Gretchen Peters Speaks of Storytelling in Music and How Her New Album Has Influenced Her Own Writing
Gretchen Peters was recently revealed as one of the artists already signed up for The Long Road 2021 – promising a real treat for fans of this most accomplished singer songwriter. A (normally) regular visitor to these shores, she says her UK fans have always “connected” with her in a way that US audiences didn’t and she speaks highly of the “beautiful relationship” she enjoys over here.
Today (Friday, May 15) sees the launch of Peters’ new album, The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury on Proper Records. Recorded at the historic Cinderella Studios, where Newbury recorded his own legendary albums in the late 1960s/early 70s, the new album sees lifelong devotee Peters reinterpret the music in her own thought-provoking and haunting style.
It’s a break away from her own series of albums that have gained Peters a reputation as a “songwriter’s songwriter”, and she says the move has given her new inspiration for her own writing. Both Newbury (he died in 2002) and Peters are members of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Here, she talks to Six Shooter Country about why she chose to take on the project and how she hopes a new generation of country music lovers will fall in love with Newbury’s songwriting and artistry in the same way she did. Alison Dewar reports.
Congratulations on the new album. You’ve said the idea first came about some 15 years ago, what was the trigger for finally making it happen?
When my husband Barry and I found out that Cinderella Studios was still operating, it seemed like a message from the universe (laughs).
It’s really off the beaten track in a little converted garage north of Nashville. There is so much music history related to this place, we thought let’s go in and see if some of the magic that’s on those walls can rub off on us.
We loved working there, it was very low pressure, we did it a little at a time rather than all at once and it really made the whole experience different. There was no pressure, no-one (or not very many people at least) was saying “when are you going to put the Mickey Newbury out”. It was kind of something we kept under our hat for a while.
This is quite a left field move for you in many ways.
Yeah, I think it was a surprise to some people. I think unfortunately there are a lot of people who don’t even know who Mickey Newbury is, and that’s one of the things that I really wanted to try and make a little bit of difference. I was hoping some of my fans who maybe don’t know who he is will find out what a glorious artist he was, not just as a writer but as a singer too.
I’ve been listening to your versions of his songs and then his too, it was lovely to hear how they’ve been interpreted differently.
That’s exactly what I was hoping would happen. I discovered him through other artists, I was maybe 18-19 years old and I was just really diving into country music. I would go into the record store and bring home a record by say, Johnny Rodriguez, and I would see the name Mickey Newbury on it and that’s how I found him. It’s a wonderful continuum, I’m hoping that a lot of people will pick up this album and go “these songs are wonderful, who was he” and then go and discover him.
I think this is the most country record I’ve ever made, which may surprise people a little bit, because I think maybe they’ve grown accustomed to a more folkier and rockier sound from me. For instance, there’s more pedal steel on this album than on any of my other albums and it was really fun for me to dive into that.
Like you say, it is a bit left field, and I think sometimes that’s a great thing to do, especially at this point in my career, because I feel people who follow me know what I do. I don’t think this will confuse anybody, I’m established enough at this point and they either know me or they don’t.
Being female, you’ve interpreted the songs in a very different way…
I think the reason I became so fascinated with Mickey, is that he seemed like he had elements of the two kinds of music that I love the most – country music and folk music. He had a very folky side to him and he was a storyteller really. There are certain songs of his, one of which I recorded on the album, Saint Cecilia, it’s like a country Leonard Cohen, for me he was a bridge between both of those worlds.
Talking about gender, which you brought up, it was an interesting question for me as to whether to change the gender pronouns in some of the songs. I felt like I couldn’t change the gender in She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye (a massive country hit for Ronnie Milsap and Jerry Lee Lewis), and I sort of love that I didn’t. I feel it is interesting to hear that song sung by a woman.
On a couple of others, like Leavin’ Kentucky, I changed the gender pronouns but I really tried to do it with respect for the song, if it was going to change the song too much I didn’t want to go there.
Do you think the storytelling element has been lost in some of today’s more pop-focused country music?
I do, the definition of pop songs is that they are not really known for stories, they’re known for a hook, and I think country music has been moving that way for quite a long time. But I’ve been around long enough to know that all of this is cyclical, and I don’t think people are ever going to get tired of being told stories.
I’ve often said “tell me a story” is maybe one of the oldest phrases in any language, I think people love to hear stories because they reflect ourselves and our lives back at us and that’s a really important human experience. I don’t think storytelling is going anywhere, I think a lot of the storytelling in country music though, has moved over towards what you’d call Americana music probably.
You are involved in songwriting workshops, tell me about those.
Yes, if all goes well, the next ones are scheduled for August. I am open to any student who wants to become a better writer, whether that’s a young person who wants to do it as a profession, or somebody in their 60s who’s always wanted to write and life has got in the way.
What I’m looking for in students is just a seriousness about getting better. I tell the young, ambitious songwriters that I’m not there to help them figure out how to get someone to cut their song, because I don’t have the first idea how to do that. For me, teaching writing is really about helping shine a light into the process of it, and helping them to become better writers more quickly.
You’ve said that having recorded this album, it had inspired your own songwriting – how does that work?
I think every time you sing someone else’s song, especially if you sing it live and then you record it, you learn something about how that song is constructed.
Singing someone else’s songs that I admire and love, every single time it makes me a better writer, it inspires me and makes me understand and internalize what it is about that song that moves me emotionally so much. In the case of these 12 songs of Mickey’s, it was a real education.
I had always loved them, but it’s not until you think about how am I going to sing this or play this; that you really start taking the song apart and seeing the anatomy of it; what works and what doesn’t; what you’ll have to learn about it. In that sense, it was just like a whole other education in how he constructed his songs and why they feel so magic.
Did you always have in mind how you wanted to interpret particular songs?
In some cases, it came very quickly and naturally, in others I had to figure it out. There were a few that I loved so much, one example is Heaven Help The Child, it took me a while to get a handle on that. It’s a very oddly put together and oddly arranged song, it doesn’t really follow a really typical song structure format and Mickey was so genius at doing the unexpected thing in his arrangements that it took me some doing to get around it, but I loved the song so much I was really determined that we were going to figure out a way to do it.
The added layer to that is I had to figure out if he were here, would I have his permission to change things around, so I talked to people who worked closely with him and to members of his family.
What was the response from Mickey’s family?
We played in Portland, Oregon, near where his wife Susan lives, and we played one of his songs for her live and a few cuts from the album. She has been incredibly supportive, as have their kids.
They’ve messaged me, I met one of his daughters that night and I’ve heard from another, they love the album and that means the world to me because he was just my biggest hero of that whole era that he was part of.
People talk a lot about great songwriters, Kristofferson, Guy Clark, and Townes van Zandt, but if you were to ask them, they would all have pointed to Mickey as being one of the greats.
For me, he was really at the very top, so having his family’s approval was really important.
And yet, you never met him – you had the opportunity, didn’t you?
I did, but I felt like I would have embarrassed myself. I was brand new to town and he was such a star in my eyes. I was afraid to meet him because I had this idea in my head that if and when I met my heroes, I wanted them to have a reason to want to meet me, I wanted to have done something.
And I guess that’s what held me back, and of course, now I wish I had, everybody says he was the most delightful, generous, wonderful man.
You’re a regular visitor to the UK, what’s special about your UK fans and your relationship with them.
Oh, it’s saved me. It’s kept me going as far as being a live performer, really from the beginning of my recording career. My first record did surprisingly well in the UK when it didn’t do well at all over here (in the US).
I started coming over early, playing for 40 people at a whack, and I kept coming over because I found almost all the things that were holding me back over here – the fact that I didn’t really fit into a comfortable format, whether or not I was country – seemed to be pluses over there.
And there was also so much support from people like Bob Harris and Terry Wogan, it was a combination of all those things. I found a deep connection with the audiences in the UK pretty much immediately and I think they felt very connected with me. It’s just been a beautiful relationship.
Thank you Gretchen and we very much look forward to seeing you next year.
For details of Gretchen Peters’ February 2021 tour, visit the tour section of her website – and remember she’ll be back in the UK for The Long Road Festival next year, too.
Gretchen’s new album The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury is available now – https://www.gretchenpeters.com/music/
- The Sailor
- She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye
- Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)
- The Night You Wrote That Song
- Wish I Was
- Why You Been Gone So Long
- Frisco Depot
- Leavin’ Kentucky
- Heaven Help The Child
- San Francisco Mabel Joy
- Saint Cecilia
- Three Bells For Stephen