You can take the girl out of the country, and maybe you can also take the country out of the girl. Or perhaps that’s taking it a bit far, but Margo Price isn’t paying undue fealty to the traditional country feel that first brought her to the dance now that she’s on her third album. “That’s How Rumors Get Started,” which finds her working not just with a new label (Loma Vista in place of Jack White’s Third Man imprint) but a new producer, Sturgill Simpson. Having made a significant sonic break of his own from old-school country, it’s possible Simpson is the one who put the bug in her ear about not staying too indebted to the Nudies-suit sound. Most likely, though, she’s just falling deeper into sway into a different kind of gentle Southern rock — something we could reasonably call Tom Petty country — because “Wildflowers” doesn’t care where it grows. (Benmont Tench is among the players, so that’s a slight tip-off to where she’s headed.)
“That’s How Rumors Get Started” also finds some lyrical departures, getting further from the drinking tropes of her breakout songs from 2016’s “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter” but also not diverting as much to the heightened social consciousness of 2017’s “All American Made.” The 10 songs on this lovely and mostly subdued collection deal tend toward the most universal singer-songwriter themes: being glad your ex is an ex; wondering how to keep your current partner from becoming an ex; pondering whether love might survive the grave… and, of course, The Road. That last one is a big one on this album, as Price weighs the cost-benefit ratio of constant touring and being a road dog. With itinerancy casting such a heavy shadow over the album, it seems like a dispatch from an alternate reality coming out now in the summer of 2020, reminding listeners of a time when musicians just couldn’t wait to get on the road again, but could and did. Someday the back-to-back laments about being “Gone to Stay” or a “Prisoner of the Highway” won’t sound like science fiction, but they sure do right now.
But most of the new album deals with the discomforts of home and relationships therein in a reflective mode that’s apropos for the cabin-fever moment. “Heartless Mind” is the barnburner of the record, all swirly organs, psyched-out twin guitar leads and nervous energy that contends “love’s a house that might be haunted.” Since Price’s husband, Jeremy Ivey, co-wrote nearly all these songs and plays guitar on most of them, we can probably infer that the state of the union is strong. But she’s not afraid to explore what domestic anxiety feels like all tour roads have led home. “What Happened to Our Love?,” which sounds like the great George Harrison/Gram Parsons collaboration that never was — and which may be the most stirring, affecting thing she’s ever written — uses poetically hyperbolic metaphors to suggest a soulmate union made in heaven, then wonders how it can all go to hell anyway, as the coda turns the anxiety into something like a full-gospel ballad.
In the finale, the ruggedly rhythm-guitar based “I’d Die for You,” she finally revives some of the faintly political overtones familiar from the last album — choosing as her setting a beleaguered downtown where “boards go up, signs go down,” giving way to “naked streets of Babylon.” But that small-town starkness is really just a place for her to make a stand for a deathless romantic love. It resembles nothing so much as U2’s “All I Want is You,” as Price stands torch-bearing and true. The song may be twang-less, but it captures everything despairing and uplifting country music ever stood for… so maybe she’s not so far from Harlan Howard’s or Bono’s vision of three chords and the truth.
“That’s How Rumors Get Started”
Loma Vista Recordings
Producer: Sturgill Simpson. Co-producers: David Ferguson, Margo Price. Writers: Margo Price, Jeremy Ivey. Musicians: Margo Price, Jeremy Ivey, Matt Sweeney, Pino Palodino. James Gadson, Mike Rojas, Ashley Wilcoxson, Dillon Napier, Sam Bacco, Sturgill Simpson, Benmont Tench, Gale Mayes, Samson White, Angela Primm, Jamie Davis, Dan Dugmore.