Review: Margo Price, 'All American Made'
Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.
When Margo Price released her knockout debut album, Midwest Farmer's Daughter, last year after a decade of personal hardship and industry rejection, country purists praised her outsider spirit and vintage tastes. Hailed a revivalist and a renegade, she earned instant comparisons to outlaw legends like Tammy Wynette, Emmylou Harris, and most notably, Loretta Lynn. As far as Cinderella stories go, it was a dream come true ... except that Price never set out to be a tribute act. She wants a legacy of her own. So the day after the 2016 election, she began working on a follow-up album that would pick up where Farmer's Daughter left off: the here and now.
Titled All American Made, it aims to separate her from Nashville's other traditionalists by sampling classic American sounds like R&B, gospel and soul, and stirring them in with her tender-hearted twang. "I respect the purists, but I like to blend," she told an Illinois radio station before a gig in September. "I didn't want to leave out a flavor just because it wasn't by-the-books."
Price guides us into new territory by showing rather than telling. Gospel quartet The McCrary Sisters adds muscle to the funky and boisterous "Do Right By Me," and unexpected string arrangements kick up the drama in "A Little Pain" (the writer, Lester Snell, was on the small team that soundtracked Shaft). Such embellishments, however subtle, would have felt interruptive on her last album, but here, they work. Price also stretches herself as a songwriter. While Farmer's Daughter was daringly introspective (it was, in essence, her tell-all memoir), All American Made is a set of piercing observations about the darker sides of society. "You can only write so many songs about your personal struggle," she told NPR. "It's more about what's going on outside than what's going on inside."
In "Learning to Lose," she and Willie Nelson consider the struggles of the working class: "Everywhere I turn the cards stack against me," they duet, "and I wonder, is it bad luck or just design?" Elsewhere, she coos matter-of-factly in a skewering number about income inequality and, more broadly, women's rights. "Pay gap, pay gap, why don't you do the math?" With stark stoicism and hardy truth-telling reminiscent of Bob Dylan and Neil Young, Price dares to turn the lens back on the listener and asks if we like what we see.
All American Made isn't always so heavy; there are rollicking, electric numbers about big-headed jackasses ("Cocaine Cowboys") and free-spirited troublemakers ("Wild Women") that are wicked, windows-down fun. But Price's gift for earnest songwriting makes her more provocative political numbers feel grave and urgent. In the album's penetrating title track, she mulls over the threat of nuclear war while past presidential speeches crackle in the distance. It's a searing reminder that we've been here before.