Margo Price and the Country Music Purist Problem

Margo Price Outlaw Country

These days, buzz comes hot and heavy for country singers who pretend that four decades of developments in popular music never happened. Witness the rapturous crowds of New Yorkers hooting and hollering at any one of Sturgill Simpson’s many shows in the city, and the sudden emergence of Chris Stapleton as country’s savior. These artists elicit a tiresome, predictable narrative: country is about to kick the bucket, choked to death by the demands of the modern world; luckily, a chosen few are here to rescue the genre–mostly by reeling back the hands of time.

Margo Price’s Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, out this week on Jack White’s Third Man Records, is the latest release in this category. Executives at Third Man already acknowledged the importance of her timing. “Now there are others who have knocked on the door,” Ben Swank, who helps run the label, recently told New York Times Magazine. “’If she had come along two years earlier, maybe it’–the next-big-thing buzz–‘wouldn’t have happened.’”

The songs on Midwest Farmer’s Daughter check all the right boxes. Price sings tales of trouble and heartbreak and drinking with clarity and grace; the rhythm section is prominent and sturdy; there’s plenty of pedal steel guitar. The title “Put A Hurting On The Bottle” marks a song for inclusion next to any number of Merle Haggard songs on a Spotify playlist. It’s a fine album, a faithful regurgitation of 40 year-old lessons.

The reaction to Midwest Farmer’s Daughter has traced a familiar path–like Simpson, Stapleton, and a few others, Price immediately won praise for her appearance of authenticity. The specter of the most famous group of anti-Nashville revolutionaries, the Outlaw country movement–which grew out of the genre’s brief dalliance with hippie counterculture in the 70s–was, inevitably, invoked: see terms like “badass,” “rebel,” and “real.” Waylon Jennings, one of the leaders of the original Outlaw movement, politely requested on recording that the term “outlaw” be retired back in 1978, but that doesn’t seem to stop writers from using it. Added bonus points if the singer records straight to tape using vintage gear or says something nasty about the mainstream. The message appears to be, let’s replace those backwards-baseball-hat-wearing dudes with dedicated vinyl collectors.

Nostalgia is common in writing about popular music, but the extent of it in the discourse around country is unique. The approximate rap equivalent of this practice would be laughable: ignoring or disparaging those who look to change, warp, or disregard the traditional sounds of the genre–take, for example, Kanye West, Drake, and Future–and focusing solely on MCs obsessed with Nas’ Illmatic. In R&B, it would mean ignoring FKA Twigs and Beyoncé’s “Formation” and lavishing all the attention on Leon Bridges. As Gerry House, a longtime country songwriter and radio personality, told me for a Billboard piece about women in country last year, “There’s no other format where you record something that sounds 50 years old.” Then he added one damning caveat: “Maybe ‘All About That Bass.’”

Of course, picking apart the two sides of country music and lobbying solely for the old-fashioned one completely misses the point–the wings are interdependent. Without the more experimental sound of modern country, the traditionalist camp would have nothing to coalesce around and push back against. It’s no coincidence that singers like Kacey Musgraves, Sturgill Simpson, and Chris Stapleton (as a soloist) emerged in the last two or three years, just as country experienced its latest burst of crossover pop success behind sonically adventurous singles from Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, and Sam Hunt. (Strangely enough, Hunt seems to escape the critiques lobbed at his peers on the airwaves, even though he’s probably done more to ruin country’s “real music” wing than any other singer in the genre.)

This interdependence existed in the halcyon past as well: the original Outlaws formed in opposition to the prevailing Countrypolitan sound in Nashville, a schmaltzy, string-heavy style perfected by producer Billy Sherrill with acts like George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Before he found something to resist, Willie Nelson was a good songwriter with no direction: 1969’s My Own Peculiar Way is remarkable mainly for its lack of peculiarity; there are Christmas records with more guts. And Waylon Jennings took a long time to become a honky tonk hero. In the long run, of course, country found room for both the syrupy mainstream singers and the rugged outsiders. Both are now part of the canon: the Outlaws got the cool name and rebel mystique; George Jones, treacly, over-produced ballads and all, is one of the greatest singers vocalists in popular music, regardless of genre.

In addition, the distance between the two sides of contemporary country–in one corner, the outcasts returning a genre to its storied roots, in the other, Nashville insiders driving the genre into the ditch in search of profits–turns out to be wildly exaggerated. Stapleton is a perfect example of this. Outlaw? This guy is the insider’s insider, with credits on albums by mainstream country singers of all stripes: Gary Allan, Julie Roberts, Kenny Chesney, Lee Ann Womack, Darius Rucker, Kellie Pickler, Blake Shelton. Their versions of his tunes are often bluesy or rootsy or “real.” Some of them were also on records that sold a lot of copies; some were even hits.

If classic is what you want, you can find it on country radio from non-Stapletons too. Try Maren Morris’ “My Church,” Eric Church’s “Mr. Misunderstood,” Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush,” A Thousand Horses’ “Smoke,” Mickey Guyton’s “Better Than You Left Me,” Tim McGraw’s “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s.” Listen to albums by Alan Jackson, Dwight Yoakam, Reba McEntire, or George Strait; spend time with Garth Brooks’ “Tacoma,” a 2014 song as stirring as any of Stapleton’s blue-eyed soul. Country’s mainstream contains many faithful disciples of tradition; honky tonk, bottle-hurting ballads, the blues, and western swing are all there, hiding in plain sight.

The false dichotomy is not exactly the fault of the Simpsons, the Stapletons, or the Prices, though they obviously benefit from these marketing campaigns. Artists need to sell records, and the concept of “the outsider” will be an effective consumption-promoting tool in American culture until the sun explodes. The irony is that in country music, the outsiders are the ones enforcing conformity to past standards, not breaking free from them.

Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is out 3/25 via Third Man Records. Get it here or stream below.