It is always pleasing when a songwriter you admire greatly echoes a long-held belief. My contention is that the best songs are the beautifully sad ones, and the New York-born artist Gretchen Peters has made it her mantra.
Peters promotes her concerts with the invitation: ‘Come on down tonight, we’ll be playing you a bunch of sad songs.’ Fans can buy the T-shirt bearing the legend: ‘Sad Songs Make Me Happy.’ She told National Public Radio: ‘I have a theory that there are two kinds of people – there’s people who find sad songs depressing, and then there’s us.’
Dancing With The Beast, her magnificent 2018 album, features succinctly crafted compositions that deal with difficult subjects – Alzheimer’s, depression, abuse, prostitution, political disenfranchisement. The opening song, Arguing With Ghosts, is a particular favourite of mine. It tackles loneliness and mortality, and the bewitching vocal and subtle musicianship with the mood set by swirling synth and brushes on snare create a haunting quality.
Peters is a generous collaborator and Arguing With Ghosts is a fine example of collegiate writing, Matraca Berg and Ben Glover contributing to a magical cocktail...
The years go by like days
Sometimes the days go by like years
And I don't know which one I hate the most
At this same old kitchen table
In this same old busted chair
I’m drinking coffee and arguing with ghosts
Arguing with ghosts
Peters likes to create damaged characters, bruised heroines whom she inhabits to tell her powerful stories about the human condition. Here she plays the role of an ageing woman battling the passage of time…
I'm getting hard to recognise
They say the mirror never lies
I’ve still got my mama’s eyes
I'm getting hard to recognise
There’s a picture on the wall
We got married in the fall
And I don’t know those kids at all
There’s a picture on the wall
The first line of the song provided the inspiration for Peters to develop her theme. She recalls: ‘I think we were initially talking about how Nashville is changing, and Matraca said: I get lost in my home town. And we went from there. Of course, it took on much more meaning, but I think that our starting point was just that sense of disorientation.’
All 11 tracks on the album put women or teenage girls in the narrator's chair. The 2017 women’s march and #MeToo movement coincided with Peters’ writing time, and a feminist perspective was always likely. ‘Those two events just put everything in really stark relief,’ she says. ‘You can trace the feminist DNA in my songwriting back to Independence Day and probably before. The thing that 2017 did is just put it front and centre. It was very easy to kind of go to sleep for a while and just not think about that stuff because we were lulled into complacency for eight years [Obama's presidency].’
Like the best songwriters Peters leaves plenty of space for the listener’s imagination to join in. Despite the dark subject matter, there is always hope and compassion, never sentimentality. As she sings in Lowlands, an exasperated reaction to Donald Trump's election victory in 2016, ‘now and then a little light gets through’.
On Peters’ Strings Attached tour of Europe this year – I saw her at Chelsea’s Cadogan Hall – she invited fans to request hand-written lyric sheets. I would have plumped for Arguing With Ghosts but, really, we are spoilt for choice: Lowlands, Wichita, Disappearing Act and The Boy From Rye from Dancing With The Beast, Pretty Things and the title track from the Blackbirds album, Idlewild and The Matador from Hello Cruel World.
Or we could go back to 1996 and her debut LP The Secret Of Life for On A Bus To St Cloud and the career-changing, award-wining feminist anthem Independence Day, which had been a huge hit for Martina McBride two years earlier with its biting lyric about an abused wife who fights back, its story narrated by her eight-year-old daughter…
Well she seemed all right by dawn’s early light
Though she looked a little worried and weak
She tried to pretend he wasn’t drinkin’ again
But Daddy’d left the proof on her cheek
It's the 25th anniversary of that song, and it is still hard to contemplate that it was misconstrued, obviously by those who don't listen to lyrics, as a patriotic July 4th celebration. While country radio stations preoccupied by trite love songs and schmaltz were reluctant to play it, a couple of notable politicians knew what they were doing when they misinterpreted it at rallies à la Bruce Springsteen's Born In The USA. The day of independence we are talking about here is one victim's personal freedom from cruelty, gained in an act of desperation. Peters told Rolling Stone that at one point she felt as though she didn't own the song any more, but she had a crusading ally in McBride and eventually felt able to perform it again. Let the weak be strong, let the right be wrong.
Peters, who moved from playing the bars of Boulder, Colorado, to hone her skills in Nashville in the late 80s and has written songs for such artists as Etta James, Shania Twain, Neil Diamond, George Strait, Patty Loveless, Faith Hill and Trisha Yearwood, speaks on her website about the importance of empathy in her work. ‘I’ve been writing about women ageing since I was in my 20s, even though I’ve been warned against it because it’s somewhat of a taboo topic. That makes me want to do it even more and to shine light on this unfair standard. People love songs that make them feel seen. When you as the writer or performer can gently and artfully lift the veil of shame and just say the thing, you can really reach people.’
She told The Boot: ‘I sort of approach songs as an actor approaches a role. I feel that if a character starts to appear and talk to me, I have to live with them long enough to let them start really talking. I don’t think you can make characters do things in songs; I think you have to let them hang out with you long enough to tell their story.’
It is curious how certain songs of heartbreak or emotional desolation can be so uplifting. Disappearing Act is a case in point as Peters’ protagonist (thought to be based on her mother) shares her painful memories…
Well I lost two babies, kept one more
Lost him too when he went to war
And all his daddy could say is it’ll make him a man
He did two tours of duty out in Iraq
He came home but he never came back
And that’s something that I’ll never understand
At Cadogan Hall, Peters and her band, directed by husband and pianist Barry Walsh, were joined by the Southern Fried String Quartet who gave Arguing With Ghosts an extra dimension. There was glorious fiddle playing on The Matador too, courtesy of Seonaid Aitken, although I did miss Walsh’s exquisite accordion from the recorded version. In the pin-drop quiet, Walsh’s piano trills were a constant ornamental delight – ‘his left hand is a band,’ says his wife.
Peters recently revealed she has been recording a collection of songs written by the late Mickey Newbury, a fellow Nashville Songwriters Hall of Famer, to be titled The Night You Wrote That Song. Newbury’s uncompromising, unconventional genius had struck a chord with Peters in her formative years. Sad songs made him happy too.