CMA award winning songwriter Gretchen Peters has a new vinyl single, where she performs two acoustic songs on Brian Brinkerhoff’s Need to Know label, and her composition “The Matador” appears on Trisha Yearwood’s new album Every Girl on Gwendolyn Records.
By Warren Kurtz
GOLDMINE: Congratulations on both sides of your new vinyl single. I see Jimmie Dale Gilmore and other artists on the Need to Know collection of 45s. How did you find out about this label?
GRETCHEN PETERS: I have known Brian Brinkerhoff, whose company it is, since my first album, The Secret of Life, came out in 1996. We have been in touch off and on over the years and kept up with what I’ve been doing as an artist. When he started doing these vinyl singles, he began working with Doug Lancio with whom I have produced my last four albums. Through Doug I heard that Brian wanted to know if we would be interested in doing one of these vinyl singles and I thought it would be a great break from doing albums. I had these two songs which seemed to be like impressionistic sketches that never seemed to find their place on an album, so I thought this would be a perfect fit.
GM:With “The Last Day of the Year,” to me, I think of it as kind of a lonely day. When we were living in Roanoke, Virginia, I remember going downtown on a December 31 during the lunch hour with the intention of thanking people I had worked with and wishing them well in the new year. Nobody was around. I tried it again a couple of times more in Roanoke and neighboring Salem and it was the same thing.
GP: Totally. There is a weird story with that song. I started writing that song on New Year’s Eve 2004. I never felt it was quite done and every New Year’s Eve I would pick it up and work on it a little bit and that went on for over ten years. It became a tradition for me. Finally, I finished it a year or so ago and this project came along and I decided this would be the song for the A side. December 31 is kind of a melancholy day. The weather is melancholy, and I think it is laden with a lot of emotional baggage as people are thinking about the last year and how they want the new year to be a clean slate and of course it never is because we bring all our baggage from the old year into the new one.
GM:The flip side, “In Costanza’s Kitchen,” has wonderful imagery with a picture of the pope and garlic on a rope.
GP: That song actually sprang from a songwriting exercise that I dreamed up. I was leading a songwriting workshop in Tuscany and there is a real Costanza and we were in her kitchen doing a cooking class. The songwriting workshop included some fun things like field trips and a cooking class. I was with my group of students in the kitchen and I am always trying to have my students think visually, using their five senses, showing the movie of a song, if you will. I think I told them to each to go off on their own and write a song called “In Costanza’s Kitchen” and fill in the blanks and tell me what you see, smell and hear. I went away and worked on that idea myself and came away with most of the lyric written, without a melody, and I tucked it away and uncovered it a year-and-a-half later. I took it to my husband Barry Walsh, and we worked out the music around it. Barry plays piano on the recording.
Flip side: In Constanza’s Kitchen
A side: The Last Day of the Year
Need to Know 1002019GP
GM:It is so beautiful. Brian also mentioned that you are working on interpretations of Mickey Newbury compositions.
GP: Yes. Barry and I have been working on that, a little bit at a time, over the last two-and-a-half years and just finished it for release next year. Mickey was a brilliant recording artist. He had an incredible voice and a really unique guitar style. His albums were very artistic, and I think that held him back in terms of commercial success. He cut his own path and I loved him for that.
GM:We will plan on talking more about that next year and I am looking forward to hearing your version of Mickey’s “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye.” Now, back to you as a singer-songwriter, last year you released your album Dancing with the Beast. “The Boy from Rye” has a beautiful vocal and I love the piano. I love the melody and piano on “Truckstop Angel.” I really enjoy the up-tempo feel of “Wichita.”
GP: Thank you. It is a dark tale that you can tap your foot to. Writing up-tempo songs doesn’t come natural to me but if they have a dark story, it helps me get there. I think that’s a great juxtaposition, in general, when you can attach a dark lyric to an up-tempo melody. Somehow it can be really effective.
GM:That sure is true on “When All You Got is a Hammer,” one of the many classics on your collection called The Essential Gretchen Peters. I just love it. It an incredible post-war song.
GP: Thank you. Thank you so much. I am proud of that song.
GM:Also on that collection, “On a Bus to St. Cloud” is more of what I would expect from you in terms of style. It is very pretty. “The Matador” has some great imagery.
GP: Thank you. Trisha Yearwood has just released a record with it on it. It is a very beautiful version and I am flattered and pleased that she included it. It is a complicated song and not one that I would have expected a country artist to cover but I told her that if there was anybody that I thought would get it, it would be her. She did indeed and I am really proud of it. For me, “The Matador,” is one my top three songs.
GM:Our daughter Brianna, who plays keyboards and trumpet, was so impressed hearing the accordion on your original recording, stating that this is a rare accent that she enjoys. I think she will also enjoy hearing trumpet on Trisha’s new version of “The Matador” from Every Girl. Also on your The Essential collection are many demo and work tape versions of your compositions. You also cover a song from my favorite Rolling Stones album Sticky Fingers, the song “Wild Horses,” with great harmonies from you and two other female singers. There is so much essential music of yours that it certainly doesn’t fit on one CD.
GP: Ha-ha. Well, thank you. My record label in the UK wanted me to put together a “best of” collection and that is not my favorite task in the world, but when they said to do a second CD where I could put demo versions and whatever I want, just little things that I think fans would love, that was the part that was really fun for me because there are a lot of songs and recordings that just slip through the cracks and don’t make it on an album. It was really fun gathering my favorites of those things. With “Wild Horses,” those are my girls, my BFFs, Suzy Bogguss and Matraca Berg. I have always loved that song. There has long been a rumor that Gram Parsons was an influence on that song. He was hanging out with Keith Richards a lot during that time and I think you can definitely hear a lot of Gram in there.
GM:The first time I heard one of your compositions was in 1992. We were living in Chicago and heard “When You Are Old” sung by Martina McBride as the finale on her debut album The Time has Come. When she delivered the powerful bridge that you wrote, oh my goodness, I thought she was the new Linda Ronstadt.
GP: Yes. Little did I know that I would have such a long history with her or that our careers would be intertwined many more times since then with other songs. She was a brand new artist at the time when she released that.
GM:After living in Chicago, we moved to Roanoke and “Independence Day” is your composition that I became aware of next. I was on the board for a shelter for abused women and children in Roanoke and we had a fundraiser concert and that was one of the songs performed by a local artist. More recently I saw Martina perform it here in Daytona Beach, where we now have lived for a dozen years, and it still comes across so powerfully.
GP: It is hair raising, I know. It is a career song for both of us. It opened so many unexpected doors for me. It has had a long and strange life. It has been appropriated to mean things it doesn’t mean and through it all, the thing that I am proudest of is that it has stood up to all that over the years and is so powerful. I had stopped playing it live for quite a while, partially because of how people misunderstood it for a time, so I wanted to come at it in a different way. A couple years ago I sat down at the piano and started playing it as a ballad just as a way to get back at the lyrics again. Now I am playing it every night that way. I am finding that not only is it moving for the audience but now I am finding my way emotionally back into the song. That acoustic version was another one I was pleased to include on The Essential.
GM:Another one on that collection is “The Secret of Life” from your debut album and the fifth single from Faith Hill’s 1998 Faith album, which is very different from your songs that Martina McBride has recorded.
GP: Like Trisha Yearwood with “The Matador,” that was another surprise to me that Faith was drawn to that song. I didn’t think this was an obvious choice for a country artist. It has sort of a jazzy element to it, so I was surprised and thrilled when Faith recorded it. I have been really lucky in general over the years. People recording songs, by and large, have been so respectful and so generous. I have been so lucky to be associated with artists like Faith, Martina, Trisha, Patty Loveless, and more.
GM:We talked about The Rolling Stones earlier. One of your songs that sounds like a Rolling Stones song is “Rock Steady,” the Bonnie Raitt and Bryan Adams song.
GP: I never write a song intended for a particular artist. I am not good at that. I write what has to come out but in that one instance, Bryan and I were sitting, and he said, “Let’s write something for Bonnie Raitt.” I remember saying to him that it would be a waste of time and that never works for me. He insisted. We sat down and wrote “Rock Steady,” and how about that, she recorded it! That is the only time that has ever worked for me.
GM:You and Bryan sing together on “When You Love Someone.”
GP: When I was putting The Essential together, I wanted to put a song on there that represented the years and years that Bryan and I have been writing together and that one, I think, is my favorite. I wanted to represent it in the way that was close to how it sounded when we were sitting in the little room together writing it, more acoustic, more stripped down, without the strings, without everything. I asked him if he would record a really simple acoustic version with me and he did.
GM:It is very nice and so is “Here I Am.”
GP: That came from the year of us writing songs for the animated film from Dreamworks, Spirit: Stallion of The Cimarron. That was a real eye opening experience for me. It was really hard work. Animated films are done before the music goes in there so they say something like, “You have 63 seconds for a song right here and it has to say this, this, this and this.” In this case, there was no dialogue in the film, so our songs and the animation had to be the only things to advance the story line. We had to say a lot of things in the songs. It was very exacting work. Then you have run it by a committee. It sure sharpened my songwriting muscles. It was so good for me to have that discipline and I am really proud of the work we did, writing for that film. I had to travel all over the world to write with Bryan who was on tour.
GM:Speaking of traveling all over, our daughter Brianna and I look forward to seeing you here this month in Florida and early next year, my wife Donna and I will be seeing Barry playing keyboards with The Box Tops. Thank you so much for all the music over the years and the beauty and thought you put behind your music and lyrics.
GP: Thank you so much. It has been a pleasure. We look forward to seeing you.
Warren Kurtz is a Contributing Editor at Goldmine, writing the In Memoriam and Fabulous Flip Sides series. “Warren’s Fabulous Flip Sides” can be heard most Saturday mornings, in the 9 a.m. hour, Eastern time, as part of “Moments to Remember” at wvcr.com or iHeart Radio – search WVCR.