Margo Price returns to Willie Nelson’s Picnic in Austin
by:  Peter Blackstock

Mid-May 2018 was a momentous stretch at home in Nashville for Margo Price. One of country music’s brightest rising stars, she booked the iconic Ryman Auditorium for the first time as a headliner — and sold out three nights. “I feel like I’m dreaming,” she told the crowd, as guests including Sturgill Simpson and Emmylou Harris joined her for the occasion.

The first night also featured a duet with Lukas Nelson on “Learning to Lose” from Price’s latest release, “All American Made.” On the album, she sings it with Lukas’ father, Willie Nelson. Over the past couple of years, Price has become friends with the entire Nelson family, so it’s no surprise she’s making her third straight appearance at Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic on Wednesday at Circuit of the Americas.

The night before that Ryman run began, Willie was playing at a new riverfront amphitheater in downtown Nashville. Price wanted to go, but she wasn’t sure it was a good idea. “I was thinking to myself that I should just stay home and get some good rest,” she said. “But Annie (Willie’s wife) wrote me and said, ‘Are you coming down? Willie wants to know if you’re going to come sing gospel songs with him.’”

Price couldn’t turn down a personal invitation to sing with Willie Nelson. “So I piled in my truck, and I brought my dad and my sister with me,” she said.

Willie’s crew had given her instructions on how to deal with security to get to the backstage parking area. “I rolled my window down, and I said, ‘Hi, my name’s Margo, and I’m supposed to sing with Willie.’ My dad started laughing, like, ‘Yeah, these cops are gonna let you back there.’

“But they said, ‘Oh, OK!’ They moved the cones and we just drove right back in there. We went on Willie’s bus, and my dad thought that was pretty cool.”

Selling out three nights at the Ryman is cool, too. But having friends in, uh, high places? For Price, that’s priceless.

“It’s nice to have people at the shows, and it’s nice to not have to waitress anymore,” Price said about her seemingly rapid rise to stardom that was actually more than a decade in the making. “But I think being able to meet some of my mentors has been a highlight for sure.”

Price occasionally expresses her gratitude in social media posts that have shown her singing with John Prine and with Loretta Lynn, or having dinner with Wanda Jackson. “There’s just so much wisdom to be soaked up from conversations, and from watching them all perform,” she said.

Her friendship with Willie and his family has gone a bit deeper. Since first appearing on the Picnic lineup in 2016, Price also has joined Nelson every year at Farm Aid and played a series of shows with him as part of last year’s Outlaw Fest (sort of an abbreviated Picnic on the road). Willie’s son Micah and his band, Particle Kid, have opened shows for Price.

At this year’s Luck Reunion on Willie’s ranch in Spicewood during South by Southwest, Price turned up as a surprise guest, singing with Willie, Lukas and Micah. She and her husband, Jeremy Ivey, also did an unannounced set in the tiny Old West chapel (capacity 49), backed by Austin’s Band of Heathens for a set that included covers of Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty songs.

Price performed on the main stage at Luck the year before, but her first visit there was in 2013. Her former band Buffalo Clover came to SXSW for an off-the-grid gig that drew about 15 people, but the disappointment was tempered by a spontaneous trip to Spicewood.

“I had a friend who knew a way we could get in, so I piled in a car with like 10 other people,” she said, laughing at the memory. “We watched the show, and I thought, ‘If I could just play this someday, all my dreams would come true.’”

Fast-forward to 2018, and not only is Margo a Luck Reunion regular, she also recently signed on to be part of Willie’s Reserve, the line of pot products Nelson is selling in states where marijuana is legal.

“Yeah, I’m putting out my own weed strain,” Price said, though the name and date have not yet been announced. “When we were in Colorado, we went to a couple of the grow houses, and then we did a very sophisticated taste-testing to see which strain we wanted to have.

“The people who work there are so knowledgeable about everything. But after we smoked a few joints, the notes we were taking got pretty blurry. I think we ended up smoking something like 18 joints by the end of the day.”

Is it any wonder she gets along so well with Willie?

“He’s absolutely one of my biggest heroes,” Price said. “Getting to know him is really inspiring because he’s just remained down-to-earth. The more you’re around him, the more you get a feel for who he is. We always swap a joke, or if I hear a good joke, I’ll send it his way.”

She remembers the one he told her on the bus that night in Nashville a few weeks ago: “Did you hear about the magician? He walked down the street and turned into a drugstore.”

All jokes aside, Price clearly appreciates the historical significance of playing Willie’s Picnic. “When you look at the poster from the first year, it’s still really surreal that I get to be a part of that,” she said.

Might her current three-year string be the start of a long run to challenge the likes of almost-every-year regulars such as Ray Wylie Hubbard and Billy Joe Shaver? It’s too early to tell, but Price seems game. “I couldn’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing on the Fourth of July than that,” she said.

She’s quick to add, though, that playing Farm Aid might mean even more. She’s done the past two, in Virginia and Pennsylvania, and is on board for this year as well on Sept. 22 in Hartford, Conn.

Its cause is close to her heart. When Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp organized the first one in Illinois in 1985, Price almost could have been a poster child for the event. “My daddy lost the farm when I was 2 years old,” she sings on the autobiographical “Hands of Time,” a deeply moving tune from her 2016 debut album, “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter.”

“I really hope that I can help carry that on,” she said of Farm Aid. It’s not hard to imagine Price someday being added to its inner circle of organizers, much like Dave Matthews joined the board of directors in 2001.

“It’s the most important show I play all year,” she said. “Farmers are struggling more and more every year. They’re the heroes, and we need to take care of them.”

The success of her last two records has allowed Price and Ivey to move their family to a 5-acre spread in the country just north of Nashville. They’ve kept their previous home in the hip East Nashville neighborhood for now, but Price said they’ve discussed selling it and getting a second home out west — or perhaps in the Austin area.

“We’ve talked about Dripping Springs,” she said. “My husband was born in San Antonio, and his birth mom lives out there still. We really love Canyon Lake and Devil’s Backbone. There’s just some really pretty country down there. I think it’d be nice, as much as we come through Austin, to have a place there.”


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