CW: Infant death, reference to eating disorder
Music memoirs face biographies’ usual problem of being tasked with turning the inherently chaotic narrative of a person’s life into a coherent novel-shaped story. Sometimes artists innovate in the space — Bob Dylan’s hilariously titled Chronicles Vol. 1 is notoriously 75% delightful bullshit. More often though, artists will spin an narcissistic mythology about themselves, reveling in the glories and pitfalls of stardom (which more often than not are the same thing).
Alternative country and rock singer-songwriter Margo Price is uniquely situated to dodge the music memoir’s trademark solipsism. Price’s brand of hippie-cum-psychedelic folkie demarcates her from any particular subculture. She comes out of the Nashville country music scene, but she has more in common with singer-songwriters who are external to mainstream country, such as Sturgill Simpson or Brandi Carlile, than Hot Country Songs blights like Florida-Georgia Line or Luke Combs. Price is by no means obscure — her first album landed her on Saturday Night Live, and she’s covered Cardi B’s “WAP” for The Daily Show. But Price’s brand of rollicking ballads about struggling to get by and alcoholic depression evince a working-class solidarity and folkie pride that don’t get much air time in commercial country.
Price’s memoir Maybe We’ll MakeIt counteracts the narcissism of memoirs by showing just how hard-won her career is. The book tracks her losses, disappointments and tragedies in grueling detail yet with engrossing depth. Price’s childhood in rural Illinois is marked by an eating disorder and her Midwest family losing their farm. In early adulthood, she drops out of college, hits the road, and spends several impoverished years in Nashville hovels. By the time Price’s beloved dog has died and her apartment has been flooded with sewage, it almost seems like maybe part of Maybe We’ll Make It defines it. If one can ding the book for anything, it’s that Price’s listing of her various disappointments becomes almost repetitive. Which isn’t a terrible problem to have: plenty of strong albums have extraneous songs. And Price, who adamantly refrains from utilizing a ghost writer, writes astonishing prose. The book’s prologue reads like classic rural literature: “I watched the bloodred Midwest sun as it set past the crooked tree line at the edge of our property.” The book feels like Price’s songs sound: the tales and reflections of a traveling balladeer who’s seen a little too much and needs to write it all down.
The most heart-rending and upsetting part of Maybe We’ll Make It constitutes Price’s loss of her infant child Ezra, with a gut-punch where a doctor tells her “technically he’s still alive.” It’s a story about the endless process of building one’s life while incessantly falling short of outright success, a rebuke to the standard mythology of making it big at just the right moment. Ethan Hawke has spoken about how obscure country singer Blaze Foley makes strong biopic material because he never got a big break. Price shows that failure is often more instructive than success, resulting in an at times extraordinarily upsetting but profoundly moving piece of autobiography.
Yet Maybe We’ll Make It is fun too. There’s no sense that Price’s struggles aren’t worth it, or that they inhabit her creativity. “There wasn’t a moment or shred of creativity wasted,” Price says about a period where she, her husband and musical partner Jeremy Ivey, and their band ambulated across the country playing small gigs. “We were making do with what we had. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention, and invention was what we lived for.” True words from an artist who navigated the misogyny of East Nashville by inventing a band manager named John Sirota.
Maybe We’ll Make It shows Price hitting her big break in its final chapters, but she finds extremely hard-won success. Price gives the sense that making it doesn’t contradict her years of struggling, nor does it even end them. Her marriage temporarily founders after she’s already put out albums. Living comfortably rather than surviving frantically comes with the culmination of Price’s work: making some peace with herself. Playing SNL and joining the board of Farm Aid is nice, but they’re ancillary to Price’s personal journey.
Price’s relationship with her husband Jeremy Ivey is the heart of the book: a fucked up, improbable love story that never quite tips into outright nastiness, even when showing deeply unflattering sides of Price and Ivey. Ivey is a vital part of Price’s music: in addition to always performing with her, Ivey gets co-writing credits on seven out of 10 songs from Price’s album That’s How Rumors Get Started. Theirs is a story of romantic and musical partnership. The chapter where Price recounts how Ivey proposed to her is sweet enough that I won’t quote it: go buy the book and read it yourself. But if that doesn’t convince you, when I first read that chapter on an LIRR train out of Manhattan, I turned to my girlfriend Sage, who hails from Massachusetts and detests country music, and read it aloud to her. She promptly burst into tears.
I suppose on some level, that’s what I like out of non-fiction. I was raised by Texans in and around the Shenandoah Valley. This past Christmas in North Carolina, my grandma and I duetted a cappella on David Allen Coe’s “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” the self-declared “perfect country and western song.” Country music should be for everybody. And Price makes a fine argument for that by writing a book that feels like a country song. Rather than embracing the narcissism of memoirs, she uses it to tell a story about art and struggle. It’s a book worthy of Farm Aid and Willie Nelson songs, the shot in the arm country music and music autobiographies needed. Now stop reading and go watch the music video for Price’s single “Been to the Mountain.” If you like deserts and shrooms, this is your song. And if you like the song, you just might want to read Maybe We’ll Make It.