Gretchen Peters at the Heartwood Soundstage
Gretchen Peters is a master of songwriting. Born in the suburbs of New York City, she ended up in Nashville in the late ’80s and became one of the best known writers in town; she was elected to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2014. She is probably best known for writing Martina McBride‘s classic hit “Independence Day,” a song about spousal abuse that was the CMA Song of the Year in 1994. The list of others that have recorded her songs is long and varied: Etta James, Neil Diamond, Shania Twain, George Strait, Trisha Yearwood, Faith Hill and Anne Murray, are just a few. She’s recorded seven studio albums of her own and put out a compilation two-CD set, The Essential Gretchen Peters, in 2016. Like the very best songwriters, she has the ability to describe someone’s life in three minutes in a way that puts you in their soul and their skin. Her songs display an intellect and a sensitivity that is unique.
Gretchen Peters is not known for writing joyous, bubbly, optimistic songs. As she said when she started her show, “We may do one happy song tonight.. anything’s possible.” She describes the heartbroken, the downtrodden, the wronged and the abused in her songs, and for many of her fans it provokes a contemplative emotional response. Playing songs from her most recent album,Dancing with the Beast, she started the night off with “Arguing with Ghosts,” a song about loneliness and aging that is incredibly moving. Her song “Say Grace” reimagines the homeless existence in a religious setting; she noted that after many years of not attending formal religious services, she found herself writing a hymn.
“Our lady of the bus depot is holding forth tonight
Her body it is wasted but her eyes are shining bright
And our father who art slightly drunk is warding off the shakes
And he staggers underneath the weight of the promises he makes
Say grace – say grace
Forgive yourself for all of your mistakes
You can start all over if that’s what it takes
Come inside and set yourself a place
And say grace.”
Gretchen was accompanied by her husband, Barry Walsh, a legendary keyboard player in his own right. Starting with Alex Chilton’s Box Tops, Walsh played with Roy Orbison, joined Waylon Jennings for ten years, and has recorded three albums of his piano compositions. As a studio musician, he’s recorded with everyone from Jennings to Olivia Newton-John. His subdued harmonies and understated keyboard work perfectly framed her songs without detracting from them. Along with her newer songs, she gave a nod to her past, performing some of her best-known songs. “On a Bus to St. Cloud” was recorded both by Trisha Yearwood and by the late Eddie Lafave. A wistful song of lost love, it’s a classic. “Blackbirds,” the title song of her previous album, is a dark interfamily murder ballad. She also did “Five Minutes”, another song about lost love, but more visceral, and one of my favorites. A Shakespeare reference is not something you expect in a “country” song, but it’s perfect.
“I’ve got five minutes to sneak a cigarette
Five minutes to myself
Back behind the screen door of Andy’s luncheonette
And I ain’t got time to worry ’bout my health
My boss Andy says I smoke myself to death
Andy he reminds me some of you
Back when you were Romeo and I was Juliet
West Texas Capulet and Montague
Now I don’t think too much about you anymore
We weren’t much more than kids
It was nearly twenty years ago I shut and locked that door
Now I’ve got five minutes
Not much time to reminisce.”
It was a night that demonstrated what the craft of songwriting is about. There are many young singer/songwriters, many of them popular, who could learn a whole lot by just listening to Gretchen Peters. It was also a night that demonstrated what a great venue Gainesville’s Heartwood Soundstage is. Built around a video and audio recording studio, it was designed specifically as a listening room and has hosted festivals, world music acts, and rock acts, but for singer/songwriters, it’s an intimate setting that is among the best anywhere in the country. I’m looking forward to seeing many more shows there.