By Jane Kramer
My call finds Gretchen Peters and her husband, Barry Walsh (he’s also her bandmate/ accompanist, co-producer, pianist and brilliant recording artist in his own right), driving the winding roads from Blowing Rock to their next performance in Charlotte. This Nashville queen’s warm, intentional, melodic-even-in-speaking voice immediately set me at ease as we settled into a beautiful, completely un-terrifying and wide-ranging conversation.
The easy conversation is welcomed because it’s not every day that that I get to interview one of my biggest musical heroines and songwriting inspirations. Peters is a 2014 inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and a two-time Grammy Award nominee. She’s known for such triumphantly heart-gutting ballads as “Independence Day,” (you probably remember Martina McBride belting this chilling anthem when it topped charts in 1994), and the stunningly achey “On a Bus to Saint Cloud.”
Peters and Walsh will perform at June 22 show at Isis Music Hall in West Asheville. I’ll be opening for them. (Insert squeal.)
We talk about why Peters’ next release will be a collection of songs written by her personal songwriting hero and we linger over the importance of empathy in songwriting. We break down how she’s crushing the patriarchy (my words, not hers) one song at a time. Here’s more from our conversation:
Newbury’s train songs
Having learned before our interview that Peters was finishing up work on this collection of Newbury songs that will be titled The Night You Wrote that Song, I did some reading up on the irreverent artistic genius that was Mickey Newbury, a writer whose iconic train songs and spare, bone-true lyricism inspired the likes of Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash, just to name a few, but who eschewed the label, scene and conventions associated with Outlaw Country music.
Knowing that my own songwriting idol was so richly inspired by this writer, I wanted to know how she came to know Newbury’s work and what it was about his songs that lit her up.
Gretchen herself seemed to light up when I asked her this question, explaining:
“I was kind of a hippie, living in Boulder, Colorado, at the time before I moved to Nashville and I really just came into country music through the back door. I had a friend who owned a record shop and he was always making these great suggestions for me for music I had to listen to. I discovered a ton of wonderful music that way and started noticing that Mickey Newbury’s name was in the liner notes with songwriting credits for many of the recording artists that I loved, and I discovered him and his songs that way and just fell in love.”
Peters went on to say about Newbury’s songs and albums, which were often criticized for their eclectic nature and strange, far out production styles:
“There are really two main things that I’ve always responded to about [Newbury’s] music. One: he writes the fucking saddest songs and that is my church. Two: I really identified with him; he was truly an artist following no one else’s path but his own. Listening to his albums, you really cannot differentiate his songs from his voice from the production and recordings. They are all just so seamlessly, undeniably him. His records were way out there – eclectic and strange – and he received a lot of criticism for that, but he continued to do it his way and stayed true to his visions. I just got him as an artist in a big way.”
Wanting to seek inspiration and hopefully infuse the album with Newbury’s spirit, Peters chose to record the songs for The Night You Wrote That Song at the famous Cinderella Sounds recording studio in Nashville, where Newbury recorded his legendary albums of the late 1960s and early 1970s such as Looks Like Rain and Frisco Mabel Joy and where acclaimed artists such as Linda Ronstadt have recorded some of their most important works.
Peters noted that she’s had the idea for making this album of Newbury songs for more than 15 years now, but that there were songs of her own that just needed to come out first. The project kept getting pushed to the back burner until she and Walsh decided a little over two-and-a-half years ago to just break down the recording process into small chunks over time.
Cinderella Sounds is a small, converted two-car garage with a vocal booth inside of a tiny bathroom, all adjoined to the home of studio founder and guitarist, Wayne Moss (who also played on Peters’ album,) in a quiet residential neighborhood far from the glitz and glare of Music Row.
“It was like recording inside of a living time capsule. It was wild,” Peters says.
“I wasn’t sure how working in that space would affect the songs, but it certainly did infuse them with the rich musical history that those walls have absorbed over the years. We felt the magic for sure and are so happy that we chose to bring this project to life in that space.”
The Night You Wrote That Song is in the mixing phase now and will be released some time within the next year. That’s exciting and satisfying for Peters, who says she wants to pay homage to an artist whose songs have served as such a source of inspiration and comfort for her.
“There is such a deep, deep empathy in [Newbury’s] songs. As humans, anything that evokes and cultivates empathy is really important,” she muses.
Empathy and giving a voice to some of the most marginalized and misunderstood members of our society continue to be recurring themes and subtexts in many of Peter’s songs. It seems it’s always been that way, dating back to before she wrote the hit “Independence Day.” (In that song, the protagonist is a young child whose mother kills her abusive alcoholic father by burning their house down.)
As we discussed the inspiration and motivation Peters culled for her last full-length album, 2018’s acclaimed Dancing with the Beast, she said that she had a little blackboard in her living room and she wrote herself a message on it “to just begin by telling one tiny little story.”
She added that Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath “ is a beautiful example of someone creating empathy for a character who is nothing like us. It shows that you can tell one tiny little story and that opens people’s empathy channels more than anything. It’s a view into all of our humanity and makes a tiny hole in everyone’s armor.”
The way that Peters is able to truly and deeply inhabit the characters she writes about in her songs, as well as her cinematic approach to storytelling through striking visual detail, can’t help but evoke empathy in listeners. This first verse and chorus of her song “Say Grace” from Dancing with the Beast serves as a powerful example:
Our lady of the bus depot is holding forth tonight
Her body it is wasted but her eyes are shining bright
And our father who art slightly drunk is warding off the shakes
And he staggers underneath the weight of the promises he makes
Say grace – say grace
Forgive yourself for all of your mistakes
You can start all over if that’s what it takes
Come inside and set yourself a place
And say grace
Dancing with the Beast is a collection of songs that puts all female characters at the forefront. There’s a truck-stop prostitute, a woman grappling with aging, change and loss of relevance in the haunting opening track “Arguing with Ghosts.” There’s a self-conscious teenage girl learning the bitter lessons of objectification of her body at the hands of men in “The Boy from Rye.” And there’s a young girl who shoots her mother’s abusive boyfriend after he has repeatedly molested her in the chilling and powerful track, “Wichita.”
Peters says that she didn’t necessarily set out to write an album of songs all from the perspective of women and girls. But after the 2016 presidential election, she was certainly feeling the collective fear, anger and grief in response to the country’s toxic political regime. While it didn’t feel like it would be authentic to her “to make a calculated turn toward writing songs with overtly political narratives like some of (my) dear friends such as Mary Gauthier and Eliza Gilkyson do so beautifully, I thought: I can just begin by telling one woman’s story.”
That idea resides perfectly within the founding principle of second-wave feminism, the notion that the personal is political and that women’s individual lives, voices and stories are important, relevant to all of us and have a place in a larger socio-cultural narrative. “It absolutely confounds me that anyone would argue otherwise,” Peters adds.
“The beginning process of writing an album to me is, you’re in the mud. You keep your head down and you keep working. Then, eventually, there is that wonderful moment of realizing where it’s all headed and five or six songs into Beast I realized very organically that all of these songs were women’s and girl’s voices and I needed to keep moving in that direction because these are the voices we all need to hear right now.”
Stretching into the fresh, unplowed fields of topics and themes “that haven’t already been written to death” is becoming increasingly important to Peters at this phase in her writing career. Beyond that, she says she strives to put into language and infuse empathy into things that can be unpleasant or hard to talk about. Peters says she aims to tell difficult stories in the hope of helping people feel less alone
“One of the topics that really called to me on this album was the topic of women aging. This isn’t something that is really talked about or valued in our society. There is such a phobia around it, which is so sad to me. I’ve been writing about women aging since I was in my 20s, even though I’ve been told not to and warned against it because it’s somewhat of a taboo topic. That makes me want to do it even more and to shine light on this unfair standard.”
Peters was also inspired by her mother in this regard, who passed away in late 2016, and whose voice found its way deeply into several of the songs on the album, such as “Disappearing Act” and “Love that Makes a Cup of Tea.”
Peters and Walsh have maintained a rigorous domestic and international touring schedule since Dancing With the Beast’s release and Peters attests to feeling the powerful impact that these songs have on people when performed live.
“We see it every time, particularly with “The Boy from Rye” and “Disappearing Act,” she says. “People love songs that make them feel seen. When you as the writer/performer can gently and artfully lift the veil of shame and just say the thing, you can really reach people. We need more of that.”
Gretchen Peters and her husband, Barry Walsh are set to play Isis Music Hall at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 22. Asheville songstress Jane Kramer will open the show.