Like so many people, Gretchen Peters woke up on Nov. 9, 2016 dazed and wondering how to proceed with her work.
The fact that she’s one of the nation’s most recorded and esteemed songwriters meant that the quandary raised fundamental questions about the nature of her music. A member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame since 2014, Peters is a masterly singer of her own work, though her songs are best known via hit recordings by the likes of Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride, Etta James, Patty Loveless, George Strait, Anne Murray, Shania Twain, Faith Hill, and Neil Diamond, among others. She makes a rare Bay Area appearance Tuesday at Freight & Salvage with her husband, veteran Nashville studio pianist/accordionist Barry Walsh.
It took some time, but her response to the presidential election came in her 2018 album Dancing with the Beast (Scarlet Letter Records). Suffused with regrets, backward glances, and sublimated anger, it’s a gorgeous, often haunting collection of songs that capture a kaleidoscopic array of women going about their lives. In other words, it’s a Gretchen Peters album, but situated along the fault lines that divide past and present and our dreams from our reality.
Peters says that in the weeks and months after the 2016 election “I had long conversations with friends who are in the business, Mary Gauthier in particular, about how do we write now. Is everything going to be a protest song? It was a real issue. I don’t consider myself a political songwriter. On the other hand I wouldn’t be capable of writing without acknowledging the landscape, the elephant in the room.”
Rather than responding with rousing anthems, pointed satire or ringing agitprop, Peters conjures a realm teeming with vivid, idiosyncratic characters. The songs on Dancing with the Beast evoke a fallen world unsettled by the inevitable march of time, as on the exquisite, more-in-sadness-than-anger opening track “Arguing with Ghosts.”
Peters has always put women at the center of her stories. “The Boy from Rye” is far more about a young woman unsettled by male attention/harassment than the titular character, while songs like “Truckstop Angel” and “Wichita” are sharply drawn sketches of women doing what they need to get by. A lyricist who follows the dictate to show rather than tell, she keeps a blackboard in her Nashville writing room emblazoned with the words “tell one little story.”
“That’s the way though when I’m wresting with conceptual things,” Peters says. “The only way to get there as far as writing is to tell a small story, and through that very specific story you get to the universal thing. After I’d written these songs I realized there are all these girls and women and a light bulb went off. That’s what this album is about. Women and girls and what they’re lives look like right now.”
Growing up in Boulder, Colorado in the early 1970s Peters was “a hippie kind of girl” who loved folk music and didn’t really think about songwriting until her late teens. She moved to Nashville in late 1987, and within a few months George Jones recorded her song “Traveller’s Prayer,” which is kind of like winning the O’Henry Prize with your first published story.
While she identifies as a singer/songwriter and doesn’t see herself as a country artist, Peters is quick to point out that country music has long offered emotional complexity that’s hard to find on the pop charts. “One thing that drew me to country was that it’s very adult music,” she says. “Listen to the music of Merle Haggard or Mickey Newberry. Those songs are about adults dealing with adult things. Even as a teenager drawn to that, particularly to female characters. That was where I wanted to live, in that world of grown up women. Even in my twenties I was writing about older women coping with aging, bad marriages, and shitty jobs.”
Her distance from mainstream country music came into sharp relief in the weeks after the September 11, 2001 attacks when Sean Hannity started using the chorus from her song “Independence Day” to open his Premiere Radio Networks talk show. A hit she wrote for Martina McBride that Peters later recorded herself, the song is a searing account by an eight-year-old girl of her father’s abuse of her mother.
When Sarah Palin’s campaign team started playing the song during her 2008 campaign rallies, Peters announced that she was donating the royalties to Planned Parenthood in Palin’s name, “which felt satisfying and good,” she says. “But the unexpected consequence was that I got death threats and a six-week firestorm the likes of which I never want to see again. The silver lining was that we raised over a million for Planned Parenthood in that three-month period. Planned Parenthood asked me to come to New York ad be on their international board. Back in Nashville it was hard going asking other artists to do their events.”
Even before Hannity got his hands on it, “Independence Day” had taken on a life of its own. Peters had stopped playing it, until she read an essay last summer by Zach Shultz, who described growing up gay in Kentucky and thinking of Martina McBride’s hit recording “as the ultimate emblem of campy Americana patriotism.” Revisiting the song as an adult he realized “I had missed the message of the song entirely. Where I used to interpret it as a nauseating display of the form of ‘Amurrica! Get ‘er Done!’ conservatism I grew up around–a politics of the white suburbs that has since morphed into the MAGA base of Trump supporters–it is actually quite the opposite.”
“I was so moved by his words I decided that I’m going to play it again,” Peters says. “I slowed it way down and took it to the piano. I sang it as a ballad, so they’ll hear the verse. That song has been on a long weird trip, but I still feel it’s a good song.”
Recommended gigs: Sibarg Ensemble / Johnny Talbot and De Thangs
Sibarg Ensemble, a highly interactive quartet that combines traditional Iranian melodies and jazz via original compositions, arrangements of classical and folk songs, and structured improvisations, plays a North Berkeley house concert on Saturday. Featuring Berkeley oud player Sara Saberi, Irvine vocalist Hesam Abedini, San Diego keyboardist Josh Charney, and exploratory Oakland drummer Jordan Glenn, whose presence on a bandstand is a reliable indication that interesting music is on tap, Sibarg Ensemble also performs at Friday at the Red Poppy Art House.
East Bay funk and R&B legend Johnny Talbot and De Thangs celebrate his birthday Sunday at Neyborly Event Center on San Pablo Avenue.