Anyone familiar with Margo Price’s hardscrabble backstory, much less her terrific debut, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, won’t be surprised that the songs on her sophomore effort, All American Made, don’t sound like they were made to be featured in Ford pickup truck commercials. Once again, Price’s stylistic eclecticism and withering beat-of-her-own-drum lyrical voice shame the cookie-cutter product coming out of the Nashville machine. Endowed with greater hype, and the recording budget that goes with it, however, Price appears to want to have it both ways. Though much of the writing on All American Made is a testament to her fiery independent streak, she and her band’s overly slick, humdrum delivery of many of these songs suggest she isn’t so far removed from the Nashville establishment as one might think.
Price has an ideal career model in Jack White, whose Third Man Records has released her two albums. White hasn’t only built an entrepreneurial juggernaut in Nashville that’s separate from the town’s country-music powers that Price disparaged on Midwest Farmer’s Daughter’s “This Town Gets Around,” but he’s managed to steep himself in abiding reverence for his own musical lineage while remaining nothing if not stubbornly idiosyncratic. On All American Made, at least, Price doesn’t display enough musical personality to walk that line. This is especially apparent on her syrupy duet with Willie Nelson, “Learning to Lose.” She mainly hangs back in deference as Nelson weaves characteristically around the beat in his inimitable dusty-plains warble and bangs out yet another guitar solo. Her less-than-commanding presence helps render the song surprisingly unengaging, though the dragged-out runtime and hokey string section don’t help matters.
A similarly tentative approach mars even some of the album’s better compositions. Would-be barnburners like “Weakness” and “Wild Women” are catchy enough, but their delivery is pale and mannered, miles away from any sort of ragged barroom vibe that would be an actual antidote to mainstream country’s soulless glitz. And Price’s voice, pretty but thin, can’t carry the otherwise well-constructed Motown pastiche “A Little Pain.”
These songs are littered with allusions to Price’s difficult past as a broke, troubled magnet of misfortune with a late-blooming career, but they’re by and large so vague that they don’t have much of an emotional impact. “Maybe I’m to blame for the shape that I’m in/Maybe I’m insane, but I’m leaving you again,” she sings on “Nowhere Fast.” She may as well be talking about a casual breakup or a Twitter feud. On “Cocaine Cowboys,” she even falls prey to the eye-rollingly played-out country trope of disparaging Northern cityfolk as smarmy posers. “Well, the boys ’round here ain’t like the boys back home/They don’t plant the fields, they won’t work the farms.” The limp country-funk to which Price sets her unoriginal quips do little to convince that she’s got the soul she claims these Yankees lack.
What makes All American Made’s more personal songs seem especially lacking in substance, though, is how sharply they contrast with Price’s insightful, daring, and evocative topical songwriting. “Pay Gap” is especially inventive, featuring the singer spitting out a fiery gender-equality invective—“It’s been that way, with no equal pay/And I want to know when it will be fixed/Women do work and get treated like slaves since 1776”—over incongruently breezy Tex-Mex fare. Price certainly doesn’t pull any punches with her political writing, whether on the big bank-flaying anthem “Heart of America,” abetted by rustic, bluesy fingerpicking, or the high lonesome waltz “Loner,” a song about the struggle to maintain individuality in a world of overwhelming social and economic conformity: “And they put you through school/And tell you you’re grown/And put you to work to buy shit you don’t need.”
The album’s title track is undoubtedly the most ambitious country song of this or most other years. Not unlike how Midwest Farmer’s Daughter’s masterful “Hands of Time” offered a sweeping overview of Price’s own personal story, “All American Made” is a similarly cinematic statement about the fading American dream. But rather than try to fit everything in like she did with “Hands of Time,” Price uses an almost impressionistic approach here. She touches explicitly on politics, singing about Iran-Contra affair and “folks on welfare” as a sound collage of political speeches fades in and out of the mix. But the song is mostly an emotional portrait of how it feels to live in America today—in trying to maintain a romantic belief in a bygone era when we could still “go to California in a rusted pickup truck” on “that highway that stretches out of sight,” but then waking up and feeling “a heartache on the bottom and a headache on the top.” It’s proof positive that Price can be as dynamic a songwriter as anyone in Nashville if she wants to be.