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After hits for others, Peters strikes out on own

By Brian Wahlert, July 1996

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"A Room With a View" is a song about a cab driver. He has the most dangerous job in the country, but does he feel sorry for himself? No, he feels lucky to be doing what he's doing. "Don't have much education but I know how people are/You'd be surprised what you can learn from the front seat of a car."

As good a job as the New York native does of painting portraits, the listener might think of her as some kind of modern-day historian, always keeping her eyes open for interesting people and then writing about them. She's not that way at all, though.

Most of her characters aren't even based on real people.

"In general they're not real characters," she says. "They're a way of getting out what I'm going through. Of course, they're also a really nice way of letting your imagination go."

In fact, out of the characters discussed above, only the cab driver is a real person, a Hispanic woman whom Peters met in New York.

Nearly all of Peters' best characters are female, and perhaps that's why her hit singles have mostly been with female artists and why she has been pigeonholed as a "woman's songwriter."

Setting out to destroy that idea, or at least put a dent in it, she wrote "The Secret of Life," a song about a bunch of guys sitting at a bar and just talking about life.

"I do a lot of things out of rebellion," Peters says. "I never set out to be a woman's songwriter. That term kind of rankles. That gave me the initial idea of writing 'The Secret of Life.'... As the song progressed, I realized I was writing about philosophy."

And in writing the song, what did Peters decide is the secret? "The secret of life is nothin' at all," she sings.

A batch of great songs is definitely one important ingredient in a good album, but they aren't much without a voice to sing them, and Peters does have a very good voice, a clear soprano somewhere between Pam Tillis and Chely Wright. The tracks that back it up, produced by Peters' husband and critic Green Daniel, are sparse and let the songs speak for themselves.

It's a beautiful, cerebral album to which the listener really has to pay attention to appreciate it. In short, it's the type of album that gets great reviews from critics, but will probably never reach mass appeal because of the closed-mindedness of country radio.

"Where it's getting played, it's getting real good response," Peters says, but the first two singles, "When You Are Old" and "I Ain't Never Satisfied," have failed to make much impact on the country charts.

Thus, it doesn't come as much of a surprise when she says that at this stage in her career, she'd rather have a hit single as an artist than a hit as a songwriter, "not so much for the goody of the hit as getting the album heard." She believes strongly in her music and is only concerned with letting other people get the chance to listen to it.

These aren't typical country songs, but then, Peters isn't a typical country songwriter. When asked who she would most like to co-write with, she doesn't name Willie Nelson or Harlan Howard. Instead, she says, "I would be totally paralyzed if I got the chance, but I would write with Bruce Springsteen."

She feels a kindred spirit in Springsteen's songs, and although she is much too humble to compare herself to The Boss, she does seem to be his female counterpart. After all, they both write about those restless common people living their everyday lives. But few commercially successful country writers care as much about their characters or have as much insight as Gretchen Peters does.

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