Last October, Gretchen Peters was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. On Saturday (January 24th) at the Country Music Hall of Fame’s intimate Ford Theater, Peters shared some of the songs — and the stories behind them — that got her there. The latest to be honored in the museum’s Poets and Prophets: Legendary Country Songwriters Series, Peters was the subject of a 90-minute program hosted by Museum Editor Michael Gray and attended by some of her esteemed colleagues, including previous Poets and Prophets honorees John Prine, Roger Cook, Jerry Foster and Mark D. Sanders, along with Tia Sillers (co-writer of LeAnn Womack’s “I Hope You Dance”) and Mary Gauthier, who co-wrote with Peters for her upcoming album, Blackbirds.
“Are they putting me in the old folk’s home? Is that what happens after this?” Peters joked to the audience in the filled-to-capacity theater, adding that the program was a bit like the biographical TV show, This Is Your Life. The interview chronicled the singer-songwriter’s upbringing in Pelham, New York, just outside Manhattan, her move to Boulder, Colorado, and her first forays into music, and was accompanied by numerous photographs from her personal collection and also from the museum’s vast archive. Peters shared honest recollections of her admittedly privileged upbringing and her father’s career as a freelance writer. (William Peters covered the civil rights movement of the Sixties and penned the first nationally published magazine article about Martin Luther King.) She also recalled her parents’ divorce when she was eight years old, which led to the move to Boulder, where her mom supported her performing aspirations early on by taking her to clubs to play music.
Gray noted in his introduction of Peters that she has been referred to as the “mistress of melancholy,” because of some of the darker-edged tunes she has penned, but the first performance for the program was the relatively upbeat “The Secret of Life,” which was the title track of her 1996 debut album. Ironically, Peters noted that because she had started to be pigeonholed as a writer of songs mainly cut by women up to that point, she wrote the tune, the story of a couple of guys drinking at a bar and ruminating on the meaning of life, for a male artist such as Alan Jackson or Garth Brooks. The track became a Top Five hit in 1999… for Faith Hill.
Audience members also heard the songwriter’s original demo for her best-known hit, “Independence Day,” cut by Martina McBride, who had already had a major hit with Peters’ “My Baby Loves Me.” A video clip from the 1995 CMA Awards showed Peters accepting the Song of the Year trophy for “Independence Day,” a song about a battered woman who finally breaks free from her abuser. The writer says it elicits tearful appreciation from fans at nearly every show she does.
“I’m not a big dweller on the past,” Peters told Rolling Stone Country after the program, which at times had her overcome with emotion. “I really get a charge out of whatever I’m doing next. But the Country Music Hall of Fame puts so much care and thought into their presentation. It was a chance to stop, take a breath and consider what drives the artistic process for me. I’m grateful for that opportunity, and the best thing that could come of it is that it inspires some young songwriter who may have been in the audience that day to persevere, and tell her truth.”
Peters also performed the poignant “On a Bus to St. Cloud,” which was recorded by Trisha Yearwood, and talked about her unlikely songwriting partner, rock superstar Bryan Adams, who reached out to write with her after hearing “Independence Day.” Confessing that she wasn’t really aware of his songs (“I must have had my head in a hole,” she joked) and that, unlike the majority of Music City tunesmiths, she usually writes alone, she was initially reticent, but Adams persisted. To date, the dozens of songs they have written together include “Inside Out,” a cut for Adams as well as a duet for Trisha Yearwood and Don Henley, “Rock Steady,” a single for Bonnie Raitt, and the Golden Globe-nominated “Here I Am,” from the animated film Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.
At the close of the program, Peters, who has also had major cuts by George Strait, Randy Travis and Patty Loveless, among many others, performed the haunting tale of “The Matador,” a track from her 2012 album, Hello Cruel World, “When All You’ve Got Is a Hammer,” from the upcoming album, and a passionate, slowed-down version of “Independence Day.”
Gretchen Peters’ ‘Blackbirds’ album will be out February 10th.