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How Margo Price Shook Up Her Sound and Tapped Into a New Fire

Classic rock and real-life drama helped fuel the country singer’s great new album, ‘That’s How Rumors Get Started’

Margo Price at home in Nashville.

Alysse Gafkjen for Rolling Stone

Not too long ago, Margo Price was offered the chance to collaborate with a more famous artist. Some people around her thought it was a good idea, but Price wasn’t sure. “I love collaborating with people, but I’m not going to do it just because somebody’s famous,” she says. “I really have to admire their art.”

For Price, it was one of many key decisions she faced after the success of her first two albums, 2015’s Midwest Farmer’s Daughter and 2017’s All American Made. On those LPs, she combined the sounds of classic country with harrowing stories from her life, which included growing up in poverty and the loss of her infant son, as well as songs about pressing issues like the pay gap. That led her to what she calls “a fork in the road” that coincided with the end of her contract with Jack White’s Third Man Records. “There were a lot of people telling me that I needed to make these moves to get to the next level or whatever,” she says. “And I wasn’t willing to do that. It burned some bridges, for sure.”

Price, who ended up signing with another indie label, Loma Vista, wrote a song, “That’s How Rumors Get Started,” about that uncertainty in her career. A bittersweet, Fleetwood Mac-like ballad, it became the title track of her new album, which has a new sound, drawing on Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen. “There’s no one occupying that space right now, and so many people that are trying to do the return-to-the-roots thing, going for the authenticity card,” she says. “It’s hard to write as great as [Petty and Springsteen] did.”

Relationship turmoil is a big theme. On the fiery “Letting Me Down,” Price howls over a twin-guitar riff about a lover she can’t seem to let go of. On “Stone Me,” she sings about standing her ground in an argument (“Call me a bitch, then call me baby/You don’t own me”). She says it’s partly about her husband and collaborator, Jeremy Ivey: “We’d been in a fight. I was on the road, I wrote the words and texted them to him. Without asking, he wrote a melody and he sent it back, and I was like, ‘Ah, he just got a co-write on a song I was trying to write about him.’” (Price also says she took inspiration from “a hack blogger that trash-talked me on a lot of forums.”)

To get the classic sound she was going for, Price recorded in L.A. instead of Nashville, putting together a band that included Benmont Tench of the Heartbreakers and bassist Pino Palladino. Price was nervous at first about working with those studio aces. “But once they all started playing,” she says, “it was one of the best ideas ever.”

To further shake things up, Price recruited her friend Sturgill Simpson to produce. She’s known Simpson for a decade, ever since he and her husband worked together at a Nashville grocery store (they both got fired) and Simpson was playing in a band called Sunday Valley. Simpson — who left country music behind last year to make a rock LP and an anime film to accompany it — was open to taking risks. “I valued his opinion because he won’t sugarcoat things,” she says. “He’s going to tell you exactly what he thinks when he thinks it. That’s probably why both him and I kind of get put on the naughty list at times.”

The release marks the end of a difficult stretch. In April, Price lost her musical hero and friend John Prine due to complications from COVID-19. Then, the same month, Ivey — who’s considered a high risk because he is diabetic — came down with symptoms of the virus. “He was sicker than I’ve ever seen him,” Price says, “and I was scared every night that he was going to die in his sleep. He was just so lethargic, sleeping like 14 hours a day, and when he was awake, he wasn’t himself. It was a lot.”

Lately, things are looking up: Price has been practicing outdoors with her band, and she’s hoping to play her songs at a drive-in. “If I can get a date reserved,” she adds. “I know all the corporate bloodsuckers are already on top of all that.”

Price recognizes it’s a little ironic that she made an album meant to be played onstage, only to have all those plans wiped out for now. “We’ve been practicing so hard,” she says. “We had extended jam versions and transitions, and already had new covers and everything worked out. So it felt like the wind was taken out of my sails a little bit. But no matter what happens, as long as I’m still standing on this earth, I’m going to still be a musician. That’s what I had to kind of go back to. Even if I’m not performing, I still have the ability to write songs and write poetry and record music, and it’s gonna be there for these dark days ahead.”

In the meantime, she’s using her time off the road to spread the word about issues that are important to her, including Black Lives Matter, Tennessee’s anti-abortion bill, mask-wearing, and getting Trump out of office. “People say, ‘Oh, how dare you say something bad about Trump,’ or, ‘Oh, how dare you talk about gun control, how dare you talk about feminism and the pay gap,’ ” she says. “There’s countless things I’ve said that definitely cost me record sales. But you have to stand up for what you believe. When people say, ‘You’re not going to be the Dixie Chicks’ — I hate the analogy. I never was trying to be the Dixie Chicks. I’m trying to be Neil Young, motherfuckers.”