Third Man Records vinyl exclusives, Part 31: Margo Price live
The 31st set of exclusive vinyl items offered to Platinum members of Third Man Records’ Vault service was mailed out to the members in March of 2017. For those who are unaware, Third Man Records is the label owned by Jack White, who is the leader of the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, and the Dead Weather, and is now a solo artist as well. The Vault service promises to deliver exclusive vinyl-only records (one full-length album and one 7” single) to its Platinum members every three months.
The thirty-first Vault package featured three items by Margo Price, the Illinois-born, Nashville-based country singer whose moving debut album Midwest Farmer’s Daughter was released by Third Man Records one year ago today, on March 25, 2016. It’s easy to understand why Jack White’s label became the album’s distributor, because it has an authentic old-school country sound that recalls Loretta Lynn, but with a modern lyrical outlook. Price has a pretty voice that suggests vulnerability, but her brutally honest lyrics reveal the type of emotional toughness that comes from hard living.
The album has had limited commercial success – as of this writing, it has sold approximately 48,000 copies – but it has received much critical acclaim, appearing on many best-of-the-year lists. In the eyes of Third Man Records, Price rates her very own limited edition Vault package. The package contains a 7-inch single with two live-in-the-studio cuts, a 2-LP live album, and a DVD featuring a live concert at Austin City Limits. The album’s cardboard sleeve is housed in a vellum optical sleeve.
The live double-LP Live At The Hamilton in Washington, D.C. on 11/09/2016, pressed in one transparent green 180-gram disc and one white 180-gram disc, documents a concert performed by Price and her band the Pricetags in America’s capital the night after the 2016 Presidential election. Only four of the eleven songs are drawn from her album. The other tracks reveal more about Price’s musical influences, as well as those of her band.
The first side starts the concert off in an expected way with “Hands of Time”, the powerful autobiographical song that also opens the studio album. In this song, Price describes the hard life experiences that have shaped her, up until the time she recorded her self-financed album. Price follows this with an earthy and intrepid cover of Billy Joe Shaver’s 1973 outlaw country tune “Black Rose”. When she follows that song with her own “Tennessee Song”, it seems to add an extra edge to her song about hitting the road and living off the land.
The second side goes off in pleasantly surprising directions. Price’s non-album track “Paper Cowboy” deceptively begins as an old-fashioned country ballad, then turns into a sprightly honky-tonk stomp, then ends up as a slightly spacey alt-country jam. The Pricetags then cover the Meters’ funk instrumental “Yeah, You’re Right”, before Price returns to perform her B-side “Desperate and Depressed”, in which she sings about the travails of a struggling musician.
The third side opens with “Weekender”, a song Price wrote about prison while doing time herself. The other two songs are covers: Merle Haggard’s “Red Bandana” and Kris Kristofferson’s “Me And Bobby McGee”. That makes an interesting pair, since the former contains a lyrical reference to the latter. However, any female vocalist who covers “Me And Bobby McGee” risks being compared to Janis Joplin. Fortunately, Price and her band give the song a downhome country sound that helps to avoid that potential pitfall, and it works well to her advantage.
The fourth side ends the concert with two edgy honky tonk numbers: Price’s own indignant “Four Years Of Chances”, and a cover of Rodney Crowell’s “I Ain’t Living Long Like This” (another song about being in jail).
The 7-inch single, pressed in transparent blue vinyl, contains two spontaneous live-in-the-studio tracks recorded direct to acetate in the Third Man Records Blue Room. The A-side track is an original Price co-composition titled “You Told Me With Your Eyes”. It resembles a 1950’s Grand Ole Opry ballad, with Price’s aching lyrics and vocals reflecting on a bad relationship that left lasting scars, sung against a gently weeping piano-and-pedal-steel backdrop. The B-side shows her lighter side, by way of a cover of Billy Grammer’s 1959 hit song “Gotta Travel On”. This track displays the funkier side of her band, who add a Southern-fried r&b flavor to the song with their lively instrumentation. If Dolly Parton had covered this song in the ‘70’s, it might have sounded something like this rendition.
The best part of the package is the DVD Austin City Limits: Live 10/03/2016, which documents the complete concert performed by Price and her band at that place and date. The episode of Austin City Limits broadcast by PBS on January 20, 2017 featured five songs from the concert (marked with an asterisk in the track listing below). This DVD contains all 18 songs and all 80 minutes. This DVD gives Price a full star-treatment showcase, as she performs eight songs from the album, five cover songs (including “Black Rose” and “Gotta Travel On”), and four other non-album songs (including “Desperate and Depressed” and “Paper Cowboy”). In this medium, we get to see as well as hear the evidence that Price and her band are engaging performers; both the concert and the visual presentation are excellent. A new song called “Learning To Lose” is top notch; Price also works in an acoustic number titled “It Ain’t Drunk Driving If You’re Riding A Horse”, written by her unknown musician friend Steven Knudson. It’s hardly surprising to hear Price cover a country rock icon like Gram Parsons (“Ooh Las Vegas”), but it is less expected to hear her cover Doug Sahm’s “I Wanna Be Your Mama Again” (at least one Texan in the audience can be seen singing along with that 1969 song) and Neil Young’s obscure ‘80’s country tune “Old Ways”. The DVD also contains a bonus interview segment conducted after the concert by executive producer Terry Lickona. It’s an illuminating 11 minutes, as Price tells of her beginnings, about her studio album (she says about 98% of the lyrics are based on her life experiences), and how she incorporates small bits of other genres into her style of traditional country. And, yes, she confirms that Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline are among her influences.
Time will tell if Price will have a prosperous career in the future, or if she is just a critic’s darling of the moment. But this Vault package certainly shows that she is a very good live performer.
A note for fellow vinyl aficionados: the practice of engraving text in the dead wax, or the runout grooves between the sticker and the last track’s grooves, is present on these items. The double LP has “Instant classic”, “reigning strain”, “Kris caught on”, and “Nelson Knows” carved in its respective sides. The single has “in fifteen minutes” carved in the A-side, and “I’ll Be There…” carved in the B-side.
Margo Price “Live At The Hamilton in Washington, D.C. on 11/09/2016” (Third Man TMR-432) 2017
1. Hands Of Time
2. Black Rose (Billy Joe Shaver)
3. Tennessee Song
4. Paper Cowboy
5. Yeah, You’re Right
6. Desperate and Depressed
8. Red Bandana (Merle Haggard)
9. Me And Bobby McGee (Kris Kristofferson)
10. Four Years Of Chances
11. I Ain’t Living Long Like This (Rodney Crowell)
Margo Price “You Told Me With Your Eyes” b/w “Gotta Travel On” (Third Man single TMR-433) 2017
a. You Told Me With Your Eyes
b. Gotta Travel On (Billy Grammer)
Margo Price “Austin City Limits: Live 10/03/2016” (Third Man DVD) 2017
1. Swarmin’ (instrumental intro)
2. About To Find Out *
3. Tennessee Song
4. Learning To Lose *
5. Black Rose (Billy Joe Shaver)
7. Since You Put Me Down
8. Desperate and Depressed *
9. It Ain’t Drunk Driving If You’re Riding A Horse
10. Hands Of Time *
11. Four Years Of Chances
12. This Town Gets Around
13. I Wanna Be Your Mama Again (Sir Douglas Quintet)
14. Paper Cowboy
15. Hurtin’ On The Bottle *
16. Gotta Travel On (Billy Grammer)
17. Old Ways (Neil Young)
18. Ooh Las Vegas (Gram Parsons)
19. Outro / Band Exit
* Shown on Austin City Limits on January 20, 2017