About the time Margo Price transitioned from acoustic guitar to drums to piano in the middle of her set at Emo’s on Tuesday night, it seemed pretty clear that part of the rising Nashville star’s mission on her current tour is pushing her identity outside the bounds often set for country singer-songwriters.
This is no surprise, really. When we spoke to Price two years ago, after her debut album “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter” had turned everyone’s heads, she stated that goal almost precisely: “As an artist, I always hope to keep growing, and I don’t want to box myself in.”
At the time, she was talking about not wanting to be pigeonholed as a country singer, though she quickly qualified her remarks by adding, “I think I will always like country music in some form or another.” Both of those truths were self-evident at Emo’s in a 90-minute set that drew upon her rural Illinois roots but pushed far beyond them as well.
As a songwriter, Price is honest and fearless, and that’s the biggest reason why she’s done so well since launching her solo career. Last fall’s “All American Made” picked up where her debut left off: Price digs deep into flyover country on “Heart of America,” challenges inexcusable gender inequality on “Pay Gap,” and turns inward on “Weakness,” in which she confesses, “Sometimes my weakness is stronger than me.”
She played most of the new album’s songs on Tuesday, though somewhat surprisingly left out “Pay Gap” on the night of the State of the Union address. (She did perform it on Monday at a Waterloo Records in-store.) Also missing was “Learning to Lose,” perhaps understandable given that on the album it’s a duet with Willie Nelson, whose voice certainly would’ve been missed. She tipped a hat to Willie by weaving a few lines from “Whiskey River,” along with Merle Haggard’s “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” into her first album’s breakthrough single, “Hurtin’ (on the Bottle).”
It was the mid-set segue from “Cocaine Cowboys” to the new record’s title track where things really got interesting, though. Opening act Paul Cauthen’s band had left their drums onstage next to those of Price’s drummer Dillon Napier, and halfway through the sludgey, psych-twinged tune, it became clear why. Price sat down at the kit and pounded away alongside Napier, helping to steer the song toward a heavy jam-out finale.
And now for something completely different: Price then commandeered bandmate Micah Hulscher’s keyboards for a spirited solo rendition of “All American Made” that quieted the spacious and mostly full room.
As an interpreter, Price has impeccable taste that skews toward Texas outlaws, as evidenced by her rendition of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Black Rose” at ACL Fest 2016 and a Statesman video of her singing a Doug Sahm tune with Shawn Sahm atop Doug Sahm Hill. This time around, she and her band revved up a rousing rendition of Guy Clark’s “New Cut Road,” later adding a creatively reworked take on Bob Dylan’s “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine.” In the encore, she tackled Loretta Lynn & Conway Twitty’s comedic “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly” with opener Cauthen belting it out and hamming it up alongside her.
Cauthen’s 50-minute opening set with his four-piece band was well-received and energetically performed, though the material was somewhat hit-and-miss. With a booming voice that commands the stage, the native of Tyler, Texas, is making strides as a solo act with his new album “My Gospel” after initially becoming known for his work with the band Sons of Fathers.
1. Don’t Say It
2. Do Right By Me
3. Hurtin’ (on the Bottle), with I Think I’ll Just Stay Here & Drink and Whiskey River)
4. Since You Put Me Down
5. Heart of America
6. New Cut Road
7. This Town Gets Around
8. Cocaine Cowboys
9. All American Made
10. Nowhere Fast
11. Tennessee Song
14. Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine
15. A Little Pain
16. Paper Cowboy
17. Four Years of Chances
18. You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly
19. Good Luck (for Ben Eyestone)
[Note: This post was updated to add detail to the set list.]