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Universal Music Group Nashville recording artist and three-time GRAMMY nominee Chris Stapleton is an established songwriter with five No. one hits already under his belt including the five-week No. one “Never Wanted Nothing More” recorded by Kenny Chesney, “Love’s Gonna Make it Alright” recorded by George Strait, and “Drink A Beer” recorded by Luke Bryan. As a writer for Sea Gayle Music Publishing, Stapleton has penned over 170 album cuts, including songs recorded by Adele, Tim McGraw, Brad Paisley and Dierks Bentley, and has such notable co-writers as Vince Gill, Peter Frampton and Sheryl Crow among others. Additionally, Stapleton has shared the stage with such respected artists as Vince Gill, Alison Krauss, Marty Stuart, Emmy Lou Harris and more.
As lead vocalist for critically acclaimed bluegrass band The SteelDrivers, Stapleton earned three GRAMMY nominations including Best Bluegrass Album, as well as an International Bluegrass Music Association Award for Emerging Artist of the Year. He’s won six ASCAP Awards and has contributed to the soundtracks of several feature films including “Cars 2” and “Valentine’s Day.”
Stapleton is currently working on his first solo studio album for Universal Music Group Nashville.
A lot can change in a year: markets boom and bust, trends come and go, presidents get elected. In 2015, Margo Price was a country underdog just trying to keep enough gas in the tank to get to the next gig, but by the end of 2016, she was one of the genre’s most celebrated new artists and a ubiquitous presence on late night television and at major festivals around the world. It’s the kind of year most musicians can only dream of, and the arrival of Price’s spectacular sophomore album, “All American Made,” proves that she hasn’t taken a moment of it for granted. Delivering on the promise of her debut and then some, the record finds Price planting her flag firmly in the soil as a songwriter who’s here for the long haul, one with the chops to hang with the greats she so often finds herself sharing stages with these days.
“People have started asking me, ‘Now that you’re having success, what are you going to write about?’” Price recounts with a laugh. “A lot of what I wrote on my debut came out of my struggles in the music business, but we don’t have any shortage of material now. I’m just excited to finally have an audience and know that people are going to listen to our songs.”
A prolific writer with a knack for candid self-reflection, Price has never had to look too far for inspiration, and on ‘All American Made,’ she and her songwriting partner/husband, Jeremy Ivey, continue to depict the trials of everyday life with unflinching honesty, painting poetically plainspoken portraits of men and women just trying to get by. Highs and lows, long nights and hard days, wild women and cocaine cowboys, politics and sexism, it’s all in there, singularly filtered through Price’s wry, no-bullshit perspective. Throughout the album, her contemporary take on classic sounds is at once familiar and daring, an infectious blend of Nashville country, Memphis soul, and Texas twang that tips its cap to everyone from Waylon and Willie (who makes a guest appearance) to Loretta and Dolly, all while flipping a middle finger to the cookie-cutter pop that dominates modern country radio. Rich with swirling pedal steel, honky-tonk rhythms, and Price’s stop-you-in-your-tracks vocals, ‘All American Made’ is deeply reverent of tradition even as it challenges conventions, a nuanced exploration of conflicted emotions for our deeply conflicted times.
Far from overnight, Price’s recent meteoric rise is the product of more than a decade of hard work and sacrifice. While she’d long been one of East Nashville’s best-kept-secrets, she burst onto the international scene with the 2016 release of her first solo album, ‘Midwest Farmer’s Daughter.’ The record debuted in the Top 10 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart and graced Best-Of lists everywhere from Entertainment Weekly to NPR Music, who called it “the hard-won arrival of an artist who feels like she’s always been here.” Vulture described Price as “one of the most compelling country talents to come out of Nashville in recent memory,” while Pitchfork hailed the album as “a potential classic,” and Rolling Stone praised its “amazingly vivid songcraft.” Price solidified her next-big-thing status with stellar performances on Saturday Night Live, Colbert, Fallon, CBS This Morning, Seth Meyers, A Prairie Home Companion, and more, in addition to taking home Emerging Artist of the Year honors at the Americana Music Awards and winning The American Music Prize for the year’s best debut album. She shared stages and bills with Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, and Chris Stapleton among others, and her compelling story—years of toil in the Nashville trenches, the loss of her family’s farm and the tragic death of her infant child, a brush with the law, selling her car and pawning her wedding ring to afford studio time, signing to Jack White’s Third Man Records as the label’s first country artist—was recounted in glowing profiles everywhere from the NY Times Magazine and the New Yorker to Morning Edition and Fader.
When it was time to record the follow-up, Price and her band headed back to Memphis, TN, where they’d cut ‘Midwest Farmer’s Daughter’ on a shoestring budget. Instead of returning to Sun Studios, though, they moved down the street to the larger Sam Phillips Recording studio, which the legendary producer opened in 1960 when his own skyrocketing success necessitated more space.
“We recorded live again because that’s really how I like to work,” Price explains. “We’d get in around ten or eleven each morning, and then after about twelve hours of recording, we’d all start yelling for tequila, take a shot, and then just keep going.”
That spirited, energetic atmosphere infuses even the record’s darkest moments with a potent sense of vitality. On the uptempo album opener “Don’t Say It,” Price dishes out sardonic wordplay over smoking hot guitar, while the pedal-steel and fiddle-fueled “Weakness” toes the line between sobriety and mayhem, and the tender “Learning To Lose” finds her living out a country music fantasy as she duets with Willie Nelson.
“We’d gotten to know him a bit from playing shows together and I idolized the hell out of him,” says Price. “I didn’t know there were people like that, who’d achieved such massive stardom but remained so down to earth.”
Old school country may be the album’s most obvious touchstone, but Price and her band incorporate 60’s and 70’s R&B into many of the arrangements here, fusing two of Tennessee’s greatest musical exports. The funky “Do Right By Me” shimmies and grooves with Gospel legends The McCrary Sisters helping out on backing vocals, and the driving “A Little Pain” gets an assist from sweeping orchestration by Memphis legend Lester Snell (the man responsible for the string arrangements in “Shaft”).
“Sometimes you feel like you’ve got to please everybody, but ultimately you should be the one you’re worrying about taking care of,” Price says of the inspiration behind the song. “I wrote it pretty quickly just thinking about being on the road and trying to keep it together while you’re burning the candle at both ends.”
They say write what you know, and there are few things Price knows better than the road and the myriad of obstacles facing women who make their living on it. On “Pay Gap,” she laments the financial state of gender inequality (“why don’t you do the math? / Pay gap, pay gap / Ripping my dollar in half,” she sings), and “Wild Women” looks at the hypocrisies of what’s expected from male musicians compared to their female counterparts.
“There’s a definite double standard,” says Price, “but I think if you’re out there long enough, you stop giving any fucks and you just want to call it out. I get asked questions in interviews that no man would be asked, and if I’m assertive about what I want for me and my band, I get called a ‘diva.’ That song is really about the judgment I get from people who act like women shouldn’t be out on the road. Girls should be encouraged to follow their careers and their dreams just as much as men.”
The album closes with an intimate, acoustic rendition of “All American Made,” a song which calls to mind “Born In The USA” with its patriotic-sounding title and far more troubled lyrics.
“We actually wrote that song during the Obama administration,” says Price, “but it really altered meaning for me on the day Trump was elected. That song embodies the good and the bad in the ugly in this country. America is so beautiful to me, but it’s in a really hard spot right now. I feel like I was one of the first and only country artists to speak out so openly against Trump, and I had a lot of people tell me I shouldn’t be giving my opinion, but as far as I’m concerned, there’s not a lot of doubt about the difference between right and wrong.”
That candor is part of what makes ‘All American Made’ such a powerful follow-up release. Price could have taken her moment in the spotlight as an opportunity to homogenize and chase a slicker, more polished sound built for radio and arenas, but instead, she doubled down on the grit and the truth in her music. It’s honesty that brought her to this remarkable moment, and honesty that will continue to carry her into the future. How much higher will Margo Price’s star rise? Only time will tell, but just remember, a lot can change in a year.
The Marcus King Band
“Forgive me for I have sinned,” Marcus King implores, on the gorgeous, contemplative “Confessions,” an essential track from The Marcus King Band’s third full-length album, Carolina Confessions. “The pain that I put you through is killing me inside/Thought if I could make you leave/Then you would see/I ain’t worth a damn anyway.” This highly revealing moment from the multi-talented, confident 22-year old artist gets to the heart of the album’s fundamental themes, guilt and the quest for absolution.
Carolina Confessions is confirmation of a preternaturally mature artist coming into his own; it’s a sprawling, scintillating work that affirms King as one of today’s most engaging, singular songwriters. He may be young, but King’s eloquent songs, expressive guitar playing, and ecstatically soulful singing mark this gifted, thoughtful young prodigy as a force to be reckoned with.
King has been writing songs, performing onstage for half his lifetime and fronting his own groups for nearly a decade. Since he was a teenager, he’s been trading licks with famous fans and mentors Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks whenever their paths have crossed. Haynes was so blown away by the then-19-year-old’s artistic precocity that he signed King to his Evil Teen label, released the band’s debut album, Soul Insight, in 2015 and produced the band’s self-titled follow-up a year later.
Produced and mixed by Grammy Award-winner Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, John Prine, Jason Isbell) and recorded at Nashville’s iconic RCA Studio A, Carolina Confessions finds King and his five bandmates—drummer Jack Ryan, bass player Stephen Campbell, trumpeter/trombonist Justin Johnson, sax player Dean Mitchell and keyboard player DeShawn “D-Vibes” Alexander—taking a major leap as an expansive and dexterous musical unit.
“We immediately hit it off with Dave because of the way he works,” says King. “There’s six of us, and we have our own arbitration process; he was really understanding of the fact that this is a band. His production style is not so hands-on, and we’d all seen what a good producer does—and more importantly what he doesn’t do—from working with Warren on the last record. We went into the studio straight off the road, and I didn’t have an opportunity to even send a cellphone recording of the songs that I’d finished. So, we made it a point to start with those songs and build them from the ground up. That kept it very fresh.”
King penned all the material himself, except the swaggering “How Long,” which he co-wrote with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and veteran songsmith Pat McLaughlin. “Every tune on this record is based around a central theme, which is that none of us are blameless at the end of a relationship,” King points out. “Basically, Carolina Confessions is about me leaving my home town, explaining why I would do that, and why I felt like it was taken from me—just sharing in some of the blame of why a relationship didn’t work.”
Separation, from loved ones or one’s dreams, is another strand running throughout the new album. “Hear the sound of my highway/I get stoned as I pray/Think I’ll just fade away / who’s gonna care?”, he sings on “Where I’m Headed.” But the downcast lyric is belied by the uplift of the music, which conjures the ache of loss and the comfort of family. In the lilting “Homesick,” the song’s narrator has turned his car around and can hardly wait for his odyssey to be over: “So damn tired of this ride/Turn the headlights off let the moonlight guide/Lord it’s gonna guide me back home.”
“Welcome ’Round Here,” which opens with a mournful slide guitar before the band slams the track into overdrive, was triggered by the Trump travel ban, instituted right after the election. “It really pissed me off,” says King, “and that was the immediate inspiration. But then I started thinking about the kids who leave their homes in the South, because there’s a lot of intolerance—family members who don’t accept their own children, what they want to be in their lives and who they really are. That’s what this song is really about, so I wanted to give it the flavor of the mountains, of home.” In the lyric, an elder dismissively demands, “Let me live my life/Way that I was raised/Boy I recommend you do the same.”
Some tracks were massaged into shape through an incremental process of trial and error, including the essential album closer “Goodbye Carolina.” King recalls, “I’d written it about a really dear friend of mine who had committed suicide, so there’s a deeper meaning, and I realized the happy-sounding major key vibe of the verses weren’t working. So, the next day I explained that to Dave, and then I went back out and recut the verses myself, and we gained that melancholy vibe I was searching for.
The album’s cover image—a photograph of a ramshackle confessional, with its screen door swung open, sitting surreally amid the kudzu—is suffused with Southern Gothic mystery, straddling redemption and damnation. It’s a striking visual metaphor for the spiritual struggle so vividly portrayed in the songs of Carolina Confessions. “My mother was Catholic, and my grandmother on my mother’s side was Catholic,” says King. “I wasn’t raised Catholic, but the idea of confessing your sins was always really powerful to me.”
King is a Blue Ridge Mountain boy, born and raised in Greenville, South Carolina. A fourth-generation musician, he traces his lineage back to his fiddle-playing great grandfather, while his grandfather was a fiddler and guitarist. His dad is Marvin King, is a singer/guitarist who has toured nationally since the ‘70’s with various artists as well as his own group, Marvin King and Blue Revival.
There’s a deeply felt sense of familial responsibility. “I guess to some degree it does feel like I’m carrying a torch and trying to rekindle some of that flame and that energy that my grandfather had and my father also has. My father is still my favorite guitar player and my biggest influence, but also my biggest supporter. So, more than anything, I’m trying to make him proud.” It’s fitting that his primary guitar on the album is a ’62 Gibson 345 that belonged to his granddad. “My grandfather’s light shined so bright through his eyes; he was just so happy to play,” Marcus recalls.
Marcus King doesn’t strive for authenticity, he never had to—it’s busting out of his DNA in every note he plays and every word he sings. This focused, firmly rooted artist isn’t just perpetuating the proud legacy of American rock and soul music; with the musically enthralling, deeply personal, Carolina Confessions, he and his great band are adding their own eloquent chapter to that rich narrative.