The phrase “Waylon, Willie, and the boys” always seemed a little un-inclusive — after all, wasn’t Jessi Colter one of the boys, too? — but it’s really tempting to revive that outlaw terminology in the present day and amend it to “the girls,” since Margo Price has become the foremost living exemplar of that Luckenbachian country music tradition.
On her second album, “All American Made,” the farmgirl-turned-honky-tonk-heroine doesn’t deviate too drastically from the well-studied traditionalism that brought her to the dance last year with the acclaimed “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter.” In the words of one of her heroes, it’s music that’s lonesome, on’ry, and… well, probably more meditative than mean, but close enough.
It’s patriotic, too, if you consider moderate social critiques patriotic. The title is purposeful, and not in the nationalist fashion you might expect from a more mainstream country record, as Price has a few bones to pick. An accordion lends a Tex-Mex flavor to one tune, but the wall she’s singing about isn’t the theoretical border one but the barrier that keeps women from earning equal wages. “Pay gap, pay gap/ Why don’t you do the math?/ Pay gap, pay gap/ Ripping my dollars in half.”
It’s hard to imagine this sentiment being controversial, but then, it was hard to imagine the Equal Rights Amendment being controversial, too. In any case, Price has taken a little bit of heat for supposedly injecting politics into her music this time around, although “Pay Gap,” “Heart of America,” and “All American Made” all seem purple enough that it’s hard to imagine them really riling up anyone who’s not in the reddest state.
“Heart of America” is particularly purple, with Price singing about how, right around the time her buddy Willie Nelson was co-founding Farm Aid, her Illinois family lost the farm. The title track does wonder “if the president gets much sleep at night,” but it could have been written during any administration. It was definitely written before Tom Petty passed away, as she spend the album’s concluding moments wondering: “I was just a child unaware of the effects/ Raised on sports and Jesus and all the usual suspects/ So tell me, Mr. Petty, what do you think will happen next?”
She’s an American girl, all right, and less of the protest singer that these isolated examples might suggest than a self-described loner looking for warmth in steel-guitar licks. Her songs, mostly co-written with her husband and bandmate, Jeremy Ivey, allude to marriage and motherhood without the usual country tropes of those being points of salvation. “It’s hard to be a mother, a singer, and a wife/ But all the men they run around and no one bats an eye,” she points out in “Wild Women,” having wondered why her domestic life comes up for discussion in interviews more than it does for some of her counterparts.
Speaking of the rigors of the touring life in “Nowhere Fast,” she sings, “I miss my child/ Lord, I miss my friends/ But even they quit calling me on the phone/ Asking how I been…/ Maybe I’m insane, but I’m leaving you again.” Sometimes the loner’s life is playing for a wry smile with some subtly clever lines, in the great country tradition: “Sometimes my weakness is stronger than me.” “A little pain never hurt anyone.” Just as often, she cuts out the wordplay and cuts right to the quick.
But if the album is conflicted about the price of the good times involved in being a successful musician, it’s not so moralistic as to shy away from providing a pretty good time itself. And there’s more than enough barroom bravado to go along with Price’s moments of self-doubt. “I’ve lost more than most my age but I still got more to lose,” she sings, but just in case you’re about to feel sorry for her, the following lines forestall anything like that: “I might seem a little crazy when I come to your town/The devil he won’t catch me if I drop the hammer down.”