Margo Price returns to her country roots with the Pricetags

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

When Margo Price founded her namesake band, Margo and the Pricetags, she never envisioned it would become her primary artistic concern.

The group’s roots stretch back nearly four years, when the Nashville-based Price recruited some musician friends, including Sturgill Simpson (who has since left the fold and launched a successful solo career), to open for husband-wife folk duo Shovels & Rope.

“They were playing a venue in my neighborhood called The 5 Spot, and I asked the guy who was booking if I could open and he said, ‘Your band (Buffalo Clover) is too loud, but you can do some acoustic stuff if you want,’” said Price, reached at home for a mid-January phone interview. “So I told him I was going to put together a country band to come down there and play. It was meant to be a one-off, but people kept asking us to do it, and I just kept writing more and more songs in that vein.”

The Pricetags’ rise coincided with a rough stretch for Buffalo Clover, a perennially on-the-verge rock ’n’ soul group that finally called it quits in August 2014 after a label deal and a planned recording session at the famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studio fell through at the last minute.

“We had the dates lined up, and then the guy who owned the label was like, ‘Actually, I’ve partnered with this group in Nashville and they have to approve everything. I’m not going to be able to promise you a spot on the label, but you can come down and pay for the recording if you want,’” said Price, who joins the Pricetags for a concert at Ace of Cups on Friday, Jan. 23. “It was going to be something like $700 a day, so at that point I was like, ‘I’ve worked as hard as I can on this for as long as I can, but I’m ready to try something new.’”

This something new, it turns out, had actually been a part of the musician’s life going back to childhood.

Price, born to a schoolteacher mother and a farmer-turned-prison-worker father, grew up on the outskirts of the small town of Aledo, Illinois, a city with a population just north of 3,500. At home, the family typically kept the stereo dialed in to WRMJ, a country radio station, and classic tunes by the likes of Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn would provide the soundtrack while the singer’s grandmother worked in the kitchen. Additionally, Price’s great-uncle is country songwriter Bobby Fischer, who has penned tracks for everyone from Conway Twitty to Reba McEntire. Today she counts one of his guitars, a 1956 Gibson acoustic he played while hitchhiking his way across the country, among her prized possessions.

In spite of this deep connection to the genre, the idea of playing country songs felt alien to Price when she first dropped out of classes at Northern Illinois University and sacrificed a cheerleading scholarship to move to Nashville and pursue a music career.

“When I first moved here [in 2003] I kind of wanted to rebel from that [past] a little bit and do my own thing,” Price said. “Most 19-[or] 20-year-olds get into rock ’n’ roll and drugs and partying, and things just get louder and bigger. But I was raised around country, and as I started growing up a little bit I came right back around to it.”

The select songs that have surfaced under the Pricetags banner do these earthy roots proud. “Since You Put Me Down,” for one, could pass for a lost Tammy Wynette cut, with Price delivering lines about broken promises and broken hearts atop a loping backdrop of brushed drums, acoustic guitar and pedal steel. The song, like most Price has written in recent years, is strongly autobiographical, inspired by dealings with a shady business manager (“He swept in and made a million promises … that never happened,” she said) and the death of one of the singer’s twin sons, who passed away two weeks after he was born nearly five years ago.

“I’ve realized if you’re not writing something honest there’s no point in it, and it’s been therapeutic to work out some of these things musically,” said Price, who plans to begin recording sessions for the band’s full-length debut sometime in February. “When I first started playing it was like, ‘Maybe you don’t want everyone to know all the skeletons in your closet.’ I’m prideful, and I like to put off like I’m a really tough character. To allow myself to be vulnerable is a very difficult thing.”

Though challenging, it’s an approach that has helped Price establish her artistic footing, and even garnered the musician the respect of her songwriter uncle, who wasn’t nearly as amiable when she first approached him for advice after relocating to Nashville.

“When I first got down here … I played him a few songs, and when I got done he said, ‘This is what you need to do. Go home and throw away your TV and get rid of your radio and then sit there and write a million songs,’” she said. “He wasn’t very complimentary, that’s for sure, but it’s what I needed to hear. Now I’m learning how to express myself better.”

Photo credit: Mick Leonardi

Ace of Cups

9 p.m. Friday, Jan. 23

2619 N. High St., Campus

ALSO PLAYING: Drift Mouth, Meagan and Milan from Alwood Sisters