HARDER THEY COME
by Josh Hurst
Or: Margo Price makes something last.
“In this town, everybody’s trying to get a piece of everybody else,” sings Margo Price at the start of her scrappy debut album, which pops and jostles with sucker punches and deft kicks to the shins, an album of classic country confessions that are injected with so much piss and snark that the whole album feels like a knife fight in a telephone booth. Half the time Price belts her song from the top of the scrap heat, queen of the hill surveying the wreckage with her lips in a smirk and a fuck-off on her tongue: “You wouldn’t know class if it bit you in the ass/ and you’re standing much too tall,” she says in dismissing one ex-lover, as pithy as a hip-hop diss track and as snarling as an Elvis Costello song, back when he was cruel. Just as often, though, she’s reeling, holding a bag of peas over a black eye and seeking to fight off despair with self-destruction: “Since you put me down/ I’ve been drinking just to drown,” one character says, groping for comfort in oblivion. But none of the characters on this album are sitting where they thought they’d be sitting this time last year. Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is an album of collapses and comeuppances, lovers pulling the rug out from under one another and clambering to be the last man or woman standing. The world of this record is governed by karma and bleak, cosmic justice—but time is the ultimate arbiter, and nobody here can be sure their own fall from grace isn’t lying in wait just around the corner.
But what reads on paper like a nasty streak is framed as empowerment and redemption throughout the record; and what could sound like victimhood is actually trembling vulnerability at the hands of time’s cruel tricks. Price sounds like a survivor even when she’s singing songs about drinkin’, cheatin’, and jail, which she is throughout the bulk of this record; part of that’s her own steely charisma and part of it’s how deftly she leverages autobiography here. The album’s real-life backstory is a prop in her smoke-and-mirrors act, authenticity a tool to be wielded rather than an idol to be prized: Price herself poured everything into making this album, pawning her own wedding band to pay for the Sun Studios sessions that generated its crisp, lively sound, and she fought for years to get an audience with record executives before Third Man Records finally swooped in to release the thing, unchanged from Price’s original vision. That’s a great story and it frames everything here in the glow of triumph through hard knocks; it underscores that these are songs of experience, their jadedness earned and their guarded humanism bent and battered. But of course, Price wrote and recorded these songs before any of that happened, so the accuracy of these songs is a convenient trick of time that never gets in the way of the stories themselves, of how Price enlivens and emboldens classic country tropes. She grounds conventions in personal detail and restores myth to the land of flesh and blood; that these songs are so carefully rendered from the stuff of country lore doesn’t stop them from kicking shit, flinging dirt, and going down in the blaze of a boozy barroom brawl.
Price’s gift as a record-maker and songwriter is how she bends convention to her will, making an album that doesn’t break the rules but does play the game better than almost any of her peers. These songs of experience are offered up with crackling energy and righteous glee: The sound of the record is immediate, boasting classic honky-tonk instrumentation that neither chases modernity nor fetishizes analog throwbacks. Price and her band spike the upbeat songs with jagged electric guitar solos, adorn the ballads with high-and-lonesome steel guitar, and display casual virtuosity throughout: “Tennessee Song” opens with dissonant drums and muffled singing—call it country grunge—while “Four Years of Chances” employs electric piano in service of straight-ahead R&B. Those are wrinkles that give character and context to the songs that feel more like traditional country, albeit filtered through Price’s feisty singing and songwriting, which moves from frailty to one-upmanship in a dizzying, punch-out blur.
Every triumph on this album comes at the expense of another character’s downfall, which means that about half of these narrators are just barely treading water. “Since You Put Me Down” could be a companion song to Ashley Monroe’s “If the Devil Don’t Want Me,” a song about a despair so deep it becomes a kind of self-destruction. It sounds like a classic country confession, but there’s something feisty in how Price assumes agency in her own downfall: “Since you put me down/ I’ve been drinking just to drown/ I’ve been lying through the cracks in my teeth/ I’m been waltzing with my sin/ He’s an ugly evil twin/ He’s a double-crossing, back-stabbing thief.” It’s a song set in the wake of betrayal, but its focus is on the narrator’s effort to rebuild her life by tearing it apart. She vows to haunt her ex-lover without ever saying his name, shifts the focus from his wrongdoing to her own willful vice, and pledges in the end to “land back on the ground.” The song opens with backporch strumming before building into a perfect truck-stop jukebox set piece, right down to the saloon piano, mournful pedal steel, and consolatory fiddle. Price caps her choruses with a pithy ode to self-medication: “I’ve been trying to turn this broken heart to stone.”
“Hurtin’ on the Bottle” is another drinkin’ song, this one a more straight-ahead rabble-rouser. The narrator here’s “been drinking whiskey like it’s water,” and gropes for some kind of dignity in degeneration: “Baby I know we’ve been getting older/ But you’re never too old to learn to crawl.” Price’s narrator finds herself on the opposite side of comeuppance on “About to Find Out,” a song about a slick operator—perhaps a lover, perhaps a record label executive—collapsing into ruin. Price stands by with a smirk on her face and a full quiver of put-downs: “Well I’ve had about enough of your two-cent words/ And the way you’re running your mouth/ No you haven’t got a clue, or another thing to do/ Except to take another picture of yourself.” The final verse finds her reaching for an even sharper scalpel, turning the song from a lover’s jilt to an other-side-of-the-tracks thrash in the vein of “Like a Rolling Stone”: “Some folks today have got nothing to say/ Except to talk about their wealth/ But the poor’s still poor and the war’s still poor/ And everybody wants more for themselves.” She’s written a record that sparkles with brutal humor and plays like an encyclopedia of great country one-liners, and the song shimmies and sashays to pounding piano and drums, graceful steel guitar lines adding salt to the wound.
One character here learns a little too late that “the harder they come, they fall,” though in truth it’s a fitting lesson for any of these lovers, losers, and leavers; a few songs later there’s a song called “How the Mighty Have Fallen,” wherein a woman takes her man back not with arms outstretched to the prodigal, but with a sneer in her voice and gloating rights to be claimed. But in a record full of characters who are either taking flight or being shot down, the most satisfying comeuppance may be the one in “Four Years of Chances,” which is pure R&B with its electric piano, funky electric bass line, and barbed wire guitar fills. (If you don’t think electric piano belongs in a country song, get hip to Hag on his great Serving 190 Proof record, and the song “Footlights” in particular.) It’s an addictive, celebratory send-off that seems to build a kind of swirling stormcloud of power and self-possession the longer it plays; the lyric, an anthem of hard-won empowerment that uses feminist country anthems like “Fist City” as its touchstone, finds a woman sending her man packing after giving him four long years of her life. While he was out carousing she was back at home doing the chores, without so much as a wedding band to show for it; the song seems like it’s generated spontaneously from her evaporated patience and sudden self-realization: “I gave you four years of chances/ To try and fill a happy home/ But now one more may as well we/ A million and one.”
For all the smart left hooks and thrust elbows on this record, there’s a real hurt underneath it all: Price is no stranger to loss (she’s spoken candidly about falling into deep self-medication following the death of one of her twin sons), and all the rising and falling of this record—all the snark in the lyrics and triumphalism of Price’s recent underdog success—are framed by ephemerality. The song’s magnificent opener is called “Hands of Time,” a graceful countrypolitan epic with Technicolor strings, ragged acoustic guitar fills, and a head full of pop grandeur. “All I want to do/ Is making something last/ But I can’t see the future/ And I can’t change the past,” she sings, a weathered, hard-knock anthem; a survivor’s song that mirrors Price’s own story in its tale of a gal who leaves home flat-broke, paying dues and encountering one misfortune after another in her quest to create something transcendent—and preferably something that’ll sell. That the real-life Margo Price has made something meaningful and successful—she has created a record that translates timeless tropes into a personal statement—gives the song a faint air of victory, but it’s bittersweet: Just as the characters on Midwest Farmer’s Daughter all find the ground changing right under their feet, the “Hands of Time” narrator knows that she’s building sandcastles amidst crashing waves. Things fall apart and time changes everything; in this world even the queen of the hill will fall from the top of the heap eventually. But she’s busted her ass to get here; she’s making the most of it; she can’t turn back the tide of time—but she’s building on the shoreline anyway, and the record she’s made may outlive us all.
- Stream it on Apple Music.
- Stream it on Spotify.
- Buy it on Amazon.
- Read Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s All Music review.
- Ready Jewly Hight’s NPR review.
- Read Steve Horowitz’ Popmatters review.
- Learn more of Price’s backstory in this Rolling Stone Country feature.