Poets and Prophets: Salute to Legendary Songwriter Gretchen Peters

January 24, 2015
Gretchen Peters, when talking to young songwriters, emphasizes this advice: “You will have a lot more emotional impact if you paint a picture. If I put you in the middle of a scene as it’s happening, it has a lot more gravity if I just explain how everyone feels. If you can see a scene unfold, it has more emotional evidence.”

Peters reflected on her career as a songwriter and performing artist as an honoree of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Poets and Prophets series. The quarterly program honors songwriters who have made a significant contribution to country music.

A newly inducted member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Peters began her career leading a roots-rock band in Colorado in the late 1970s. She moved to Nashville in 1987 and signed a music publishing contract shortly afterward. Her first major hit came with co-writing “The Chill of an Early Fall,” a #3 hit for George Strait in 1991. Other significant cuts include “Independence Day” and “My Baby Loves Me”  by Martina McBride,” “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am” by Patty Loveless, “On a Bus to St. Cloud” by Trisha Yearwood, and “Let That Pony Run” by Pam Tillis.

Peters opened the program with a performance of “The Secret of Life,” the title cut from her 1996 debut album and a 1999 hit for Faith Hill. At the time, most of Peters’s success as a songwriter had come from female country stars recording her compositions.

“I felt like I was being pigeonholed,” Peters told program host Michael Gray. “I had spent ten years before moving to Nashville playing in bands with guys. I thought I could write a song about two guys drinking in a bar, and some guy—like Alan Jackson or Garth Brooks, hopefully—would cut it. So I wrote a song about two guys, and Faith Hill recorded it.”

Peters has fought against easy perceptions for most of her creative life, and she still balances her monumental success as a songwriter with that as a respected recording and touring artist. “When I was starting out, I didn’t think you could just be a songwriter,” she said. “I didn’t know that was a job description.”

A native of Bronxville, New York, Peters grew up idolizing Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, and John Prine (who was in the audience for her program), all of whom wrote their own material. “I didn’t think of them as singer-songwriters,” she said. “I thought of them as artists.”

As a child, living with her family in Pelham, New York, Peters observed her father as he worked hard at writing every day. A freelance journalist for CBS News and national magazines, William Peters often sat at his typewriter, focused on his work, from morning until late afternoon.

Her father wrote the first nationally published article on Martin Luther King and co-authored a book on slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers. “I didn’t glamorize writing in the way you might if you weren’t around it,” she said.

Peters was eight when her parents divorced, and she was in eighth grade when she moved with her mother to Boulder, Colorado. As a fledgling guitarist and songwriter, Peters would beg her mom to take her to see her favorite artists perform in Boulder bars—something other mothers might not agree to do. “My mother got that it was so, so important to me,” Peters said. “I wouldn’t be here if she hadn’t gone with me and let me do that.”

As part of the Poets and Prophets program, an audiotape was played of Peters being interviewed on a Colorado radio station at age nineteen. She mentioned country music, Emmylou Harris, and Gram Parsons as favorites. The radio interviewer pointed out that the melancholy strain in Peters’s original songs made her sound wise beyond her years. The program also featured a thirty-seven-year-old demo of an original song, “Black-Eyed Susan,” that Peters wrote at age twenty.

Peters led a country-rock band for many years in Colorado, recording and playing regularly. In 1987, she relocated to Nashville. “I felt I had done everything I could do in Boulder, playing the club circuit,” she said. “I knew I had to be someplace where people do this for a living.”

Peters chose Nashville because she was excited about what young artists Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith, and the O’Kanes were creating for major labels in Nashville. “I felt like I could find a place in that,” she said. “I love country music, but I knew I wasn’t Loretta Lynn, and I was never going to be. But there was this hybrid singer-songwriter, country-influenced, folkie thing going on, and that’s who I am.”

Record executive Tony Brown liked a demo tape Peters gave to him, and he recommended her to music publisher Noel Fox, at Silverline-Goldline Music. Fox gave Peters a publishing contract. Known as a renegade publishing firm, Silverline-Goldline’s roster included Gail Davies, Ron Davies, Earle, Jimbeau Hinson, and others.

Fox encouraged Peters to write alone, seeing that she felt more comfortable and creative that way, instead of following the Music Row norm of co-writing with others. “Don’t follow the rules if you don’t have to,” Fox told her. “Do whatever makes you write. It was such a great gift he gave me.”

(Peters later signed with Sony Music, through executive and record producer Paul Worley, and she now works with music publisher Carnival Music.)

At the end of the 1980s, Peters began to get songs cut by other artists. George Jones recorded “Traveller’s Prayer” as a duet with Sweethearts of the Rodeo, and Highway 101 made Peters’s “Paint the Town” an album title cut in 1989. Her success with “The Chill of an Early Fall,” co-written with ex-husband Green Daniel, brought attention. “It led to producers and artists starting to come around looking for songs,” she said.

Peters kept getting cuts, and her biggest breakthrough came in 1994 when Martina McBride released “Independence Day,” one of Peters’s most enduring and impactful songs. “It took a really long time to write it,” the songwriter said. “I had the chorus for a year and a half. If you listen to the chorus, it really doesn’t tell you what’s happening in the rest of the lyrics. It was like piecing together a mystery. There are many, many drafts of it.”

Peters struggled most with the ending, she said. She knew the narrator was a young girl; she knew the father was abusive to the mother; and she knew the mother needed to take action. She struggled for more than a year, but eventually she stayed with the tragic ending implied in the lyrics.

“I just didn’t want to end it the way that it ended,” Peters said of “Independence Day.” “But the song was telling me that this was the ending, this was the story. I finished and thought, ‘Well, no one is ever going to record it but me. But this is what happened to these particular people.’” 

To her great surprise, Peters heard that Martina McBride believed in the song and wanted to cut it. “It was a hard sell all the way,” McBride said. “The ending was just so dark.”

Peters came to believe that her struggle to find an ending for “Independence Day” reflected the struggle the woman in the song faced: she wanted a different ending, too, but eventually there was only one possible outcome. “I think that’s why I had to write it that way,” Peters said. “I knew it was the truth.”

At nearly all of her concerts, when Peters performs the song, fans—usually women, but not always—will approach her to say how much the song means to them and how they relate it to their own experiences. “They will be in tears, or there’s evidence of deep trauma,” Peters said. “For a while, I didn’t really know how to handle that. It made me uncomfortable. But all anyone ever wants is just to say thank you. I realized all they want is a hug, and I’m always really moved when it happens.”

Peters said writing “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am,” a hit for Patty Loveless, represented one of the few times she wrote a complete song in a matter of hours. “I take forever, usually,” she said. After writing the first verse, about a breakup from a wife’s point of view, Peters decided she could write the next verse from the husband’s point of view.

“It’s more devastating when you hear both sides of the story,” Peters said. “You hear the angst of both of partners, but you realize they’re still not able to come back together.”

Peters also discussed “On a Bus to St. Cloud,” a song that some interpret as being about suicide. Recorded by Trisha Yearwood, the song was a single but not a big hit, as its subject matter proved too dark for many radio stations. But the lyrics don’t clearly spell out what happens—that is left up to listeners.

“My favorite songs, and I think the best songs, leave a little mystery,” Peters said, citing Leonard Cohen songs as an example. “To me, it allows more space for the listener to put themselves inside the song.”

Near the program’s end, Peters spoke of her songwriting relationship with Canadian rocker Bryan Adams, with whom she started collaborating in the early 2000s. The two have written several hits together, for soundtracks and for Adams’s albums, including “Rock Steady,” an Adams duet with Bonnie Raitt. “We have written a lot together,” Peters said. “I think our first fifteen songs weren’t any good. But he just kept on, and we got some good songs out of it.”

Peters ended the program by performing “The Matador,” from her 2012 album, Hello Cruel World; “When All You Got Is a Hammer,” from her Blackbirds album, scheduled for release in February 2015; and a solo piano version of “Independence Day.”

—Michael McCall