Gone Country: Margo Price isn’t country music’s savior, and that’s OK

Gone Country aims to thoughtfully explore the country music genre and where it’s headed, with a focus on national trends and buzzworthy news of the week. For info about album releases and concerts, check out this week’s Country Music Roundup.

Fresh off a stellar “Saturday Night Live” performance in an otherwise lackluster episode last week (unless you count host Russell Crowe’s apparent glee at being able to say “clitoris” and “labia majora” on live TV), Margo Price’s major-label debut “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter” arrived on the Billboard country charts at No. 10 in March, selling 4,000 copies in its first week. That’s a modest debut, but for an independent female solo artist who had no previous chart history, it was a first-of-its-kind moment.

Margo Price performs at NPR Music's SXSW Showcase at Stubb's on Wednesday, March 16, 2016 in Austin, Texas. Erika Rich for American-Statesman
Margo Price performs at NPR Music’s SXSW Showcase at Stubb’s on March 16, 2016 in Austin, Texas.
Erika Rich for American-Statesman

Price’s “SNL” performance was nothing to laugh at, either. She was only the second country artist to perform at Studio 8H this season (Chris Stapleton was the first) and the fourth in two years. To find another country artist on the show, you have to go back to Lady Antebellum in 2011.

While “SNL” may not be the cultural juggernaut it once was, Price’s performance combined with her strong album debut sends a message that the country at large is giving more attention to “traditional” country music. In addition to her “SNL” performance, Price has also performed on the Opry stage, frequented several other late-night shows and wowed audiences at South by Southwest.

Many critics and bloggers are touting Price’s sudden skyrocket on the charts as another sign of the “traditional” country music resurgence, in the vein of Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and Kacey Musgraves.

And that’s both good and bad.

It’s good because Price’s publicity will hopefully shine new light on female country artists in a year that’s quickly shaping up to be a big one for them. Maren Morris, Kelsea Ballerini, Cam, Brandy Clark and even Loretta Lynn are all enjoying elevated profiles thanks to new albums or tours this year. And let’s not forget the Dixie Chicks’ reunion tour, one of the biggest concert events of the year, period.

It’s also good because Price’s album really is fun to listen to. It boasts strong songwriting and an intimate understanding of the genre, skills learned in the decade or so she had already spent in Nashville honing her craft. If Price sounds like a self-assured veteran on songs like “Hands of Time” or “This Town Gets Around,” it’s because she is. All those years fronting Buffalo Clover in East Nashville have paid off. By all accounts, “Midwestern Farmer’s Daughter” may be the best example of “traditional” country music we’ll get this year.

That also makes me uneasy, though. The way the media have portrayed Price’s mainstream coming-into-her-own seems, to me at least, to heighten the divide between “purists” and mainstream radio. This is nothing against her or her music; she deserves every accolade she receives. And she can’t control how music publications categorize her. But every time a Margo Price or a Chris Stapleton or a Sturgill Simpson comes around, there’s always a tendency to want to label them as Country Music’s Savior.

There’s an ever-shrinking middle ground between the hard-line, traditional country acolytes and the hick-hop bro-country apostates. And if country music needs a savior, it’s got to come from the middle ground.

Ironically, the last person who was crowned as Country Music’s Savior turned right around and rejected that crown of thorns and released a Nirvana cover as a single. Sturgill Simpson made his point clear when he recorded “In Bloom,” Kurt Cobain’s response to fans who showed up at Nirvana shows for the scene and not the music. Trying to categorize Simpson, or Price, or Stapleton, into any box does nothing but encourage factionalism within the genre.

Middle-ground acts, like Dierks Bentley, Tim McGraw, Miranda Lambert and the Zac Brown Band, who have all tried updating their sound or reviving old traditions, have always seemed to employ the “one for me, one for them” strategy, to mixed results. Radio doesn’t know what to do with the more introspective cuts, like Bentley’s “Riser” or Zac Brown Band’s “Dress Blues” cover, and the purists don’t know how to respond to party jams like Bentley’s “Somewhere on a Beach.”

Country music, in its purest form, is about the struggle of the everyman and the life of the Regular Joe. And life will be full of introspective moments as well as lighter, rowdier times.

Hopefully someone will be able to encompass all of that without losing their artistic integrity. Until then, the battle lines between traditionalists and purists will still be clearly drawn.

Other News:
-A week after his death, there’s already talks of a movie being made about the life of Merle Haggard. Haggard died April 6 of pneumonia. According to “Deadline,” GMH Productions has optioned the completed script “Done It All,” written by “Cinderella Man” writer Cliff Hollingsworth. Here’s hoping it does better than the Hank Williams biopic. Speaking of which…

-Hank Williams biopic “I Saw the Light” premiered earlier this month to terrible results. It grossed $683,990 in its wide-release opening weekend and earned only $1,340,822 in domestic grosses as of April 10, according to Box Office Mojo. Many critics, including our own Charles Ealy, praised Tom Hiddleston’s performance as Williams despite the film’s imperfect narrative.

-Randy Houser made a lot of country fans angry when he compared Luke Bryan to Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson in a recent interview with radio.com:

“When you think about Willie [Nelson] and Waylon [Jennings] and Johnny Cash and those guys, who are my heroes. They’re also Luke [Bryan’s] heroes. What Luke’s doing is almost what they’ve done,” Houser said. “It doesn’t sound like what they did, but what they did musically was take everything they heard growing up and put it into this one thing and it became what they do.”

-Netflix’s latest original program offering also features a vast country music catalog. I haven’t seen an episode yet, but “The Ranch,” starring Ashton Kutcher, features songs from Lukas Nelson, Shooter Jennings, Billy Currington, Corb Lund, Turnpike Troubadours, American Aquarium and many more.

-The print division of “NASH Country Weekly” has officially been closed as of Thursday and rebranded as Nash Country Daily, a digital-only outlet, according to Saving Country Music. The final print publication will be April 22.

Questions, comments, suggestions? Comment or email me at jharris@statesman.com.

 

 

Author: Jake Harris

Social Content Producer for the Austin American-Statesman.

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