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Nashville’s Gretchen Peters shares exciting "story songs" with string quartet/band

CMA award winning singer-songwriter Gretchen Peters performs 18 of her iconic compositions on this new classy international concert release

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Gretchen Peters’ compositions recorded over the years by Martina McBride, Trisha Yearwood, Bryan Adams and others are included on The Show - Live from the U.K., a beautiful new two-disc album released by Proper Music Group. 

GOLDMINE: Welcome back to Goldmine. Congratulations on The Show – Live from the U.K. It is such a nice collection. The first disc ends with your first charting single, “When You Are Old,” which was the first of your compositions that I bought 30 years ago when it appeared as the finale on Martina McBride’s 1992 debut album. When your cassette single was released a few years later, the flip side was another of my favorites, “I Was Looking for You” with a theme, I think, of finding yourself first before finding someone else to be with.

Barry Walsh on piano, Conor McCreanor on bass, Gretchen Peters on acoustic guitar, Colm McClean on electric guitar, back row: The Southern Fried String Quartet (Seonaid Aitken and Amira Bedrush-McDonald on violins, Sarah Leonard on viola and Alice Allen on cello)

Barry Walsh on piano, Conor McCreanor on bass, Gretchen Peters on acoustic guitar, Colm McClean on electric guitar, back row: The Southern Fried String Quartet (Seonaid Aitken and Amira Bedrush-McDonald on violins, Sarah Leonard on viola and Alice Allen on cello)

GRETCHEN PETERS: Wow. That is way back. I think you have a completely valid interpretation. Musically, I was trying to find new ground for myself. I think every singer-songwriter who grew up as a folkie has a path musically with chord progressions, feel and finger picking. I remember trying to find a new musical idea for myself. I felt that I had found something new for me. There is a little bit of a hint of “On a Bus to St. Cloud” about seeing somebody when they are not there and everywhere you go you see them. With “I Was Looking for You,” there is a belief that there is somebody out there who is going to make everything all right, which I think gets us in a lot of trouble. Sometimes it is true, and it all works out but sometimes it is a dangerous hope to believe.

Gretchen2 cassingle

Gretchen Peters

Fabulous Flip Side: I Was Looking for You

A side: When You Are Old

Billboard Hot Country Singles debut: April 20, 1996

Peak position: No. 68

Imprint 18001 (cassette single)

GM: You mentioned “On a Bus to St. Cloud” which is another of your songs that we highlighted last time that is included on the new collection along with other favorites we discussed, “Wichita,” “When All You Got Is a Hammer,” “When You Love Someone,” and a song that made my Top 10 of 2019, when Trisha Yearwood recorded it, “The Matador.” Now let’s discuss songs we didn’t cover last time beginning with “Hello Cruel World,” which is haunting about being a stubborn girl.

GP: “Hello Cruel World” is one that I was insistent on performing with the string quartet and recording because you expect pretty ballads with strings, but with this song, it is in a minor key with a pulsing beat and something you would less expect to hear strings on. The strings did allow for it to be, as you said, haunting and it went with the general attitude of the song. I think of that song as my manifesto. It acknowledges the difficulty of being human but at the heart of it, it is an optimistic song that says, “I’m in for a penny, in for a pound, ‘cause I hate to miss the show.” I’m not leaving, but this isn’t easy.

GM: Talking about strings, The Southern Fried String Quartet shines on “Blackbirds,” especially Alice’s cello. Between the cello and the content, it made me think of the epic “Sniper” by Harry Chapin, who would have turned 80 this year.

GP: Strings can be so evocative and here can be menacing sounding, which is what I was hoping for on “Blackbirds.” When we were on this tour in April 2019 and recording the future album, I remember every night when this song would come up, I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when the strings would go into that icy shimmering harmonic delivery. If “Blackbirds” was from a scary movie, this would be the soundtrack. They played from a string chart that we had written specifically for this tour. There were not strings on the original recording. What came to my mind was the soundtrack for To Kill a Mockingbird. I wanted that foreboding feeling.

GM: Then the strings capture beauty on “Love That Makes a Cup of Tea.” This song is anthem-like, recalling Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” or even Paul Stookey’s “The Wedding Song (There is Love).” It is a wonderful composition.

GP: Thank you. That song was a little bit of a surprise. On the last tour that I did, and I don’t know if I did it the night that you and your daughter Brianna were there, at the end of the night I would come out and just sing that song to the audience without a microphone, just acoustically. It was really a surprise to me on how people took to that song because we always need that unconditional love. I had taken people to some dark places on some of the other songs, so I felt it was a comforting way to end the night. When we had the string quartet on the tour, we wanted to use them for the reasons that you mentioned. It was an obvious showcase for them. 

GM: When Brianna and I saw you here in Florida, it was just you with Barry on piano, so the whole show had a nice, intimate feeling. Let’s talk about Barry on “Everything Falls Away.” That performance is a lesson on how to play piano!

GP: I never get tired of hearing him play that song. It is never quite the same on any given night. He really shines. I think that song is emblematic of what he and I do the best together, which is to go from a very quiet dynamic to a very big sound. I agree with you. I love to watch him play that song. He just lets go at the end and people are always appreciative and amazed. I always have to remind people that this is a guy who has played with Roy Orbison, Waylon Jennings and pretty much every songwriter in Nashville in the 1990s. I am really lucky to have him playing piano with me.

GM: You stretch yourself, too, on that song. Your high vocals reach the Alison Krauss range. What a wonderful performance.

GP: Thank you. That is one of those songs that did not get as much attention initially but when we play it live it transforms to another level. I think that I will always be playing that song.

GM: We talked about my daughter moments ago. You also mention a daughter in “Five Minutes.” In that short period of time, there is so much revealed with the family, the daughter, the history, the old guy, the new guy and the daughter’s boyfriend. You weave a lot of stories together.

GP: We have this job as songwriters to tell a story that is worthy of a book or movie in just three to five minutes. We work in the tiniest frame and the power of words combined with melody and music is such that you can do that. When I teach songwriting, I use “Five Minutes” as an example for my students that if you do the character work and know the characters, you can use very few words and really give your listener a complete sense of who the character is, but you really have to do the backstory work. I spend a lot of time with the woman in that song thinking about her, questioning her, who she was, what she thought, and it did not come quickly. I think that work is what gives you rich characters.

GM: Certain singers are attracted to story songs. I think of Kathy Mattea and I can imagine her covering this one.

GP: Bless the singers who are attracted to story songs because I would not have had a career without them. I’ve loved story songs my whole life. I think that is what made me a folkie when I first picked up a guitar as a kid in New York and is what drew me to country music later on. It is the same thing that draws me to novels and movies, stories about people and what they do and go through, the battles that they fight, and I’ll always be interested in that. 

GM: In the mid-1990s when you had your debut as a recording artist, so did Kim Richey. I love her cassette single “Those Words We Said” with its alternative country feel. You will be back on tour with her, as a return to the U.K. late this month.

GP: Yes. Kim came with us to the U.K. in 2018, doing the support set and sang with us too. We weren’t going to have Kim on the road with us and not have her sing. I adore Kim and think she is one of the greatest singers around. She is just effortless and has sung on the last few studio albums that I have recorded. Whenever she comes into the studio to sing, everyone gets excited, the engineers, the producers, because she is so great. She is a dear friend, and I am thrilled that she is coming out with us again. When you are on the road with Kim, her camp counselor side comes out. You can’t have a day off. She will figure out some field trip for the entire group. It gets us out of our hotel rooms. She is an instigator in the best possible way.

GM: Have a wonderful tour. You were my last concert before the pandemic. Brianna and I will always remember that. I certainly missed concerts during that two-year period. Now I treasure it even more as a musical homecoming, in fact this month, locally in Central Florida I will see a female duo named Gailforce, who I haven’t seen in a few years and in their set and the last song on their CD is one of your most famous compositions “Independence Day,” the Martina McBride hit that we discussed last time. May you Barry, Kim and the rest have a great time.

GP: Thank you and Goldmine. It was great talking with you again. Take care.

Gretchen2 song list

Related Links:

gretchenpeters.com

Goldmine 2019 Gretchen Peters interview

Fabulous Flip Sides now in its eighth year

goldminemag.com/columns/fabulous-flip-sides