In country music capital, political divides rock the industry

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The stadium was filling up with fans for a late-season pro football game when Margo Price took up her spot at midfield for a pregame sound check.

Two weeks earlier she had scored a best new artist Grammy nomination. Now she was about to sing the national anthem – a slot typically reserved at Titans’ games for some of country music’s rising stars and its biggest names.

Price’s invitation, though, came with a warning.

“I’m sure you’ll be respectful of our anthem and not pull any shenanigans,” the Titans’ representative told her as she stepped onto the field. Price, 35, waited a moment for the team rep to amble away. A button emblazoned with the word “feminist” was pinned to her black leather jacket and glinted in the midday sun. “My reputation precedes me,” she said.

Price’s career – her success and nearly a decade of struggles – isa testament to the way America’s poisonous politics are scrambling country music. Study after study has documented the widening social gulf that separates the major parties. Republicans and Democrats report increasing levels of animosity for those on the other side of the political divide, according to surveys. They have few close friends from the opposing political party. They watch different television shows.

Despite a Grammy nod for best new artist, Margo Price doesn’t get much airtime on country radio
Margo Price and her husband, Jeremy Ivey, rehearse Tom Petty’s ‘You Don’t Know How It Feels’ at their home in Whites Creek, Tennessee
On the night she learned of her Grammy nomination, Margo Price and her husband saw a billboard from Spotify congratulating Price on her best new artist nomination

Those same pressures are fracturing one of America’s most distinctive art forms, giving rise to separate musical genres aimed at liberal and conservative fans. “I’m just singing the truth,” Price said. “That’s what country music is supposed to be – three chords and the truth.” Increasingly, though, that truth is shaped by America’s political war.

Price has appeared as the musical guest on liberal bastions such as Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show on Comedy Central and the three major late-night network talk shows.

She will learn whether she can add a best new artist Grammy to her accolades.

But she’s entirely absent from country music radio – still the major star maker for Nashville-based musicians who aspire to fill stadiums. And that has made Price all but invisible in certain quarters of the country, including some parts of her adopted hometown.

“No bags,” the security guard at the entrance to the Titans’ stadium barked at her earlier in the day when she tried to bring in a backpack with her curling iron and makeup.

“I’m the anthem singer,” she protested.

No luck.

“Did you let Carrie Underwood bring in a curling iron?” she pleaded. The security guard shot her an irritated look.

The Titans’ management eventually intervened on Price’s behalf and she made her way into the stadium – backpack in hand. The anthem went off without a hitch. A few days later Price was launching a tour that included stops in Washington, District of Columbia, Philadelphia and Brooklyn and reflecting on the strangeness of the experience back home, in the capital of country music.

“It was definitely out of our element,” she said.

As a teenager growing up in rural Illinois, Price sometimes sang the anthem at high school football games. “That was what our town revolved around,” she said.

Her mother was a teacher and her father farmed soybeans and cotton, until the farm crisis forced him to find work as a prison guard.

The way Price tells it, her path to Nashville began at Northern Illinois University, where she made the varsity cheerleading team as a freshman, tripped on mushrooms and decided to get as far from cheerleading as she could. She signed up for theater and dance classes. At the end of her sophomore year, she dropped out of school entirely and moved to Nashville.

She played around with political music, forming a Kinks-inspired duo with Jeremy Ivey, her future husband, called Secret Handshake. “An easy way to clear a room” Ivey said of the band’s short-lived and unsuccessful stint. Then came Buffalo Clover, her rock-and-roll and soul band, which critics described as Dolly Parton backed by the Rolling Stones. Eventually, Price switched to country. She haunted open-mic nights in Nashville studying the crowd to figure out what worked. Her best songs tackled heartbreaks, embarrassments and failures that she had hid even from her family.

At 27, Price gave birth to twin boys, one of whom died weeks after he was born of a genetic heart ailment. She sang The Band’s “Tears of Rage” at her son’s wake.

In the years that followed she struggled with drinking and depression, including a 2013 arrest for drunken driving. She crashed her car into a pole, she said, and then tried to outrun police. Her husband picked her up after a weekend in the county jail.

On her way home, Price grabbed contrabands for her cellmate. “You’ve only been in there for two days and you’re already making alliances,” her husband joked.

She mined the tragedy and comedy of the experience for a jailhouse ballad.

Price’s rich country voice caught the attention of Nashville music critics. “Her voice is just unreal. That’s what grabbed me,” said Joseph Hudak, a Nashville-based writer for Rolling Stone. Her writing called to mind country music’s hell-raising, honky-tonk roots. “I killed the angel on my shoulder with a bottle of the Bulleit / So I wouldn’t have to hear him bitch and moan, moan, moan,” she sang to the cry of a steel-pedal guitar.

Price, though, had several strikes against her when it came to landing a recording contract with a major label.

Country music these days is dominated by men, who typically account for about 80 to 90 per cent of Billboard’s top 40 country radio hits. Online the situation can be even worse. Spotify’s “Country Gold” playlist of 50 songs often doesn’t include even a single female artist.

Price’s music also didn’t sound like the other hits played on country radio, which mixed hip-hop beats with twangy verse.

Her biggest problem might have been her lyrics. Hit country songs tended to celebrate small-town life. Often, they responded to the growing partisan rancor by emphasizing America’s essential goodness, as Luke Bryan did in his hit Most People are Good.

Bryan focused on motherhood and football: “I believe most Friday nights look better under neon or stadium lights,” he sang.

Price was offering a different view of America. She sang about sin and struggle and the sorts of misfits who never felt comfortable in football stadiums. “I’m an outcast, and I’m a stray / And I plan to stay that way,” she sang. Her songs were about small, depressed towns that people longed to escape. These were the very places country music expected her to celebrate.

“You’re so country, but you’re not a redneck,” she recalled one record industry executive telling her. She took it as a backhanded compliment. He passed. Others pressed her to give her song arrangements more of a pop feel. She refused.

Price had been at it for 12 years when her husband prevailed on her in 2014 to sell their car, pawn her wedding ring and spend the money recording a country album. The last song she wrote before she headed into the studio told the story of her life: her father’s decision to sell the family farm, her struggles in Nashville, the death of her son.

“I felt like I was at the end of a rope and if something didn’t happen soon, I was going to break,” she said of “Hands of Time.” “I wrote it as a form of therapy. Not for anyone else, but for myself.”

Months passed with little interest from record companies. Her slide guitar player persuaded an executive from Third Man Records, founded by Jack White, a well-known rock and blues musician, to watch her play at a Nashville bar. Third Man didn’t have much experience with country music, but signed her anyway.

Before the album was even released in 2016, The Late Show With Stephen Colbert booked her to sing. Just weeks after it dropped, Saturday Night Live offered her a slot on the show.

“Are you sitting down?” she asked her drummer, shortly after she got the news. He was stacking boxes at the warehouse job he had taken to pay the bills.

“We’re going on SNL!” she screamed.

The New York Times called her the “next big thing out of Nashville.” A New Yorker staff writer described listening to her as “an uncomplicated joy, with awe laced through it.”

Country music radio programmers were less impressed.

“I have never heard a Margo Price song that I thought was a mass appeal runaway hit,” said Nate Deaton, the general manager of a station in San Jose. Country hits often offered up a dose of nostalgia. “There’s a lot of people in big cities that came from small towns,” he said, “and there’s an awful lot of us that never lived in small towns, but nonetheless there’s an appealing nature to it.”

RJ Curtis, the executive director of the Country Radio Broadcasters trade group, echoed that assessment. He was a fan of her music and had even attended one of her Nashville shows. “But programmers just don’t know what to do with her,” he said. “Man, we’re missing out.”

Country music has for decades accommodated different sounds and styles – the Bakersfield Sound, Outlaw Country, Urban Cowboy country and alt-country among others. What united them was a working-class sensibility that rose above politics.

In the early 1970s Johnny Cash recorded What is Truth in support of Vietnam War protesters even as his close friend Merle Haggard was singing “The Fightin’ Side of Me” slamming them. The two stars could still share a stage.

By 2003, though, the rules had changed. With US troops massing on the Iraq border, Natalie Maines, the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, told a London audience that she was ashamed that George W Bush was from Texas. At that moment, the female trio was one of the biggest acts in country music.

Sixteen years later the Chicks are both a band and a verb. To be “Dixie-Chicked” is to be excommunicated from mainstream country music radio. The Chicks were the victims of a rally-around-the-flag backlash – they criticized the president on the eve of a major war.

These days the divide in country music has become more obviously partisan, reflecting the political division among its main supporters: white Americans. Mainstream country music has little patience for messages that fail to celebrate small-town America or tilt even remotely anti-Trump.

Liberal country music fans, meanwhile, want assurances that their favorite singers are sufficiently to the left. “White people are the only race that’s politically divided right now,” said Lilliana Mason, a professor of at the University of Maryland and author of Uncivil Agreement, a book about political identity and America’s growing divide. “Because the partisan divide is so deep you have to define what kind of white person you are.”

For left-leaning country singers, like Price and Sturgill Simpson, there’s pressure to signal to their fan bases that they are on their side. In 2017, Simpson let loose an epic anti-Trump rant that made Maines’ criticism of Bush seem tepid by comparison.

“He’s a fascist,” Simpson said of Trump outside the Country Music Awards in Nashville. All Trump supporters, he added, were “bigots.”

Simpson had won a Grammy earlier that same year for best country album, but, like Price, was rejected by mainstream country music radio. A few years ago there was an expectation that stars such as Simpson and Price might bring a new sound and sensibility to country music.

Instead, they became their own subgenre and today are often classified as “Americana” artists, a subset of roots music aimed largely at liberals. Americana music isn’t always easily defined, but the Milk Carton Kids, who opened this year’s Americana awards show in Nashville, took a stab at it in a song:

“A country song that’s a little too political / A feminist anthem that’s a bit too literal / Your lyrics are biblical / Your Twitter feed is liberal”

The same pressures that were splitting the country were now fracturing country music.

“Country music is taking collateral damage because so many people these days want blood,” said Kyle Coroneos, who runs the website Saving Country Music. “In previous eras no one thought about this stuff, just like we didn’t think about our neighbors’ politics.”

Midway through her recent set in Washington, Price launched into “All American Made,” a song about the divisions in the country and the title track to her second album.

Price and her husband wrote it together several years ago, and last summer Price updated the song for the Trump presidency.

“I wonder how the president gets any sleep at night / And if the folks down by the border are making it all right,” she sang before a crowd of about 2,000 people in Washington who let out a cheer. To anyone who might have been offended, Price explained that she wrote the song during the Obama administration. But no one seemed to care.

A few weeks later Price was back in Nashville for a pre-Grammy party. She mingled awkwardly with the guests and then cut out early. On her way to dinner, she and her husband made a quick detour to get a look at a billboard that Spotify had put up congratulating her on her nomination.

“Who dat?” she called out laughing when she spotted her face staring back at her. The Nashville skyline glittered in the distance.

The next morning she gathered with her band to rehearse before she jetted out to Los Angeles for the Grammys and a spot on Jimmy Kimmel Live.

From there her schedule was a sprint. She was five months pregnant, working on a new album and had live shows planned through April.

Price suggested the band add a new Tom Petty song to its set. Her husband pulled up “You Don’t Know How it Feels” on his phone, picked up his harmonica and began to play along, feeling his way through the song. The band joined in. Price copied the lyrics on a piece of paper.

Petty’s music had been one of her first loves. As a teenager in rural Illinois she taped Mary Jane’s Last Dance off the radio and sang it into her hairbrush. “He was singing to a girl in Middle America who was maybe a little poor or a little different,” she told Rolling Stone when Petty died in 2017. His music, she said, “defied genre . . . defied politics.”

But it was getting harder and harder for stars, such as Price, to pull off that trick. Recently, her management team had encouraged her to do a dual interview with a big mainstream country artist. “It will be good exposure,” she recalled them telling her, an opportunity to introduce her music to a new group of fans who might not otherwise hear it. – Photos and text by The Washington Post.