I Write The Songs: Gretchen Peters

photo by Gina Binkley

After a string of songwriters who made their names in the early days of country and what we now consider to be Americana, I wanted to turn our attention to a songwriter who is still very active and who has to be one of the best songwriters around at this time.

Gretchen Peters is, and rightly so, a very successful recording artist in her own right these days, and now has nine studio albums to her name, but she started out as a songwriter providing material for others. Born in Bronxville, New York, Peters wrote her first song, with her sister, at the age of five! Not long after, she started to play guitar, encouraged by her folk singing father. Following her parents’ break up in 1970, Peters moved with her mother to Boulder, Colorado, where she started playing at local bars and clubs from the age of 15 and at 19, a demo tape she recorded for a local songwriting competition won her first prize. Despite this, she couldn’t break out of the local scene and continued to perform her songs around the Colorado circuit. Finally, in 1988, she bit the bullet and relocated to Nashville, intent on breaking into the music scene there. She was successful almost immediately, though not as a performer. Nashville has always been able to recognise a good songwriter and the country community quickly realised that Gretchen Peters was, very much, the real deal. Her first hit came in 1991, with George Strait’s recording of ‘The Chill of an Early Fall’, which she co-wrote with Green Daniel, then ‘Let That Pony Run’, a Top 10 Country hit for Pam Tillis and the first successful song with just her name in the writing credit. The big breakthrough came in 1995, when she won her first Grammy for Song of the Year, with Martina McBride’s recording of the outstanding ‘Independence Day’, a powerful song about an abused wife finally standing up to her husband, written from the perspective of their young daughter. It has everything we’ve now come to expect from a Gretchen Peters song. There is, of course, a strong melody and a catchy hook in the tune but, where Peters so often excels, is in the lyrics. Here we have a great, emotive story but it’s the way it all builds and the explosiveness of the chorus that makes the song almost anthemic – “Let freedom ring, let the white dove sing. Let the whole world know that today Is a day of reckoning. Let the weak be strong, let the right be wrong. Roll the stone away, let the guilty pay, It’s Independence Day”! I really don’t think there’s a better lyricist working in songwriting today. She paints such vivid pictures of events from everyday life. One of my favourite Peters’ songs is ‘The Matador’ from her own “Hello Cruel World” album. Rodney Crowell, himself no slouch when it comes to writing a good song, said this song “moved me so greatly, I cried from the soles of my feet”. It’s an achingly beautiful song that identifies love on a number of levels and the different passions that drive different people – “I come to each and every show; the woman in the second row. I watch them in their ancient dance and I know I never stood a chance. ‘Cause while other demons prance and clown, it’s vanity that takes you down. I thought that I could be the one, but I’m just another hanger-on”. In those few, short words you have an exact picture of the narrator of this tale, a woman fascinated by the matador and his contest with the bull, knowing she could never be more than second best to his passion for the fight. Her ability to sum up people and situations and to pinpoint descriptions within the frame of a three-minute song is really quite special.

Once she had broken through with ‘Independence Day’ her songs were increasingly in demand, and she received a second Grammy nomination for 1996’ Patty Loveless chart-topper, ‘You Don’t Even Know Who I Am’. Finally, in that same year, she got to release her own debut album, “The Secret of Life”. After over twenty years of performing and writing and at the age of 38, Gretchen Peters finally got to release her own songs. To date, including live recordings and an album of duets with Tom Russell, there have been a dozen albums with her name on the cover, the most recent being her celebration of another fine songwriter, 2020’s “The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury”. Peters was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 2014 and, in recent years, has gone from strength to strength as a performer in her own right, with her shows frequently sold out and with a strong following around the world. She’s particularly popular in the UK and well worth catching in concert, where she’s a warm and friendly performer who delights in building rapport with the audience. You also get to hear some of the stories behind the songs she has written.

Gretchen Peters at Cambridge Festival. Bryan Ledgard.

Gretchen Peters is, without a doubt, one of the great modern songwriters. It’s hard to believe that it took so long for her to establish herself, but perhaps her songwriting, and performing, are all the better for taking time to come to wider attention. If she had become a success in her late teens, when she won that local songwriting contest, would she have been able to craft songs like ‘Independence Day’, ‘Hello Cruel World’, or the magnificent ‘On a Bus to St Cloud’. Peters writes real songs about real-life situations and that’s where the strength of her songs lies. When you listen to them, you can see the story and identify the people she writes about. Anyone can relate to her songs, and that means that a wide range of singers have been able to take her songs and sing them with conviction; making them sound like their own. These are songs the singer can inhabit, which is probably why the likes of George Jones, George Strait, Pam Tillis, Martina McBride, Shania Twain, Bonnie Raitt, Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, The Neville Brothers, Faith Hill and many, many, many more have all recorded Gretchen Peters’ songs. Long may it continue.

About Rick Bayles 354 Articles
Now living the life of a political émigré in rural France and dreaming of the day I'll be able to sing those Cajun lyrics with an authentic accent!
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