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Gretchen Peters

“I get a lot of juice from the musicians in the room,” says Gretchen Peters.

In the case of her new album, ‘Blackbirds,’ “juice” is certainly understatement.
Recorded in Nashville, the album features a who’s who of modern American roots
music: Jerry Douglas, Jason Isbell, Jimmy LaFave, Will Kimbrough, Kim Richey, Suzy
Bogguss and more. But it’s not the guests that make ‘Blackbirds’ the most poignant and
moving album of Peters’ storied career; it’s the impeccable craftsmanship, her ability
to capture the kind of complex, conflicting, and overwhelming emotional moments we
might otherwise try to hide and instead shine a light of truth and understanding onto
them.
‘Blackbirds’ is, in many ways, an album that is unafraid to face down mortality. But
rather than dwell on the pain of loss, the music finds a new appreciation for the life
we’re given.
“During the summer of 2013 when I began writing songs for ‘Blackbirds,’ there was one
week when I went to three memorial services and a wedding,” remembers Peters. “It
dawned on me that this is the way it goes as you get older – the memorial services
start coming with alarming frequency and the weddings are infrequent and thus
somehow more moving. You understand the fragility of life, and the beauty of two
people promising to weather it together.”
Peters found herself drawn to artists courageous enough to face their own aging and
mortality in their work (Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Nick Lowe),
but noticed all the material was coming from a male perspective.
“As brave an artistic risk as it may be for a man, it’s much riskier for a woman to speak
about it,” says Peters. “There’s a cultural expectation that women artists should either
shut up about it or disappear entirely. Aging seems to be a taboo subject for female
singer-songwriters, in part because our value has depended so much on our youth and
sexuality. The depth and beauty and terror and richness of life in my fifties is
obviously, to me, the deepest well of experience I can draw from as an artist. I want
to write about that stuff because it’s real, it’s there, and so few women seem to be
talking about it.”

If anyone can open up that conversation, it’s Peters. Inducted into the prestigious
Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2014, she has long been one of Music City’s most
beloved and respected artists, known never to shy away from darkness and struggle in
her writing. Martina McBride’s recording of her stirring “Independence Day,” a song that
deals with domestic abuse, was nominated for a Grammy and took home Song of the
Year honors at the CMAs, and her work has been performed by everyone from Etta
James and Neil Diamond to George Strait and Trisha Yearwood. “If Peters never delivers
another tune as achingly beautiful as ‘On A Bus To St. Cloud,'” People Magazine wrote,
“she has already earned herself a spot among country’s upper echelon of contemporary
composers.”
‘Blackbirds’ follows Peters’ 2012 album ‘Hello Cruel World,’ which NPR called “the album
of her career” and Uncut said “establishes her as the natural successor to Lucinda
Williams.” If anything, though, ‘Blackbirds’ truly establishes Peters as a one-of-a-kind
singer and songwriter, one in possession of a fearless and endlessly creative voice.
In an atypical and unexpectedly rewarding move, Peters teamed with frequent
tourmate Ben Glover to co-write several tunes on the new album, which evokes the
kind of 1970’s folk rock of Neil Young, David Crosby, and Joni Mitchell that Peters grew
up on, albeit with a more haunted twist.

“I haven’t been a big fan of co-writing and it’s not my natural M.O.,” she explains, “but I
feel a deep kinship with Ben. I knew before I went in to write with him that there
were no depths to which he wouldn’t go. I felt a certain safety.”
The first song she penned with Glover, the murder ballad “Blackbirds,” is set deep in
southern Louisiana and opens the album with an ominous, country-noir vibe that
simmers just below the surface of the entire collection.
“That song just kind of came out of us,” says Peters. “Writing it was a lot like
investigating a crime. We were sitting in my writing room and we had some lines and
the chorus and we were just talking to each other trying to figure out ‘What actually
happened here? What’s the story?’ It felt like we were following clues.”
Geographically, the album leaps around the country, with particularly heartrending
stops in Pelham, New York, where Peters probes the hidden darkness of the leafy
suburbia in which she grew up (“The House On Auburn Street”), and the Gulf of Mexico,
where a fisherman lays his wife to rest after losing everything in the BP oil spill
(“Black Ribbons”). “When All You Got Is A Hammer” is the story of a veteran struggling
to adjust to life at home after fighting overseas, while “The Cure For The Pain” takes
place in the waning days of illness in a hospital, and “Nashville” brings us back to
Peters’ adopted hometown.
Despite the varied locations, the songs on ‘Blackbirds’ are all inextricably tied together
through their characters, whom Peters paints with extraordinary empathy and vivid
detail.
“These songs are stories of lost souls, people trapped in the darkness, or fighting their
way out of it,” she says. “I think we need to talk more about that, more honestly. We
throw words like ‘closure’ around as if it’s a panacea, but sometimes pain outlasts us.
Sometimes it doesn’t go away. There is no way out but through.”
Finding the way through is what Peters does best. The songs on ‘Blackbirds’ may take
place in the dark night of the soul, but Peters ensures we never lose sight of the
delicate beauty of the journey. Sometimes, as she sings so compassionately, “The cure
for the pain is the pain.”

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