I got nothing to prove, I got nothing to sell
I’m not buying what you’ve got, I ain’t ringing no bells
I got a mint in my pocket, got a bullet in my teeth
I’m going straight in the fire, I’m gonna talk to the high priest
Those are the opening lyrics to “Been To The Mountain” off Margo Price’s new album, Strays. It’s a feisty track, loaded with attitude. The whole album is terrific. It features a variety of styles, but it’s never not interesting. It’s not pure country—at all. There’s a touch of rock, a few flashes of psychedelic guitar, and edge in abundance.
“Light Me Up,” with Mike Campbell on guitar, is a multi-layered epic. “Radio,” featuring Sharon Van Etten, starts out with a pulsing electronic heartbeat. “Lydia” is six minutes of contemplative reflection. More than anything, Strays is personal.
What makes for a great songwriter? What goes into great songwriting?
Maybe We’ll Make It, Price’s memoir, gives us a glimpse. At least, it gives us the blow-by-blow of a long hard slog. It’s a portrait in determination. And who among us Coloradoans knew that in 2006, after raising $2,500 in a yard sale in Nashville to finance a cross-country sojourn, that Margo Price and her boyfriend Jeremy Ivey drove to Boulder and busked on the Pearl Street mall? They camped in a secluded spot near Grand Lake, two-and-a-half-hours away, and made treks to Boulder to play on the street.
“We opened our cases, got our guitars out, and began to play. We played originals, but usually covers got better tips because people recognized the melodies. We worked up ‘One More Cup of Coffee’ and ‘Oh Sister’ by Bob Dylan and peppered in some Simon and Garfunkel, Beatles, Joni Mitchell. We cased people as they walked by and played what we thought they might want to hear.”
Busking became their gig. “Once we had enough money for dinner and a bottle of cheap wine, we packed up, filled our bellies, and went about the business of getting drunk.”
Booze, shrooms, joints, whiskey are ever-present in Maybe We’ll Make It. Price celebrated hard, commiserated harder. She leaves no detail out here. (Of course, I don’t know that. But let’s hope she didn’t tone it down to protect us.) She’s plenty blunt about her consumption and, for the record, I might be able to keep up for the first quarter-hour. Today, Margo is now two years sober.
But the real thirst she’s got is for music and all that’s come before here. Price cobbled together various bands over the years, including one called Buffalo Clover that attempted a number of self-financed tours in rickety vehicles, depended on kindnesses from fellow musicians or the occasional handout of a garbage bag full of day-old bagels that the band nibbled on for a week. A guitar is always ready at hand for either Margo or Jeremy to start plucking, playing, and writing.
The most harrowing chapters in Maybe We’ll Make It cover the loss of one of her two twin sons shortly after childbirth. Son Ezra was diagnosed with a heart defect prior to being born. The post-birth surgery was unsuccessful. The weight of this loss is heavy and Price walks us through the “fog of grief” including recurring nightmares. These chapters are harrowing. The tragedy, as one would expect, lingers hard.
Despite being “naïve and disorganized,” Price leads Buffalo Clover to England for one tour and then another. But nothing changes. It’s always back to the same old Nashville scenes and clubs. Price writes about betraying her marriage and the band scraping along. “I was living a full-blown lie, and I never reached out to tell anyone I was drowning.”
But, songwriting. Always writing songs. That’s the one constant. Price puts together an outfit called “Margo and The Price Tags.” She plays a gig at The Basement in Nashville and it’s strong enough that legendary Kenny Vaughan (another Denver connection, for those who remember Leroy X) told Price that she had “it.” Yes, “it.” The elusive “it.” Vaughan told her she had to keeping singing “because it would eventually pay off.” How did Vaughan know? What did he sense?
It’s notable that Price doesn’t say “here’s the magic formula.” She’s got no step-by-step formula for climbing up to the next level, of getting a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist.
For every step up, Margo Price heads out on tours that run, apparently, on fumes. And, finally, a break. A two-record deal with Third Man Records and suddenly a spot on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, an NPR party at SXSW in Austin, and then a big-spotlight gig on Saturday Night Live. Still, anxiety. Still, dealing with self-image and self-doubt. And still dealing with the negative industry messages and naysayers who don’t believe. Maybe We’ll Make It offers plenty of proof that all any songwriter can do is just keep writing, playing, and writing some more. And get to a point where you can confidently say that you got nothing to prove. You’ve seen it all, done it all, and you know you’re good.