Honoured by Songwriters Hall Of Fame
– By Denise Torenbeek –
20 years ago, Gretchen Peters’ anthemic song ‘Independence Day’ began its’ meteoric ascension to become Martina McBride’s undisputed ‘career’ song. Its’ graphic, meticulous imagery was typical of Peters’ songs, which have included Patty Loveless’ ‘You Don’t Even Know Who I Am,’ Faith Hill’s ‘The Secret of Life’ and Trisha Yearwood’s ‘On A bus to Saint Cloud.’
This October, Peters, along with John Anderson (‘Swingin,’ ‘Seminole Wind’) Tom Douglas (‘I Run To You’ Lady Antebellum; ‘The House That Built Me’ Miranda Lambert) and Paul Craft (‘Dropkick Me Jesus) will enter the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
I am a long term fan of Gretchen’s writing and took the opportunity to congratulate her and gain some insights about her art.
DT: I wanted to explore your songwriting heroes, as you said the first thing that hit you upon being notified of your induction to the Hall of Fame was that so many of your heroes and friends were in that ‘hallowed elite’ and were you really ready or was it a mistake! Whose work shaped and inspired you?
GP: Leonard Cohen, always. Paul Simon, Bob Dylan. Those three I’ve loved since childhood. My two heroes when I was a teenager were Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne. Bonnie wasn’t really writing then, but she was a song’s best friend and always knew where to find the great ones. Not to mention her incredible voice, guitar playing and musicianship. Jackson Browne’s music spoke to me so much on an emotional level. I’ve always loved songs that bring me to tears – it’s the most remarkable thing, that music can go straight to your emotional centre like that. It’s more direct than anything else I know. Later on, in my late teens when I was starting to write and perform, Gram Parsons, Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris were big influences. Emmylou was similar to Bonnie Raitt in that she hadn’t really written much yet, but she had an unerring sense for songs. And of course her interpretations were, and are stunning.
DT: Do you retain a fondness for your songs? Or are they ‘out on their own’ once they’re finished?
GP: I am fond of all of them – but don’t necessarily want to sing all of them! Like grown children, some seem to want to find homes far away, some seem to never want to move out of my house. The ones that stay with me (On A Bus To St. Cloud, The Secret Of Life) are still in my set list.
DT: Your song you are most enamoured of/satisfied with, that someone else cut – probably ‘Independence Day’, but I may be surprised so am asking? My pick would be ‘On A Bus to St Cloud’ re Trisha Yearwood’s awesome vocal prowess.
GP: If you were to ask me the song I’ve written that I’m most satisfied with it would probably be a three-way tie. ‘On A Bus To St. Cloud’, ‘The Matador’ and ‘Idlewild’. I wouldn’t change anything in any of those songs. So I guess my answer for my favourite song that’s been covered is ‘On A Bus To St. Cloud’ – not only Trisha Yearwood’s gorgeous version but also Jimmy LaFave’s equally transcendent one
DT: Your song that you feel most closely represents the ‘pinnacle of your ambition’ that has not been cut by anyone else?
GP: Probably ‘The Matador’. I laboured over that one and felt (and still feel) I’d done my best. It feels concise and thoroughly true.
DT: Your oft-quoted ‘non-commercial focus’ in your writing is certainly what makes it so attractive to me and many others – do you have any comment on the ratio of commerciality versus plummeting sales/plays of country music in the present climate? ie the mainstream obviously isn’t as commercial as some would have us believe?
GP: Hard to say whether plummeting sales are due to uninspired music or streaming (Spotify, etc.). Or just the incredible array of entertainment options available to everyone. I remember intense anticipation when a new album by an artist I loved was coming out – you didn’t know anything about the songs, the cover art – chances were you hadn’t heard any of the music; maybe a radio single but even that wasn’t a given in the days of early FM ‘free-form’ radio. The mystique and excitement around a new album release was incredible – wonderful. And what else was there to do but buy albums, read books and go to movies? The whole world has changed so much, it’s impossible to say what’s cause and effect. But the music my friends and peers and I are making is directly descended from that music that I waited at the record store to buy – and I think we’re serving the same audience. People who are hungry for real songs, real voices, music that isn’t made by focus groups. People for whom music is more than just a lifestyle choice or a fashion accessory. They’re deeply involved with it, and it informs their lives as much as the books they read and the films they see. I guess what I’m saying is we are making music as if it’s art, which, to my mind, it is.
DT: I love the quirky aspect of your ‘take’ on songs, eg ‘Picasso & Me’ written from the cat’s perspective – that freshness is endemic in your work. Where do you think that comes from and what would you call it? How you look for the flipside I guess? Playfulness?
GP: In the case of ‘Picasso & Me’ I got the idea for the song from a movie about Picasso which focused entirely on what a womanizing bastard he was – and I was struck by the fact that there was very little art, or examination of the artist’s psyche in the movie. In some sense I identified with Picasso more than the wronged woman – or at least I felt it was one-sided and there needed to be another perspective offered. That’s when I hit on the idea of the cat – because cats are so alien; so completely observant and yet somehow apart. I thought Picasso’s cat might have a much more even-handed and illuminating view of him. I re-examined this whole idea in ‘The Matador’, and I have to say I identify with both the man and the woman in that song. I don’t know where this sort of stuff comes from but I do think the fact that I don’t co-write as much as a lot of songwriters means that I have time and permission to explore some relatively quirky or obscure territory. There’s no one around to stop me!
DT: Your first significant hit was George Strait’s ‘Chill of an Early Fall’ in 1991. An impressive, and in many ways improbable, entree (your quirky style and his Strait country ie) but it must have opened a lot of doors and given you huge validation? Were you living in Nashville then and how was he pitched that song?
GP: I was living in Nashville and had only had a publishing deal for a year or two, so it was a huge surprise. My first single. My publisher pitched it to him, and it seemed like it was so easy – George Strait cuts your song, it becomes the title cut, it gets released as a single and goes directly to number one – boom. I only found out later that it doesn’t always go so smoothly.
DT: How has the songwriter/recording artist relationship altered in the two and a half decades you’ve been in Nashville?
GP: I think there’s much more emphasis on songwriters writing with artists. They are really pressured to do it. When I first moved to Nashville if you wrote a great song, someone would record it. If it was really great there would be several artists trying to record it. No one cared who wrote it, they just wanted great songs. Now the artists, whether they can write or not, are co-writers. It’s a shame. The world needs great song interpreters as much as it needs great songs. I don’t intersect with that world much anymore, but I’m heartened to see young songwriters like Brandy Clark and Angaleena Presley have some success, because they have the bonafides. I hope Nashville can get back to songwriters writing great songs for great singers. And the rest of us – the hybrids, the singer-songwriters – can make our records and go out and tour and play for the people who want to hear words and music in the artist’s own voice. That’s the kind of music I’ve loved since childhood; it’s not a big niche but it’s my niche.