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Margo Price's outlaw spirit and writerly heart has made her a vital country voice

Margo Price's outlaw spirit and writerly heart has made her a vital country voice
Margo Price at the Fonda Theatre. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Margo Price never looks more intense than when she climbs behind a drum set.

The ambitious country singer did it twice on Thursday night at her show at Hollywood's Fonda Theatre. First, she hopped on at the end of "Cocaine Cowboys," which turned a funny song about n'er-do-well posers into something genuinely psychedelic and, well, a bit druggy.

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Then she did it again to close out her set, which wrapped on a barroom-gospel version of "Proud Mary." If it wasn't for the kit in front of her, she appeared ready to stage-dive.

Since her 2016 debut "Midwest Farmer's Daughter," Price has become a singular figure in modern country. Rowdier than Kacey Musgraves and less pop-inclined than Maren Morris, Price is signed to Jack White's Third Man Records and stares down contemporary Americana with an unflinching but empathetic ear. No doubt her biography — punctuated with the loss of her family farm and a decade-plus in the Nashville trenches before her big break — lends an edge of lived experience to her wise, tightly-crafted songs.

Lately, Price has also been in the news for her relatively outspoken advocacy for gun regulation in the wake of the deadly mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest country festival last year in Las Vegas, the worst in modern U.S. history and one that struck at the heart of the genre. Price didn't bring any of that onstage. But no matter, on Thursday there was a fire and joy in her set that proved how redemptive music can still be in the wake of such a loss.

When Price took the stage, she and her band cued up Kendrick Lamar's "Loyalty" as their walk-on music. That's not too shocking in 2018, but it kind of felt like a statement of purpose — this set was going to be rough-and-tumble and yet rife with life lessons and hard-won confidence.

Margo Price has emerged as one of the most vital voices in country music.
Margo Price has emerged as one of the most vital voices in country music. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Right from the start, "Don't Say It" and "Weakness" set the tone — boozy, rock-infused, but always in service of Price's voice, which has become as fine an instrument as modern country can offer. "Sometimes I'm Virginia Woolf, sometimes I'm James Dean," she sang, with good reason for each allusion. She can drink with the outlaws, brood with the writers and turn on the waterworks with the best balladeers.

If a chorus like the one from "Wild Women" came from the record of a 22-year-old newcomer, it might feel a little bit like pandering to the current resistance-driven moment in pop culture. But from the mid-30s Price, who has seen her share of "music and the parties / Jack Daniel's and the speed," it felt like a sentiment she'd earned after lots and lots of mornings worrying. "Riding down the highway / Masquerading every night / It's hard to be a mother, a singer and a wife." Nothing's wilder than threading that needle in America today.

And for what it's worth, she can write a screw-this-town industry kiss-off with the best of them. "This song is about a ... manager I had," she said just before "Paper Cowboy," describing him with a less than savory pejorative. In the #TimesUp era, it felt especially salient.

But she also put herself in the classic country lineage, bringing out Willie Nelson's son Micah for a duet on "Learning to Lose" (dad took the verse in the studio version). It was a little eerie to hear that epochal Nelson twang harmonizing with her on that stage, but if nothing else, country music echoes through generations and two albums in, Price has firmly placed herself among such company.

She encored with her hit "Hurtin' (On the Bottle)," one of the best drinking songs of the last few years. But closing with Creedence's "Proud Mary" put her right back in her sweet spot — working the stage like a revivalist and making a hell of a ruckus on whatever she could hit. After everything country music has been through in the last year, here's hoping she has years and years of joyful noise yet to come.

For breaking music news, follow @augustbrown on Twitter.

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