Nashville rising star Margo Price sings from the heart. She tells Tim Hughes where she came from and where she's heading...
WHEN it comes to country music, Margo Price is the real deal.
Blessed with a stunning voice, her music comes from the heart. Forget those polished, chart-friendly music industry clones; Margo has lived through the hardship and heartbreak that others only pretend to know. And it shows.
She sings about the loss of her family's farm, the death of her child, and struggles with drink and the law – but from a position of strength and resilience.
She doesn't want us to feel sorry for her, dammit, she just wants to tell us what's going on. Which is what her debut album Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is all about.
I caught up with Margo in Nashville, her home since leaving her dusty hometown of Aledo, Illinois, in the heart of the cornbelt between Chicago and Kansas City.
"I've had a lot of ups and downs here but always end up here," she says.
"I knew I wanted to leave the Midwest, and had cousins living in Nashville who encouraged me to come down and visit in my spring break because there was so much music.
"So I visited in March, moved in May and never looked back."
Margo's musical journey began back in Aledo, (pop. 3,612) – famed, if anything, for rhubarb and, tellingly, being the birthplace of hit country star, Suzy Bogguss. She listened to everything from Tom Petty to the Statler Brothers, and sang at family gatherings.
"I grew up knowing I can do it on my own," she says. "I took piano lessons and voice lessons, and always knew I wanted to be a performer, even though I was told at school that it's not a career and not to pursue it."
She dropped out of class, continuing to forge her own style, before moving to Nashville, where she tried to crack the scene through open mic nights, and self-releasing albums.
Tragedy struck as she lost her first child to a heart condition. She found it hard to bounce back.
She says: "I figured I'd get all the bad luck out of the way, and it's all up from here."
Isn't it essential to have had a few knocks to be a country singer?
"I have had intense conversations about this," she says. "People talk about country music as if it has died or had a natural extinction because people live easier lives now. People do still suffer, though back in the day there were more people suffering and building more character as they've been through more things.
"Not many people here live interesting lives. When you're 22 what do you have to share?"
She sighs, and pauses. "If none of this stuff hadn't happened I definitely would have been writing about something but it would've been different."
With 'Music City' initially disinterested, Margo went to Memphis, visiting the legendary Sun Studio – former haunt of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. Spotting a sign advertising 'Make Your Own Demo', she met the house engineer, Matt Ross-Span.
The pair hit it off, and her band worked through the night cutting tracks live to analogue tape.
To pay for the sessions for Midwest Farmer's Daughter, Margo and her bassist husband Jeremy Ivey sold their car, some instruments and pawned her wedding ring.
Her troubles weren't over though. She says she pitched it to “literally every label in Nashville.” Except the one where it ended up.
Her punchy album combines soul, blues, honky-tonk and rockabilly as well as country, and has been roundly hailed, country fans embracing her rich style and natural twang.
She says: "It started off as a bunch of songs not related in any way, but it has absolutely come together and I realised a lot of it was related to my life, so it became a concept album."
She admits to finding it hard to bare her soul.
"It's a difficult decision to open your heart as it makes you vulnerable –and people will question you on it for the rest of your life."
So is she happy now? "Probably not," she says. "I always have depressions and there's an unfathomable side. When I come off the road I don't know what to do with myself."
Does she feel she might lose her edge if she became too happy?
She laughs. "I don't think there's any chance of that happening."
She is content, she says, "spreading the gospel of country music".
"I hope that the record helps people get through hard times or depression. That’s ultimately what music did for me in my childhood and especially in my early adult years. It’s about being able to connect personally with a song, and hopefully, it makes you feel not so lonely.
"Some people say 'I don't like country music but I like what you do," she says. "That's a kinda' compliment.
"People see one thing for years and that's all they know it for –especially folks my age, but there are all sorts of country music; there's not one definition.
Now the toast of Nashville, does Margo miss Aledo? "Of course I miss it and don't go back as much as I want to, but I have built a home in Nashville and my life is here in Tennessee.
"I do miss the lonesome feeling the country gives you, though."
And are people back in the midwest proud of the newly famous daughter? "I think they are pretty excited," she says. "I hear they're even thinking of putting a sign up with my name on it!"
Margo Price plays The Bullingdon, Oxford, on Friday January 20. Tickets from ticketweb.co.uk