Nashville Legend Gretchen Peters Continues To Make An Impression (INTERVIEW)

Singer/songwriter Gretchen Peters has made a huge impact in the world of country and American music since she moved to Nashville in the late 80s. She has had high powered artists from George Jones, Martina McBride, Faith Hill, Bryan Adams to Etta James perform her songs. She is an inductee of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. 

Peters has just released her 14th album, The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury. Every song on the album personifies Newbury’s genius as a songwriter. Peters gives the songs new life through her soulful interpretations.

Newbury has been considered the songwriter’s songwriter and a legend. In the early 1970s, his houseboat was open to any aspiring songwriter who came to Nashville in need of a place to rest his head and sing his songs. On any given night one could find people like Dottie West, Kris Kristofferson, Hank Cochran, and Willie in Mickey’s living room during a guitar pull. Kristofferson reflected, “Mickey made a profound effect on me as an artist that I was trying to be and on my work. He had this ability to express intense emotion with such simplicity. What mattered the most with Mickey was the art and the heart.”

Susan Newbury (Newbury’s widow) described Peters’ tribute to Mickey. “Her delivery is intimate. She has lived through the same experiences and that transfers into every nuance of the lyric. Her decision not to change pronouns in “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye” was brilliant . . . . She didn’t force the song to be a ‘girl’s’ song, but stayed true to the heartache Mickey wrote in that lyric.” 

Peters graciously took time out to speak with Glide on making her new album and the influence Newbury has had on her. Here are some of those revelations.

How did you get introduced to Mickey Newbury’s music?

I was in my first year of college in Boulder, CO. That was not really where my heart was. I was playing in the bars there.  I had just started out and I had really fallen in love with country music, but I wasn’t raised on it. I had a lot of learning to do and there was a guy who worked in a used record store. He saw what I was interested in and saw all the records I was buying. He had lived in Nashville for a while. He was the one who handed me my first Mickey Newbury album. I fell in love. The album was either Looks Like Rain or San Francisco Mabel Joy. I started on this journey of discovering Newbury. I had seen his name. I was a big Johnny Rodriguez fan and I had seen his name on a Rodriguez album. 

Discovering Newbury as an artist was a whole new thing for me. I was still living at home with my mom and my mom was a big music fan. She really fostered my music career by taking me out to hear bands I wanted to hear. She really enabled me in a great way. She fell in love with Mickey too. Years later, I had moved to Nashville and gotten a record deal.  After I made three or four of my own records, my mother said, ‘You should make a record of Mickey Newbury songs. I want to hear you sing those songs.’ I don’t think I paid a lot of attention then because I was at the beginning of my career. 

In some sense, I didn’t think I had earned the right to do that yet. But I had it in my mind for a long time. About three years ago, I was at a resting place. After my last three albums, I felt that those albums were my manifesto. I was really happy with that work. If anybody asked, ‘what do you do?’ I would give them those albums and say, ‘this is what I do.’ This led me to look around for some kind of alternative project for which to work. I kept thinking about this idea of recording Newbury songs. It was something that was dear to my heart that I wanted to do for a long time. 

My husband and I tour together. He plays keyboards and accordion with me. He found out that Cinderella Studios which is where Mickey recorded those three classic albums, was still operating. It’s actually the oldest continuing operating studio in Nashville and it was where those late 60s and early 70s albums were made. We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to go in the same studio Mickey recorded and see if that magic was still in the walls?’ We did a low commitment kind of venture and recorded two or three songs. It really was magic. It was the perfect place, a treasure trove of music history. It was away from music row. It was much like a little cocoon almost. Psychologically, it was really great. We got to know Wayne Moss who was very much a part of those early Newbury recordings. We had some of the same people play that were used in the Newbury recordings including Charley McCoy and Wayne. It worked out so perfectly with this wonderful kind of magical place for us to do the record.  

Very few artists have been successful at interpreting his songs. I was very pleasantly surprised at how well you captured the soul of Newbury’s songs. The album starts with “The Sailor” and as it progresses, it is evident that you have captured the essence of Newbury.

Thank you so much. It was really important to me to reach out to Susan Newbury and let her know that I was doing this project. I prayed for their approval. I had a gig in Portland. We had the record mixed or mostly mixed. She came to our show. After the show, we sat in her car and we listened to most of the tracks. Susan and one of her daughters loved it. She gave me her blessing. She told me that not a lot of women have been able to interpret his songs. It meant the world to me to get her approval. She is super savvy about the record-making process. We talked a long time about how we made it. I really loved her and loved spending time with her. 

Mickey was a legend in 1970 as a Nashville songwriter who was revered by Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Darrell, and many more. This was before the outlaw movement. His first albums were considered to be the first country concept albums.

Oh, I know. His albums were like soundtracks. I think that was what really attracted me to his music. When I was a teenager, I listened to a lot of folk music and rock and roll, not a lot of country music yet. One of the things that captured my imagination was how he could take an album and turn it into a 50-minute story that was so cumulus. I really loved that. 

Has Newbury had any direct influence on your songwriting?

Oh, definitely! No question about it. One of the things about him that I was enthralled was the folk element to his music. He was influenced by Stephen Foster. That was the first thing I fell in love with. I leaned toward the folky side of both Mickey Newbury and Don Williams in music. I latched on to that. The other thing that made a deep impression on me was the poetry in his lyrics. You could write about anything like history or time travel. It didn’t have to all be about drinking and love songs. There was a lot more to write about and you could write about it poetically. It could still fall into the realm of country or folk music. There were very few boundaries with his writing. I was never really comfortable with the restrictions defined in Country. Even when I first moved to Nashville, I felt that everybody was trying to fit everything into a box. It’s still a problem now and it’s been a problem forever. Intuitively, from listening to Mickey’s music, that he didn’t have time for those boxes. He was going to do what he was going to do. That made a huge impression on me as a writer and an artist. 

You’ve spoken a little bit about how you got started in music. It seems that your mother had a huge influence on you.

She was an enabler. She was not a musician but she loved music and she was a lot more interested in the music that my older sister and myself were bringing home than she was in her own generation’s music. She was very adventurous and she really fell in love with Mickey. She loved Willie Nelson’s Stardust album. She saw that I wanted to do something in music. She knew what I was bound to do before I did. She was determined to do anything she could to support me which is such an incredible gift to have. 

I started playing guitar when I was seven. I was obsessed with it. I started playing in the clubs when I was 17 and 18 years old. I was definitely underage. I moved to Nashville in 1987 when I was 29. I had had a child living in Boulder. I had been playing for about ten years in clubs and bands, doing all the ski resorts and all that stuff. I realized it was a dead end. If I was going to do anything with this I was going to have to go somewhere there was an actual music industry. So, I went to Nashville with a promise from a publisher that if I moved there he would sign me. And he did. He was a really great publisher, very influential. I had success quickly. 

The first song that I got cut a year after I got there was by George Jones. I had moved there to be a singer/songwriter because all of my heroes were singer/songwriters. I wasn’t completely aware that there were just songwriters. I realized that if people were going to take me seriously, I was going to have to write songs. I went for a publishing deal first because I thought that would be the way I could prove myself. I had more success as a songwriter than I ever dreamed I would. Within a few short years, I had turned into a Nashville songwriter. It was wonderful but it was not my original plan. I’m very grateful for everything that came my way. I always wanted to make my own records and perform. I was performing as much as I could. My first record deal came along in 1996, but my first record did not sell well. Although, it did very well in the UK that gave me a performing career over there. It set me on a path of what I wanted to do. After that, I didn’t want to sign with a major label anymore. I wanted control over my records. The second record I made was on my own label. From then on, I was independent.

I read that you are teaching songwriting. Is that true?

I hesitate to say that I am teaching songwriting as much as I am helping serious songwriters to shine a light on the process of songwriting. I didn’t think that was something I would ever want to do.  A friend who was organizing songwriting workshops talked me into it. I fell in love with it. Like most songwriters, I love talking about it more than I love doing it. (Laughing) It is much easier to talk about it. I found out that I learned about the process during the process of teaching it. That was a real discovery for me. It helped me learn about what I was doing as well. 

What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

I was a motel maid at one time for a week. I was 16 years old. It was not a very nice motel and oh my God, I always tip the maids because of that job.

If you were not working in music, what would you be doing?

I think that my fantasy would be that I would be a marine biologist. I love the sea. I love dolphins and whales. The reality is probably I would be some kind of writer because I think it is in my DNA. 

What is the best advice you have ever gotten?

I have to say the best advice is ‘be yourself.’ It always comes back to that. It doesn’t matter if you are talking about writing or just living. The trouble I have always gotten into in my life is from trying to be something that I wasn’t. This first came from my mom. 

I’ve also had mentors along the way. Harlan Howard was a dear friend. I don’t know if he actually said that outright to me, but he encouraged me to keep doing what I was doing even though I was writing quirkier songs at times. They weren’t obvious hits all the time.  And I had a couple of great publishers, Noel Fox and Donna Hilley. who definitely said, ‘We want you to be you. We don’t want you to write for someone else. Just do what you do.’ It’s been a recurring theme in my life. You can never be number one by being someone else. You are the best you, you will ever be.

Dead or alive who would you like to meet?

Mickey Newbury is right up there. Let me tell you. He would be at the top of my list. I would also like to meet my other songwriting hero, Leonard Cohen.

If you could only listen to three albums in the next year, what would those albums be?

One of them would be Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. I’m going to pick a Mickey Newbury album, but it won’t be one you would think. Do you know how certain records play for you in a time and place in your life? They have such emotional resonance for you because of whatever you were doing at that time. So, I would pick Mickey’s album Rusty Tracks. I think I might have to pick Joni Mitchell’s Blue as my third album. I don’t think that one would get old.

Dead or alive, who would you like to see perform?

Oh, Elvis! Definitely Elvis and Frank Sinatra! I did make a special trip to Portland to see Leonard Cohen. He was in his eighties and I thought I’m going to buy a plane ticket and go see him. I’m so glad I did. He was astonishingly great. I’ve never regretted those kinds of decisions. To spend the money on those kinds of things have always been worth it to me. Experiences are where it at, much more than things.

Do you have any dreams left to come true?

I’ve had so many dreams come true that I never anticipated. I think I sort of left that behind a while ago. I’m a lot more interested in seeing what’s around the corner than to try to manifest anything. My career has not been the way I envisioned it. It’s been so much better.

If you could have any special talent, what would that be?

To be invisible. (Laughing) Doesn’t every writer want to be invisible so they can really get in there and see what’s going on? We are born observers. I think invisibility would be amazing because you would be able to observe anything you wanted to.  

Are you doing any writing during the pandemic?

I haven’t done any writing. I’ve talked to some other writers about this and it seems to be a very common feeling that things are so unsettled that its very, very hard to get the kind of concentration level that you need to really write, to dig deep. I did write an essay about Mickey for NO Depression. I’ve been doing a little bit of prose writing that seems a little easier right now. I haven’t written any songs, but I’m fine with taking a little break. I’m not worried about that. It will happen when it happens. I always end up needing to write. When that need comes up, I’ll go do it. A friend said it’s like a slow-motion emergency.

How are you spending your time?

We got a new puppy. That’s eating up quite a bit of time. Right now, I’m doing a lot of this sort of thing because I have the new record coming out. We’re doing something we haven’t had the chance to do in years. We’re getting into a rhythm of living, waking up, taking walks, and cooking. We go to bed early and actually get enough sleep. That’s amazing in itself. There are a lot of things that are heartbreaking and awful about this pandemic. There are some things about the enforced stay at home that have been kind of a blessing for us. I’m trying to look on the bright side for some of us who were a little too type-A personality, like myself. It’s good to slow down and take stock. 

Do you have any idea as to when you will be able to tour again?

I don’t think anybody really knows. Our first scheduled dates are in September, but it’s anybody’s guess if we will be able to do that. My entire UK and Dutch tour got moved to 2021. Even the February 2021 leg might get moved. I really miss it. We’ve been doing some online stuff. I’m okay if we have to wait. My husband and I have been touring a lot for quite a few years. We were pretty tired when it came to an abrupt stop. If we have to take time to rest and regenerate that’s okay with me. 

 

The album will be taking place in two stages with be a digital release on May 15 as planned with the physical release delayed until next month.

 

 

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