Classic Americana Album: Gretchen Peters with Tom Russell “One to the Heart, One to the Head”

Scarlet Letter Records 2009

Looking back over the last few years of this series, there are many albums that I would have considered for posting to it. Our esteemed writing colleagues seem to have quite an ear for what constitutes the classic album, some with a theme, a number of tribute/compilation albums, even some with a tenuous connection to americana, but I guess it covers whatever the writer wants the genre to cover – some might think my choice is a bit of a stretch. One or two artists appear more than once and this was perhaps inevitable, and right and proper. My goodness, there are some absolute corkers in the list

I was, however, a little surprised not to find an album by Gretchen Peters, without doubt one of the major songwriters (and recording artists) of the last twenty years and more. Sometimes a bit ‘poppy’, sometimes rather folksy, but overall given the consistently high standard of writing, recording and performing over this long period, she was a shoe-in for consideration. And so I submit the first album on which she did not write any of the songs, although her co-conspirator Tom Russell did – and what a beauty it is, more of which later. She recently released an album of the songs of Mickey Newbury.

Although a long-time songwriter (she wrote her first song aged 5!) she did not release her first album until she was nearly 40. Fourteen albums later she has won and been nominated for several awards and was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, where she is recognised in the company of some very distinguished writers (albeit nearly all men!!)

She wrote songs for other people like Etta James, Neil Diamond,  George Strait and so on, and then people started recording her songs. Martina McBride had a big hit with ‘Independence Day’, Peters’ song about domestic abuse and strong women. One of her outstanding gems, ‘On a Bus to St Cloud’ was given a transcendent treatment by Jimmy Lafave. Despite the lightness of her voice and the instrumental arrangements, Peters’ songs are often dark, about murder, abuse, loneliness, domestic violence, revenge and human frailty.

Almost exactly half way through her recording career came this gem of an album ‘One to the Heart, One to the Head’, which characterizes and conjures up vivid images of the American South-West, both past and present. Although mostly slow (or, in the case of some songs, slowed down from the original), this beautifully produced album presents definitive versions of songs reflecting the vastness and the beauty of the region, songs about snow on the Rockies, drought on the prairies, ponies running free, driving along western highways, cowboys and murderous intentions, and religious miracles through prayer. Many of the songs touch on the subjects that she herself writes about.

Take Stephanie Davis’ ‘Wolves’, a classic song (about wolves real and metaphorical and the damage they do) successfully recorded by Garth Brooks, or Nan O’Byrne’s ‘Sweet and Shiny Eyes’ (about hanging on to long gone memories), brilliantly covered by Bonnie Raitt, or Diana Jones’ ‘If I had a Gun’ (a would-be revenge song which includes the album title in its verse), which eclipses the original, even though that appeared on Jones’ consummate album ‘Better Times Will Come’. Even Townes Van Zandt’s poetic ‘Snowin’ on Raton’ is bettered. Nearly every song name-checks an iconic place in this Western landscape, even Dylan’s lesser-known ‘Billy 4’ (from the ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’ soundtrack), which is a perfect choice for this project. And then there is Rosalie Sorrels’ exquisite swan song ‘My Last Go Round’.

Russell does not appear on every track, so the album largely belongs to Peters and that wonderful voice, both powerful and whisper-sweet. And yet the highlight is Tom Russell’s most beautiful song.  ‘Guadelupe’ tells the story of Our Lady of Guadelupe, a Virgin Mary, who appears to a lowly pilgrim and answers his prayers with the wherewithal to convince the local bishop to build a church for the poor and oppressed. The tune is beautiful, the words are sublime “But who am I to doubt these mysteries Cured in centuries of blood and candle smoke I am the least of all your pilgrims here But I am most in need of hope”   This track and several others benefit from the lovely accordion of Joel Guzman,  the piano and keyboards of Barry Walsh (Peters’ husband), Peters’ acoustic guitar, Mark Hallman’s guitars and the sweet harmonies of Nadine Russell. Walsh also contributes an atmospheric instrumental ‘North Platte’, which starts the album, evoking the wide open spaces, which theme continues throughout, and reprises towards the end.

Although it is largely a Gretchen Peters album, Russell’s involvement is essential to its success – the song selection, the co-production credit and his raspy voice which is perfect as a counterpoint to her sweet one. And there is that one new song of his. Some may find the album a little slow, but this is deliberate and the songs, the singing, the playing and the production are of such high quality that it qualifies for high ranking in the americana canon.

About FredArnold 57 Articles
Lifelong fan of predominantly US (and Canadian) country roots music. Previously an avid concert-goer before wives, kids and dogs got in the way- and although I still try to get to several, my preference for small independent venues often means standing, and that ain't too good for my ancient bones!! Still, a healthy and catholic music collection helps ease the pain
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Andy Trott

Nice one Fred. It’s a stone cold classic alright. I would call it the perfect “western” album as opposed to country or any other label.