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After hits for others, Peters strikes out on own

By Brian Wahlert, July 1996

Songwriters come to Nashville from all over America, lured by the dream of writing that one big hit, a song that will be recorded by a multi-platinum artist and reach number one on the singles chart.

They all know the story of Don Von Tress, unknown until Billy Ray Cyrus recorded "Achy Breaky Heart."

But for every one like him, dozens more are barely getting by on their publishing companies' stipends or, worse, still waiting to be signed to a publishing company.

Many of them would kill to be in the position of Gretchen Peters.

She's written a slew of hits, including George Strait's "Chill of an Early Fall," Pam Tillis' "Let That Pony Run," Patty Loveless' "You Don't Even Know Who I Am" and Martina McBride's "My Baby Loves Me" and "Independence Day," the current Country Music Association Song of the Year.

Ironically, though, she never sets out to write a hit.

About her songwriting, Peters says, "You do what you do, and if they embrace it, they do. If you try and anticipate someone else's needs, it's awfully hard to do that."

In other words, she doesn't write for an audience, but to please herself, and luckily, some of the songs that make her happy have also struck a chord with country listeners, especially "Independence Day."

She describes that song as a "surprise from beginning to end.... I just felt like I had a really great song that nobody would cut." She liked the song enough to make a demo of it, regardless of whether any artist ever recorded it, but to her amazement, "Martina [McBride] was the first artist who heard it and felt strongly about it and wanted to record it.

McBride's producer, Paul Worley, also became a champion of the song, and with both of them fighting for it, it was not only recorded and for McBride's "The Way That I Am" album, but also released as that album's third single.

It's a gutsy, controversial story of spousal abuse, told through the unique perspective of the couple's daughter, who tries to get away from the abuse by going to the Fourth of July parade. When she comes home, she finds her mother has set their house on fire, presumably with her father inside.

With its touchy subject matter of spousal abuse and the woman's response, Peters expected the backlash the song received, but "to be honest, I think it only helped."

Some radio stations boycotted the song, and as a result, it never even made the top five, much less number one. Still, she feels its importance goes far beyond that of an average number-one record.

"People are going to remember certain songs and forget other ones," Peters says. "I realize what a big impact can do."

With songs like "Independence Day," Peters is riding high as the top female country songwriter on Music Row, although she says with a laugh, "I don't think of myself as the big cheese."

Despite her success, however, she's not entirely pleased. When she came to Nashville, she says, "I didn't actually think of myself as a songwriter.... I came here as a singer-songwriter." She soon realized after arriving from Boulder, Col., in 1988, though, that the best way to maintain her artistic integrity would be to write her own songs. That way, she reasons, she can never be forced into recording a song she doesn't really like.

Now that she's established herself as a songwriter, it's the perfect time to release her first album, and the result is "The Secret of Life" on Imprint Records, the first release for the label.

"It's admittedly not straight down the center," she says, and in today's world of cookie-cutter country songs and line-dance hits, being different is something to be applauded. It's a collection of 11 songs, 10 written by Peters, and many with a definite theme that's best epitomized, ironically, by the one song on the disc that she didn't write, Steve Earle's "I Ain't Ever Satisfied."

"It wasn't so much that I was going for a theme, but that a theme developed," she says. She points to "six or seven songs that I knew I wanted to record" that all seem to have "an underlying restlessness" and "similarity in the characters."

Perhaps Peters' greatest talent as a songwriter is her ability to create poignant, realistic characters with a great depth of emotion in just a three- or four-minute song.

These aren't the buckle bunnies of a Brooks & Dunn song, but real-life people that the listener comes to love and root for. Certainly, the mother and daughter of "Independence Day" fit that description, as do the man and woman in "You Don't Even Know Who I Am," who after years of marriage have simply lost touch with each other.

On her new album, Peters continues to display her ability to beautifully portray a character and make a common person who seems down and out into a hero.

For instance, "Border Town" is the story of a Puerto Rican woman who left home early and had a son. Trying to improve life for her family, "she rides a bus all the way across town to love somebody else's child/Shows up each morning right on time and at six o'clock she's gone/She keeps her distance and she toes the line 'cause she knows where it's been drawn."

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