Back on the 12th August 2022 I opened an e-mail from Gretchen Peters as many would have done across the country that morning with the single word headline ‘Announcement’. Intrigued I quickly proceeded to cast my eyes over the following paragraphs and with every passing sentence felt my heart grow heavier, as if a dark cloud had suddenly darkened the sun replacing its comforting warmth with a distant chill. For the last two decades, Peters along with her partner in crime and soulmate Barry Walsh have brought their exquisite brand of americana music to these shores, gradually building an extensive fan base courtesy of eight studio albums that have helped set the benchmark for singer-songwriters throughout the twenty-first century, each crammed full of songs that for many have proved life-changing such is the quality of the craft. However with the e-mail came the sobering news that the forthcoming tour through May 2023 would be the last, a farewell tour, and a chance for Peters to say thank you for the decades of support.
So to coincide with this tour, and my own way of saying thank you, I thought it would be a perfect time to once again revisit each of Peters’ studio albums and lose myself in the work of a songwriting genius. Choosing which ten songs to focus on was always going to be a challenge so to help I decided to just include tracks that have appeared on her solo albums, however after two weeks of in-depth research not to mention a whole lot of soul-searching I had only managed to get the list down to eighteen tracks. That’s it I screamed, I refuse to cull this list any more. However the editors here at AUK, can be a hard bunch, “essential top 10, the clues in the title” they said. So I was left with no choice but to take the scientific approach. First write the name of each of the songs on a separate piece of paper, then carefully fold and put each into a hat, give a good shake and then retrieve ten pieces of paper from said hat. What do you mean that’s not scientific? Anyway if your favourite Peters song does not appear in the list below, blame the hat, a battered old Panama should you need to know that I picked in up in Quito during my trek through the South American continent what seems like a lifetime ago. A different time, certainly. A different person, probably.
In that aforementioned e-mail to her fans Peters hinted at her frustration towards the music industry and its insatiable appetite for more saying “we need better songs, not more songs” and talking of a “sacred place” for “artists who want to make art that lasts”. This all helps to emphasise the passion and responsibility Peters feels towards the songwriting muse, reaching into the very heart of the ordinary man and woman and giving a voice to the voiceless to which we the listeners are and always will be eternally grateful. So fingers crossed the choices below manage to go some way into covering the vast range within Peters’ cannon of work and here’s hoping that she plays all of the following songs and a whole lot more during the forthcoming concerts. I’ve got my ticket, I hope you’ve got yours. Oh and just a thought, it might be worth bringing a box of tissues with you. I’ve a feeling it’s going to be an extremely emotional evening.
Number 10: ‘Black Ribbons’ (2015)
Taken from the award-winning album ‘Blackbirds’ (UK Americana Association International Album of the Year 2016) this song was a co-write with Matraca Berg and Suzy Bogguss who Peters regularly performed with under the moniker of ‘Wine, Woman, & Song’ and turns the spotlight on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill (known to some as the BP Oil Spill) that tragically took place in the Gulf of Mexico back in 2010. The song’s theme focuses on the devastating impact the spill had on the local fisherman and the communities who made their living from the sea, captured perfectly through the thoroughly unsentimental directness of the lyrical narrative, while the musical arrangement grows from the intro of driving rhythmic chords on the acoustic guitar that gradually builds in intensity with an aggressive percussive backbeat and Walsh’s impeccable accordion accompaniment.
Number 9: ‘On A Bus To St. Cloud’ (1996)
From Peters’ debut album in 1996 this song had originally seen the light of day the previous year appearing on Trisha Yearwood’s album ‘Thinking’ About You’, and was allegedly composed whilst looking at a map in preparation for a cross-country trip of the US. It was clear even at this comparatively early stage in Peters’ songwriting career that she possessed a unique talent, a poet’s soul with a lyrical narrative capable of conjuring up such vivid imagery with gentle intimacy. Here with just a simple piano accompaniment sprinkled with a plaintive clarinet Peters tells the heart-rending story of someone who continues to see the image of a former lover despite their loss to suicide. Though never a hit this song would become Peters’ most played track on the radio and most requested song live and throughout her years of touring has never left the setlist.
Number 8: ‘Hello Cruel World’ (2012)
By the time Peters’ sixth studio album ‘Hello Cruel World’ appeared in the January of 2012 it was clear her songwriting style had subtly changed. Yes all the poetic prose, strong melodies and poignant narratives so prevalent on previous albums remained in abundance but now underpinned by a lyrical courageousness revealing a greater sense of vulnerability and sagacity. Nowhere is this more evident than on the opening lines to the title track “Haven’t done as well as I thought I would, I’m not dead but I’m damaged goods”. Here Peters’ comes to recognise the spectres of the ticking clock as they taunt with all that is lost and unfulfilled while steadfastly refusing to surrender and in doing so coming to understand that in fact it was always about the struggle, never the victory or the glory. In many ways this song drew a line in the sand, a declaration of a newfound bravery and self belief that she would look her demons square in the eye and not back down, no matter what the subject. From now on nothing was off the table.
Number 7: ‘The Secret Of Life’ (1996)
The song that secured Peters’ her first record deal and though it achieved little airplay throughout the US it was a different story across the pond prompting her first visit to the UK a few months after its release. The song itself was somewhat out of sync with the times particularly in Nashville with the synthesised keyboard that underpins the track having much in common with the sounds that percolated the charts a decade before. What marks this song out for inclusion and the reason it remains such a key part of the live set is the lyrical narrative. Even at the very genesis of Peters’ recording career she was demonstrating the art of communication through song, connecting with the ordinary man and woman in the street, seeing the world through their eyes. The theme of the track is centred around a conversation in a bar, and those of a certain vintage may conjure a vision of the hit tv show ‘Cheers’ that was so popular during the nineties, but whether or not the show had any influence on Peters writing is irrelevant as the storytelling within the song is both insightful and inclusive.
Number 6: ‘Love That Makes A Cup Of Tea’ (2018)
As it stands this track is the last song on the last studio album of original material from Peters so far, and though we hope there will more new material in the offing, a point Peters has reassuringly addressed, if indeed this was the final song then it’s unlikely there could be better track to leave her audience with. Of all the collective skills Peters brings to her art possibly her greatest skill lies in the ability to draw the listener close, as if the song is exclusively for them. The song begins with the strings of a gently picked guitar caressing Peters’ vocals that seem to float as effortlessly as summer breeze whilst Walsh creates just the subtlest of colour from the pump organ that you’re barely aware of its presence. In essence it is a multifaceted love song, free of cliches and false romanticism, instead sharing a worldly wisdom of defiance against the odds “There is love that fights for justice, knowing justice won’t be done”, with the poignancy and empathy in “There is love that rows a lifeboat towards some shining golden shore” and the comforting reassurance that there is “Love that makes a cup of tea”. In less than three minutes Peters has captured everything that love can be in a way many writers spend their whole careers searching for. The perfect parting gift.
Number 5: ‘When All You Got Is A Hammer’ (2015)
Another track from the award-winning album ‘Blackbirds’, ‘When All You Got Is A Hammer’ is the definitive anti-war anthem for the twenty-first century as it focuses on the damaged inflicted on the military men and woman who return from the conflict and horrors of the frontline expected to simply fit back into a society that can’t possibly comprehend what they’ve witnessed and experienced, many carrying the invisible scars of PTSD. At no point does Peters attempt to sugar the pill here instead her lyrics are as unapologetic as they are direct every syllable hammered home allowing no hiding place. The darker mood here is perfectly matched by the muscular musical accompaniment which has the added attraction of Jason Isabell on harmony vocals.
Number 4: ‘Independence Day’ (1996)
For most people this would probably have been the first Peters song they heard though it’s unlikely that many knew the name of its author at the time as it was Martina McBride who took the song to the top of the country charts in 1994. Peters has admitted to having a ‘love hate’ relationship with the song that over the following decades would be misinterpreted and hijacked but accepts it was the song that changed her life. A song clearly about domestic abuse, it’s somewhat baffling to understand those that heard a patriotic anthem. What is indisputable is the quality of the song which demonstrated from the very start Peters’ commitment to tackle the uncomfortable with her lyrical narrative and the latent talent to marry her poetry with the perfect melody. ‘Independence Day’ would win song of the year at the CMA Awards in 1995 while Rolling Stone would place the song in its ‘Top 100 Greatest Country Songs’. In 2014 Peters would re-record the song, reconnecting, reclaiming and returning it to its rightful owner.
Number 3: ‘Five Minutes’ (2012)
As hard as it is to believe now over a dozen years after its release but this track was almost left off the 2012 album ‘Hello Cruel World’, so unsure was Peters that the song would fit with the rest of the album and was only convinced after performing the song during the Wine, Woman & Song, tour of 2011 and the enthusiastic response received from the audience each night. Rarely has so much storytelling been teased from exactly five minutes of song as Peters inhabits the role of a luncheonette waitress recalling her life story with its teenage pregnancy and romantic disappointments all related to her first love that she still carries a torch for but who left her life so many years before. Quickly becoming a fan favourite, ‘Five Minutes’ has now gone on to become Peters’ 2nd most requested song.
Number 2: ‘Blackbirds’ (2015)
This classic murder ballad, ‘Blackbirds’ was the title and opening track on this award-winning album and would be Peters’ first co-write with Ben Glover. A psychological thriller full of subtle lyrical clues and fragmented evidence, the song in truth is less about who did what to who and more about why. Peters’ pristine vocals are delivered here with a steely determination exploring some of the darkest corners of society. The power and menace of the lyrical narrative is reminiscent of Springsteen’s classic album ‘Nebraska’ but this time seen from a woman’s prospective with lines such as “last thing I remember was your footsteps in the hall, whiskey in your voice and a shotgun on the wall” delivering maximum heart-thumping tension with its clock stopping turn of phrase. The musical accompaniment is equal to the lyrical narrative in creating the suspense in particular the guitar with its jagged static fuelled chords while a slower reprise of the song would close the album and the track itself would go on to win the ‘International Song Of The year 2016’ by the UK Americana Association.
Number 1: ‘The Matador’ (2012)
Written over a five day period and focussing on the polarity of both love and art within the creative process ‘The Matador’ the third track from ‘Hello Cruel World’ is the epitome of songwriting. Based around Federico Garcia Lorca’s concept that a dark spirit can seize an artist and thus subconsciously produce the most powerful and elemental creation, the thrall of the spirit, or ‘duenda’ is that which controls not only the performer but also the audience as they are pulled temporarily into another world. Thus Peters draws on the duality between the listeners love of the artist and that of his creation with the willingness to be burnt by the flame rather than face the inevitable ignominy of being just another face in the crowd. The perfection of the poetry is only equalled by the perfection of the delivery. Peters has gone on record stating that ‘The Matador’ is her favourite song from a writing perspective whilst the legend that is Rodney Crowell claimed that ‘The Matador’ moved him so greatly “I cried from the sole of my feet”. For myself in the fifty years that I have dedicated my life to the church of the songwriter it is true there have been many songs that have stopped me in my tracks on first hearing, but very few if any continue to have that same impact throughout the years as this song. Peters’ undoubted masterpiece.
Graeme, thanks for a great list. We feel your pain. I still love the early album ‘G P’ best, and the songs from ‘Souvenirs’ to ‘Revival’. Objectively, you have picked better songs, but these caught the time wonderfully for me.
Hi Conor. Thanks for the kind words. To be honest I could have done this list ten times and it would have looked different every time which simply highlights what an amazing songwriter ‘G P ‘ is and what a wonderful cannon of work she has produced over the last thirty years.
Nice list but how could you do without “When you are old” It always makes me cry as I hold my wife’s hand. Yes Gretchen stop making excuses and start writing again. The world needs your wonderful songs.
Hi Andy. I promise you I love that song as well and it was definitely in the list of eighteen, after that everything’s a blur, (lol). Lets keep our fingers crossed that Gretchen continues to write even after she stop touring as you’re spot on when you say “The world needs her wonderful songs” in fact I would say more than ever.
As I counted down each song that you included, I said an inward “yes!” with each one that you mentioned. Suffice to say I couldn’t do better than your list. Each song a gem!
Many thanks Donald. To be honest I did find reducing the list to just ten songs a real struggle such is the strength in depth of Gretchen’s songwriting, and fully understand that these list are totally subjective. So, really pleased that my chosen list mirrors your own personal view. Cheers.
really? “Guadaloupe” not on the list? Shame.
Hi Glen. Yeah, I absolutely love Gretchen’s interpretation of the Tom Russell classic, but to help me in reducing the list down to ten I stipulated that only songs written or at least co-written by Gretchen would be considered. But yeah, it’s stunning cover.
Thank you for this. I agree with all your selection but would also have included The Way You Move Me (I think just because of where I was in my life at the time I first heard it, I will always have a soft spot!) Arguing With Ghosts (maybe because I’m getting to that age?) I have always loved Picasso and Me.
I don’t have the quality of argument that you have – I just love how they make me feel.
I have a ticket for 26th May, and I will definitely take advice from here and take tissues with me.
Hi Kim. Thank you for your kind words, if only I could have squeezed another half dozen songs into the top 10 I think I might have nailed it. There again…! Arguing With Ghosts and Picasso and Me are great shouts and were definitely contenders. Enjoy the gig on the 26th, I’m going on the 16th, it will be interesting to see if the set list varies from show to show. One things for sure, emotions will be running high.