When Martina McBride’s “Independence Day” was released to country radio in April 1994, it was easy to mistake the country song for a U-S-A! U-S-A! anthem. It was titled after America’s most patriotic holiday after all, and its irresistible chorus of “Let freedom ring!” seemed custom-made for small-town Fourth of July celebrations to come. But the true meaning behind “Independence Day,” written by Gretchen Peters and recorded by powerhouse vocalist McBride, was lost on many listeners — the seemingly July 4th holiday hit turned out to be a story of domestic violence and one woman’s drastic measures to escape abuse at home.
“I started getting all these letters — handwritten letters, back in the day — from women saying, ‘This is my song,’” McBride says now. “I got a few letters that said, ’I heard this song on the radio, I’ve been battered for 10 years, and I left. This was the thing that made me realize that it’s not my fault, that I need to make a change.’”
Throughout the past 25 years, both McBride and Peters have watched as their song has taken on a life entirely of its own — not just in its cathartic impact for victims of abuse, but also in its misinterpretation for political means. Sean Hannity used the song as a theme on his radio show from shortly after 9/11 until 2014; Sarah Palin chose it as a walk-on song during her Vice Presidential campaign. Peters, in particular, has been saddled with a patriotic anthem she did not write.
“As the writer, I always believe that it’s very powerful to know what your story’s about and know your characters, but not necessarily put it all in there,” she says. “Because I think it invites the listener to play a part. The danger there is that those kinds of songs are much more easily misconstrued.”
Peters began writing “Independence Day” around 1992, her fifth year working in Nashville. Early into her career, she had been discovered and signed to Tree Publishing Company by Paul Worley, a session musician who had just begun to carve out a successful path as a producer. He had noticed the lack of women writers on Tree’s roster and signed Peters for her unique storytelling approach.
Peters had taken a somewhat meandering route to country music. Growing up in Westchester County, New York, with a journalist father who covered the Civil Rights movement, she was raised listening to Village folk music — Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen. Her parents divorced when she was eight, and by the time she was in her mid-teens Peters had moved with her mother to Boulder, Colorado. It was the mid-Seventies, and Peters got involved in the local music scene, playing in a few “hippie country-rock” bands and, in her spare time, sneaking off to a record store to purchase the latest Nashville records.
“It was not cool to be a country music fan at the time, at all,” she says, laughing. “I would go in there…it was kind of like going to see my dealer, you know? He’d slip me a few George Jones records and say, ‘Go listen to this, kid.’”
It was the storytelling that brought her to the genre — that particular country way of mixing precision of detail with profound sadness and melancholy. Years later, it clicked for Peters that songwriting itself could be a suitable profession. Nashville signees like Nancy Griffith and Steve Earle caught her attention — if these more “folksy” songwriters could make it in the country music biz, why couldn’t she? When she did finally make it out to Nashville, the first song she was paid for was called “Traveler’s Prayer,” performed by George Jones.
Peters took about a year and a half to write “Independence Day,” although, as Worley tells it, “it took Gretchen a year and a half to write any song.” She had the chorus, and she had the characters, and she had her point-of-view: “The little girl, the daughter, was the character that I identified with,” she says.
But the ending gave her trouble. To be clear, she had the ending written, but it made her worried.
“I was so afraid of the ending that I kept trying to figure out another way to end it,” she says. “I look back at that and the irony of that doesn’t escape me, because I feel like the woman in the song spent a long time looking for another ending.”
The dramatic conclusion — subconsciously on Peters’ part, she says — echoes the story of Francine Hughes, one of the first women to be found not guilty due to temporary insanity involving “battered-woman syndrome.” In 1977, after being repeatedly raped and beaten by her alcoholic husband, Hughes poured gasoline around their bed while he slept and set it on fire, escaping the burning home with her three children. The “day of reckoning,” as referenced in the song, is an act of retribution for abuse.
In “Independence Day,” the daughter discovers the fire when she returns from the Fourth of July parade, and is quickly whisked away “to the county home.” We never find out if the mother survived or not. It was that potent mixture of violence and ambiguity that made Peters, as a “relatively young and hungry” songwriter, nervous that no one would even want the song. But in the end, the desire to tell the truth, and not to project a false sense of hope, won over.
“The thing for me about writing stories and characters is that if you’re doing it right, the characters start to tell you what the song is about,” says Peters. “It’s not you manipulating the people like marionettes. It’s really much more about the characters telling you what’s true about themselves… And so it was just a matter of me sitting with that woman and that daughter long enough to realize that, yes, this is the way the story ends. And then to have the nerve to end it that way.”
In 1991, Tree Publishing was bought out by Sony Records, and Worley began producing for a then 25-year-old McBride, who had just been signed to Sony’s RCA Records. McBride recorded one Peters song, “When You Are Old,” for her debut album The Time Has Come in 1992. When it came time to record the follow-up, The Way That I Am, McBride chose to include Peters’ “My Baby Loves Me,” an up-tempo love song that would go on to become her first Top Five hit on the Billboard charts.
Peters had recorded demo versions of “Independence Day,” and when one of them ended up in Worley’s hands, he immediately wanted to show it to McBride.
“She heard the song and just fell in love with it,” he says. “We both did. We’d never heard a song like that.”
“What drew me to it was the brilliance of the lyrics,” says McBride. “If you write it down on paper, it’s like a work of literature, it’s like a poem.”
Having grown up in a small Kansas town, McBride remembers how domestic violence was “something that was never talked about” when she was a kid. Her own unawareness of the issue, rather than causing her to balk, made her that much more passionate about bringing the song’s message out into the world.
In later years, Worley would go on to discover and produce for country superstars like Lady Antebellum, Big & Rich, and the Dixie Chicks. (“Goodbye Earl” was his production, too.) For “Independence Day,” he wasn’t afforded the luxury of rehearsal time with session musicians that he was given for those later records. But he did play guitar for it, and by his account, the song was pretty much all recorded in one afternoon.
“Martina and I sat down together to do pre-production, and I came up with that guitar lick,” recalls Worley. “We figured out that was going to be our point of entry. And I had the band that we wanted booked, and it took off from there. That [song] is mostly a track, meaning a group of musicians in a studio all playing at the same time.” Major changes from the Peters demo included adding that propulsive guitar, speeding up the song’s tempo and gussying up the church bells in the iconic chorus. But what it really boiled down to, says Worley, were two goals: don’t lose Martina’s vocals, and don’t lose the story.
In April 1994, when RCA head Joe Galante approached McBride to release “Independence Day” as the third single from The Way That I Am, it came as a welcomed surprise. Dale Turner, the label’s VP of promotion at the time, said that RCA expected “a small pocket of resistance” from radio programmers. But fear over the song drawing ire for its subject matter wasn’t really present until seven weeks after its release, in June 1994, when Nicole Brown Simpson’s murder was plastered across the news.
“It was interesting because we received initial pushback on the song, and I was so confused by that,” says McBride. “I was like, ‘Why wouldn’t they play this song?; My record promotion people came to me and said, ‘It probably isn’t going to work, there’s a lot of radio stations that just aren’t going to play it.’”
Listener feedback, of course, played a huge factor in radio programmers’ scheduling; phone call surveys, particularly in major cities like Los Angeles or Dallas, helped determine whether a new song was connecting with a station’s market.
“Even at that point in time, in the early to mid-Nineties, there were a lot of stations that conducted callout research with the audience,” says Chris Huff, the current program director at KILT/Houston who acted as music director at KPLX (now The Wolf) in Dallas during the song’s run on the charts. “It was a random sample of listeners every week, getting their opinions on records, and basing music decisions on that research.”
With “Independence Day” only seven weeks on the chart and a music video already out, McBride convinced her promotional team to give her the numbers of stations who wouldn’t play the song, and she began conducting her own callout research, talking to music directors and “having open conversations” about their hesitation.
“They were like, ‘I don’t think this needs to be on my radio station. I don’t think people need to be hearing this,’” she recalls. “And I’m like, ‘Well, it’s on your news every hour. This is topical.’ And then I had one music director who said, ‘You know, if that [music] video is on, and my young daughter walks through the room, I have to have a discussion with her and explain it to her.’ And I thought to myself, ‘Well, maybe that’s not such a bad idea. What’s wrong with that?‘”
Accounts differ as to how much radio play “Independence Day” received, between when it was released in April of ‘94 and when it peaked in August of that year — at Number 12 on the Billboard U.S. Hot Country Songs, and Number 10 on Radio & Records’ country chart. Lon Helton, who managed the country chart at R&R for 26 years, confirms that there was never an outright “ban” on the song for its subject matter, nor a mass listener boycott à la the Dixie Chicks in 2003.
Still, there certainly was reluctance from programmers that was reported on at the time. According to a September 1994 Billboard article, McBride was required to give a PSA for the St. Louis Battered Children Center in order for the song to get played on local station WIL. And two stations in Austin, KASE and KVET, supposedly “passed” on the song entirely.
“She told me they were line-dancing on a flatbed truck to ‘Independence Day.’” -Gretchen Peters
Helton believes that the subject matter could’ve determined how often the song was present on the radio — getting only 15 plays a week instead of 50, for instance —but that there were other factors as well. After all, McBride was still early into her career; she had yet to have a Number One single, and her only Top Five hit at that point was “My Baby Loves Me.” And despite her talent and instantly recognizable voice, she was entering into a crowded field.
“Garth Brooks led the class of ‘89 of new country artists: Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Alan Jackson, Travis Tritt, Mary Chapin Carpenter,” says Helton, “and so in ‘89, ‘90, ‘91, we broke a tremendous amount of new artists. By the time Martina’s in there in ‘92, it’s getting harder and harder to break in.”
What does get agreed upon, however, is that, in spite of the initial concern of sensitivity, Nicole Brown Simpson’s murder and O.J. Simpson’s arrest may have actually increased demand for “Independence Day” on the radio.
“That happened in the middle of that song’s life as a single, and the fan reaction was so strong that some radio stations just reversed position on it because suddenly, ‘Oh, well this is timely,’” says Peters. “I can’t even begin to understand the mental gyrations.”
If listeners weren’t moved by the song’s overall story, they were at least moved by its chorus. Peters can remember hearing McBride’s voice blast across stations on the Fourth of July the very first year it came out, but at the time she didn’t consider the association to be “in the rah-rah, jingoistic way.”
“I remember a friend of mine, maybe a year or so after it came out, she went to this Fourth of July parade in Columbia, Tennessee, called Mule Day,” she says, “and it’s just like a really rural, small town Fourth of July parade. She told me they were line-dancing on a flatbed truck to ‘Independence Day.’ She said, ‘I just can’t get over the disconnect between the lyrics and then these people in red, white, and blue square-dance dresses.’ It was just crazy. And I just laughed it off.’”
Worley recalls being in the audience when McBride performed “Independence Day” at the CMA Awards that year, where it took home the trophies for Song of the Year and Video of the Year. As McBride sang the chorus onstage, barefoot, Worley says, “People went crazy. Like I’d never seen before.”
The song became a live staple for McBride. At concerts, she took to opening “Independence Day” by singing the chorus first, a cappella, before the band came in for the first verse. During her filmed 1998 performance of the song at Farm Aid — the annual benefit concert for family farmers originally organized by Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Neil Young — McBride holds the note on the word “strong” for a full 12 seconds. Cries and whoops emanate from the audience.
Her Farm Aid performance three years later carries a different tone. Just two weeks after September 11th, McBride stands on stage in a white tank top and sparkling boot-cut jeans, her chestnut hair down past her shoulders, flanked by two giant waving American flag cut-outs. Audience members jump out of their seats to wave flags, hold up larger flags, and hold up jean jackets with flag patches ironed on the back. There’s a lot more fist-pumping; at one point McBride throws down the mic stand as she’s pacing back and forth across the stage.
“I have mixed feelings about it, to be honest,” says McBride. “I have always had such a connection to the real meaning of the song, and it’s…‘annoying’ isn’t the word…interesting that some people just don’t understand what the song is about at all.”
But at the time of the 2001 Farm Aid performance, she says, it felt like the right thing to do. “We were all so raw, we’d never been through anything like that before. The decisions that we were making — that I was making — were based on emotion, and trying to have solidarity and pulling together as a country. When I realized that the words to that chorus, ‘let freedom ring,’ kind of mirror what we were all feeling at the time, I made that decision to do that. But looking back, I never want to take away from what the song is really about.”
Peters says she’s never spoken to McBride about “the so-called political life” of the song. “If she had something to say about it, she would, I think. I also feel like it’s kind of unnecessary, because she and I both know damn well what the song is about.”
When Hannity began using “Independence Day” for his radio show bumper, there wasn’t much that McBride or Peters could do — he was in his legal right to use the track.
“When the Sean Hannity thing happened, it didn’t feel so benign to me,” Peters says. “It felt like they were twisting the song. And I used to think that it was just a matter of somebody didn’t listen to the song, they just listened to the chorus. That was my take on it then. My take on it in more recent years is that they don’t care.”
By the time Sarah Palin chose “Independence Day” as a walk-on song, after the 2008 Vice Presidential debates, Peters felt that it was the last straw.
“My husband said, ‘You’ve gotta take your song back. This is ridiculous,’” she remembers. “So I thought about it for a while, and I was particularly incensed that [Palin] would use a song about an abused woman, and a horrible situation that she was in, to prop herself up on a platform that basically is against everything that I believe in, and that could’ve helped that woman [in the lyrics]. Everything that she politically stood for would’ve kept that woman down.”
She was referring especially to Palin’s firm anti-abortion stance, which included cases resulting from rape or incest. So with the royalties that she received from “Independence Day” for the duration of the 2008 campaign, Peters donated to Planned Parenthood in Palin’s name. The news quickly hit wire services around the world; Democracy Now! invited Peters to perform on a segment of the show. “I never felt the white hot heat of anything like that, and I never wish to again,” she says, referencing multiple death threats she received during that time.
For her part, McBride has made issues of domestic violence and advocacy work a core tenet of her career. She’s been a spokesperson for the National Domestic Violence Hotline and worked with the National Teen Dating Abuse Hotline, and hosted a variety of charity initiatives for various other causes such as Kids Wish Network. Her subsequent hits after “Independence Day” have consistently had a humanitarian bent: she went to Number One in 1997 with “A Broken Wing,” about leaving an emotionally abusive relationship, and centered the stories of women in songs like “In My Daughter’s Eyes” and “This One’s for the Girls.”
Like McBride, Peters still gets fans sending her letters and coming up to her after shows to thank her for “Independence Day.” But with all that’s happened the past 25 years — the programmers’ hesitance, the song becoming McBride’s signature, the co-opting by right-wing figureheads — it can sometimes feel like she’s representing a work of music that’s no longer her own.
“I’ll be completely honest with you, it used to make me a little bit uncomfortable, because I didn’t know how to deal with it,” she says of fans coming up to her after she performs the song. “I didn’t know how to react. I just would feel like, oh my God, this person has gone through hell…and then I realized they just wanna have a moment.”
She doesn’t perform “Independence Day” that often in her live sets —much less so than her own recordings, but also less than other songs she’s penned for other artists. She says she still feels a connection to most hits she’s written as her own work of art; “Independence Day,” however, became its own beast.
“All of the permutations it went through — the political misappropriation and all of that just served to move it more into the public consciousness and less in my life somehow,” says Peters. “I think that’s why it doesn’t feel so much like it belongs to me. It’s hard to know.”
Peters remembers when, on July 4th last year, she came across a blog post written by Zach Schultz, a gay man who had grown up in Kentucky during the Nineties. “Independence Day” was “a staple at every Fourth of July church picnic I ever attended,” he wrote, and like everyone else at those picnics, Schultz interpreted the song as a symbol of patriotism for the holiday.
As an adult, the song took on a new meaning for Schultz — one with a newfound layer of liberation and political intention, for celebrating Independence Day as a day to “freely criticize the policies of my country” that oppress women, migrants and other marginalized groups. “I choose to celebrate not for the America in which we currently live, but for the America I believe we can achieve in the future,” he concluded.
“What he wrote moved me so much because that was where I was coming from, when I wrote it,” says Peters. “That’s what caused me to sit back down at the piano and go, OK, what was I feeling when I wrote this, and how can I get back there? And reading his essay gave me a shove in that direction. Like, this is your song, and this is what it’s about. It’s not about all those other things. It’s not the Fourth of July, it’s not about ‘yay, America,’ it’s about freedom and the incredible bravery of human beings to find their freedom.”
To hear Peters’ story is to feel the anxious tug that pulls beneath the surface in the lives of songwriters, producers, music videographers, or anyone whose job it is, in part, to build up the work of other artists with more public-facing careers — the nagging sensation that your work must always be seen in the context of someone else’s. Rarely, though, does the political meaning of one’s art get so systematically misconstrued that the original creator feels the need, and develops the courage, to step into the spotlight.
Hearing the song breeze by on the radio, it’s hard not to interpret “Independence Day” as anything but jubilant, a song that plainly and bravely tells a truth not fully understood by its youthful protagonist. It stands as a reminder that there’s always time to go back and relisten.