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.