After hits for others, Peters strikes out on own

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."

"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.

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •