proud statement and more of a question about what that really means, and whether or not that’s a good thing.
Before digging into some of the tracks, let me make it clear that you can listen to this album without being bashed over the head with politics. Price’s voice is worth the price of admission, regardless of who you vote for. The music is rollicking in parts, contemplative in others, but really well written and produced throughout. There’s a number of downright rocking tunes that are just straight-up fun to listen to and sing along with (“Weakness,” “A Little Pain,” and “Don’t Say It” come to mind). That said, there’s more here to be uncovered if you’re interested.
The song titles alone give a hint of where Price is headed with All American Made. Price goes unapologetically after sexism with tracks like “Wild Women” and “Pay Gap.”
In “Pay Gap,” Price sweetly sings her lament over a Latin-inspired acoustic guitar, but her message is clear as day:
If that wasn’t clear enough for you, Price is happy to oblige with more specific lyrics that really shouldn’t be controversial, but will probably cause her to continue to exist on the outskirts of the country “cool kids” club:
No matter your religion, no matter your race
No matter your orientation
No matter your creed and no matter your taste
No matter your denomination
We are all the same in the eyes of God
But in the eyes of rich white men
No more than a maid to be owned like a dog
A second-class citizen
Faith Hill-esque pop-country, she isn’t.
On “Wild Women,” Price ponders how different things are for males and females in the music industry:
Riding down the highway
Masquerading every night
It’s hard to be a mother, a singer, and a wife
But all the men they run around and no one bats an eye
In these moments, the listener feels blessed to hear a sentiment relayed so expertly and succinctly. You can almost hear Price kicking at that glass ceiling.
Elsewhere, there’s a deep attempt to understand the country that most of us reading this call home. “Heart of America” is perhaps the most autobiographical track on the album, with Price pondering her upbringing during the 1980s farm crisis: “Some time back in eighty-six / When big banks took the throne / They asked about every local farmer try to dry his own corn / But the men in the suits had a bigger plan.” In a perverse look at what the American Dream really means, Price shows that being the little man in middle America is more likely to result in heartbreak than success, signing, “They took every field my family owned.”
In the almost six minute album closing title track, Price finds herself singing over a montage of clips from Martin Luther King, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Richard Nixon. One of the more downbeat songs on the record, it’s also one of the best and most beautifully sung. The lyrics sting for anyone with a conscience, as Price details a land that many of us know all too well:
Well all the Midwest farms are turning into plastic homes
And my uncle started drinking when the bank denied the loan
But now it’s liver failure and there’s mad cows being cloned
And it’s all American made
Her lyrics in this song detail a government working against its greatest strength: Its people.
1987 and I didn’t know it then
Reagan was selling weapons to the leaders of Iran
And it won’t be the first time and, baby, it won’t be the end
They were all American made
This is the type of political statement that most artists, let alone a country artist whose bread is best buttered in red states, would shy away from. Price’s authenticity, though, is her weapon against fear. She’s lived these songs. She’s knows, from both ends of the spectrum, what it means to be All American Made. In a haunting moment, she ends the record by invoking Tom Petty and the spirits of what it means to be an “American Girl”:
But I was just a child unaware of the effects
Raised on sports and Jesus and all the usual suspects
So tell me, Mr. Petty, what do you think will happen next
That’s all American made
Given his recent passing, this verse is enough to send chills up your spine.
This wonderful album by Margo Price is one of the best albums, start to finish, that I’ve heard from any artist in some time. It’s thoughtful, rocking, prescient, and thoughtful in a way that few albums are today. Listening to this, you’re simultaneously saddened and emboldened at what our country is and what it can be. It’s a rare and unique experience. Join along, and help make Margo Price the rebel star that she deserves to be.