Gretchen Peters is a familiar name in country music yet her notoriety is somewhat obscured by years of writing songs for other artists. She penned Independence Day for Martina McBride and won the CMA Song of the Year in 1995. She placed songs for such diverse artists asNeil Diamond and Blues Icon Etta James as well as country superstars Trish Yearwood and George Strait.
She spent years honing her craft and finding her voice. She may cut against the grain of the country establishment, but she fits right in with the incendiary polemics of Tom T. Hall, Johnny Cash and Steve Earle. Her finely honed vocal chops are compared to Lucinda Williams yet she has a style all her own. Peters co-authored Rock Steady with Bryan Adams increasing her street credibility and she delivered a stoned masterpiece in 2012 entitled Hello Cruel World. It was as honest as it was risky and it took off like a phoenix rising from the ashes, triumphant and bold.
As part of their Songwriter's Showcase, the D Street Music Foundation is bringing Peters to the legendary State Theatre in Bay City on Thursday, November 14th as the headliner in their very special 'Ladies Night Out (but everyone is welcome) showcase with special guestsJen Cass and Laurie Middlebrook. Doors open at 6:00 PM and a portion of the proceeds will benefit the YWCA. Tickets are only $15.00 and available at the State Theatre, 913 Washington St., in Bay City, or by phoning 989-892-2660 or visiting statetheatrebaycity.com.
Review: You're New York born, Colorado bred and Nashville grown. How did this upbringing and all these different cultural influences lead to this moment in time?
Peters: That's a great question that nobody's ever asked. Those are three really, really different places. I didn't do any growing up in Nashville but I certainly did some growing. I think all three things laid their mark on me pretty profoundly. Growing up in the suburbs of New York in the '60s, certainly a lot of what I write about goes back to that era and that time and my experiences, particularly the song I'm thinking of right now is Idlewild on Hello, Cruel World. It's essentially a transcription of my childhood. That time of my life in the suburbs, in the northeast, gave me enough writing material for a lifetime. It seems to be a well that I keep going back to, especially now as I'm trying to write songs for a new album. I somehow feel drawn to writing about that time, so for whatever reason, it seems like a particularly fertile ground for me.
I moved to Colorado when I was just turning 13 and I loved the live music and bands, and just the concept of becoming a musician became real to me because there was just so much going on and my mother was real supportive and her lifestyle took a complete left turn. We started going out and heard the bands. She was my greatest enabler in terms of what I was interested in doing. She made sure that it happened. I think that planted the seed of what I really wanted to do with my life in a way that I'm not sure would have happened had I stayed in New York
I got the concept of playing in front of an audience. It just became more probable to me. It was just a very different theme, not to mention that at that time in Colorado it was sort of hybrid country-rock thing because it was hugely popular and that really influenced me. I had grown up on folk music, and there was something about the country-tinged rock that I was listening to that I really felt a kinship with. There was something about the melodies and the stories and the words and the simplicity and everything about it that I really liked. So that part of it, I think, in that sense Colorado was a big influence on me.
Nashville was the last part of the puzzle that just fit everything into place for me. I moved to Nashville and I started really listening to songs in a way that I had never listened before and I began to understand what it took to write a really great song - it changed my ears in a way. It changed the way I listened to songs. I listened much more closely, carefully with an ear to a structural craft. I stopped trying to write things that sounded good and tried to write songs that really were good.
All three places really had a huge, huge influence on me. I'm a very big believer that geography and place are so important to writers.
Review: You have a gritty social consciousness - you wrote about the assassination of Megdar Evers - it doesn't seem to fit nicely with the country music establishment. Did you get any push back from this?
Peters: Yes and no. You know, this idea of the country music audience and the country music establishment, as you put it, being this ultra-conservative, you know, I'm not sure is completely accurate because when you think about people like Johnny Cash or Kris Kristofferson, they really don't fit into that mold. And country music loved its rebels. Merle Haggard, you know, I've always said that if Merle Haggard had gone onward, he would've been John Steinbeck.
Loretta Lynn wrote about controversial subjects. When I wrote Independence Day it caused a stir in the country music world, it was even banned on some radio stations. I said, “You know, it really isn't new because Loretta Lynn did that before and wrote a song called The Pill. And they wouldn't play that either.
When country music and country radio, in particular, became completely corporatized they really tried to shove anything controversial under the rug because corporations just don't like controversy.
I was lucky enough to arrive in Nashville in the late 1980s, and I was signed to the same publishing company that signed Steve Earle. So that kind of tells you the Nashville that I came to and when you say Nashville, you really don't mean the Nashville that I think we're talking right now about, the establishment. I don't feel in any meaningful way connected to that anymore. They're making the kind of records that radio is demanding and for probably 15 to 20 years now it's been a case of the tail wagging the dog.
When I first moved to Nashville publishers and record labels and artists were still controlling what kind of music they would make. Of course, they were playing to the market, but they were still determining what they would release. We didn't have focus groups defining what the record was going to sound like at that point but now they do. I think most of us that had any sort of urge to write honestly with some integrity and creatively got the hell out, or in some cases were forced out.
For instance in the song Idlewild - It uses the n-word, which is a word you absolutely cannot say. It's certainly a lightning rod of a word. I felt that it is important to talk about the civil rights movement, and I felt really strongly about the use of that word. I felt like I had to use it because for years any other language would have been to take the real thing and painting our era inaccurately. The word needed to be there for shock value. It needed to be there because people that weren't there need to know that those were the kind of words that were being flung around. To a child, those words are like lacerations. They burn and they stain you. It makes me very uncomfortable to sing it.
Review: The Beau Brummels recorded Bradley's Barn, a great album from the late '60s at Owen Bradley's studio in Nashville. It was his attempt to bring rock and roll to country. Do you think that experiment led to modern country?
Peters: I think that it was one of those …moments. I think that it was everything from the Byrds, and even John Hartford, certainly the Beau Brummels. Linda Ronstadt was experimenting with it in the late '60s, like '69. I think it was in the water; it was in the air somehow. Everybody was sort of flirting with this idea, it was basically young rock performers recognized the richness of the songs in that genre. They'd heard Nashville Skyline a few years earlier by Dylan and I think that led this continuum of music that would lead a young musician to Johnny Cash, say, and then it would lead them to maybe Kris Kristofferson. You know one thing would lead to another and some portion of those rock musicians became entranced with the form of the country song and that led to discovering Merle Haggard and you know, one thing just leads to another.
Review: As I listened to your songs and I really was blown away by all those great lyrics, I thought of you as a cross between Bob Dylan and Michael Nesmith.
Peters: Oh gosh, thank you. Wow. You know I have to say Bob Dylan was my first big influence. I was seven years old when I learned how to play the guitar and the first thing I learned to play was Dylan songs. I had an older sister who loved Bob Dylan and brought Dylan records home. I loved the rock music that she played but Bob Dylan was the very first artist I thought I could probably figure out how to play that, it was just this guy on a guitar. Even though I loved the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, I couldn't imagine learning how to play those songs. But Bob Dylan, that was a different thing.
Review: You have this quiet flow in your songs, a great subdued energy with a lot of storage in it that gives the impression that there's so much meaning in your songs underneath the timbre and phrasing, that tip of the iceberg kind of thing. Does that make sense to you?
Peters: You know, it makes a great deal of sense to me because one of the things that I believe about writing, songwriting, or any kind of writing, really more than almost anything else, is what Hemingway called the Iceberg Theory so it's really funny that you should say tip of the iceberg. Hemingway said that if you understand your story and you understand the characters and you understand what you're writing about well enough, you only need to reveal one-fifth or one-tenth of what you know in order to impart that to your listener. I'm a huge believer in that. I think one of the best practitioners of that in songwriting is Leonard Cohen.
If you know the person or the situation or the story that you're writing about very well, the underlying mystery is a very powerful thing to leave in your song. One of the problems I have with contemporary country music is everything is spelled out. There are no secrets, there is no mystery, there's no going back to a song and thinking, “I wonder what 's happening here?” With a Leonard Cohen song, for instance, there's a great deal of that. I've been listening to his song Famous Blue Raincoat for 20 to 25 years, and I still have conversations with myself, you know, mentally about what's going on in that song. It still fascinates me. I still pick it up and turn it around like a Rubik's Cube. I think there's much to be said for leaving a lot of the content under the water, so to speak. I try to practice that in songwriting. I think it's really important but it's becoming a bit of a lost art.
Review: Can you talk a little bit about your stone masterpiece Hello Cruel World?
Peters: Well, yeah. You know when I first released the album, I said, “This is my manifesto.” I knew that it was sort of an elemental album, and I knew that it was the best record that I'd ever made. From this vantage point now, you know it'll be two years old in January, I feel more certain than ever that that's true. It's a little daunting at this point right now because I'm trying to write new songs and make another album, and it's a hard place to come from when you realize, “Wow, I really did make the album of my career last time out. Now what am I going to do?
I'm so grateful that all the elements came together the way that they did. I knew I had the songs and if I just went into the studio with the right musicians that everything would be fine - and it was. It was an album that was very personal because I had had so much thrown at me in the year before I wrote those songs that I felt sort of clarified in a way. I guess my attitude was if this is the elephant in the room, all the stuff that I've had to deal with, then I have no choice but to be brutally honest about all of it. It made for some great songwriting, a good album and it made for a pretty bracing dose of honesty, which is how people reacted to it. This was a great lesson to me because there were many times writing those songs when I really sat there and thought, “Am I really going to say this to the whole world? Am I going to let myself be this naked and vulnerable? Again, the writer in me kicked in and said, “Yeah, you have to. You have to. You have no choice.”
One of the things that I wanted to say that I sort of obliquely touch on in the record, and not so obliquely, is what it feels like to be a woman who is not 20. I've admired so many of my male peers for writing about being a male and aging - Rodney Crowell and Bruce Springsteenespecially. They wrote very eloquent songs about being an older man and what they've seen and what that means. I thought that women need to hear that. I would welcome that. I would relish hearing a female artist tell me what she's learned from the vantage point of years; unfortunately in the media business it's such a taboo subject.
Review: I recall a comment that seems apropos - the natural state for a thoughtful person is that of melancholia - as you learn the truth about the world. It's not that you're walking around depressed but you are aware of this lost promise.
Peters: That is so brilliant. I'm going to remember that because, you know, there are people in the world who feel that sad or melancholy songs are depressing, and I'm not obviously one of them. I find them incredibly cathartic. I think that everybody who comes to see me certainly feels that way or they wouldn't be there. When people come up to me after a show and they say, “You made me cry,” I think, “Okay, I did my job” because catharsis is so important to us. I mean we write and we read and we go see movies and we experience art and music and other stuff to know that we're not alone. That's absolutely brilliant. I think that melancholia is, well I can't imagine life without it.
Review: You really covered a lot of personal ground here. You came up after swimming underwater and breathed in the air. You survived it all.
Peters: I think every other thing that happened, my friend's suicide, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the flood in Nashville, all of it, it was like the universe was saying to me, “Things are not what you think they are, and none of its permanent. There's nothing that can't change on a dime.” The line from Five Minutes - “In five minutes your whole life can change.” What it means specifically is that the woman is talking about her daughter, and her daughter becoming pregnant, and how that in five minutes your whole life can change. Truly, you know, that's the subtext for the whole album because everything that happens that I'm writing about and dealing with is that in five minutes your whole life can change. I think when you realize the impermanence of everything in a profound individual way, it clarifies you in a sense, and you can really get a perspective on things that are obscure and hidden from your view.
Review: Gretchen, are you the woman on the wheel?
Peters: I am. (Laughter) I am indeed. I wrote a song that was on my very first album that came out in 1996 called Circus Girl and I always profoundly identified with the character in that song. Woman on the Wheel is the mature equivalent of the “Circus Girl.” It's “Circus Girl” 17 years later. I felt a great kinship with both characters because of what it means to try to live your life out in this world at the crossroads of art and entertainment and Woman On The Wheel has a lot of subtext about trying to be an artist when people are really looking for entertainment more than art. I'm proud of that song because I felt like it expressed what I feel. I'm not complaining. I'm every day grateful for the life that I get to live, but it sometimes feels a little bit dangerous revealing some pretty dismal parts of yourself in the quest for what ultimately is the entertainment business. It's a little rocky. It's a little crazy