Gretchen Peters, newly inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, performs in the round with Mary Gauthier and Eliza Gilkyson at McCabe’s

Gretchen Peters thrives on small, passionate crowds Photo by Gina Binkley

Gretchen Peters thrives on small, passionate crowds
Photo by Gina Binkley

By Bliss Bowen

We’re deluged with music every day — via commercials, ringtones, film and TV soundtracks, website streams, background music in shops and restaurants — yet music’s worth is subject to widespread debate, as songwriters seek more equitable shares in profits from their creations (Taylor Swift vs. Spotify, BMI songwriters vs. Pandora). As independent artists increasingly assume the mantle of self-employed entrepreneurs, and music’s intrinsic value is challenged, what is a songwriter’s role in modern American society?

“Ooh, interesting question,” says Gretchen Peters, a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter who in October was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. She mentions troubadours from the Middle Ages who sang about current events of their day, thereby delivering aural broadsheets for listeners. “I think we are the ones who explain our world, culturally and maybe politically sometimes. I suppose it’s the same thing that all artists do, really, which is put it all in some kind of context.”

That context is ever shifting, something Peters confronts with her new album, “Blackbirds.”

In some circles she’s best known as the author of country hits for Faith Hill (“The Secret of Life”), Patty Loveless (“You Don’t Even Know Who I Am”), Martina McBride (“Independence Day”) and Trisha Yearwood (“On a Bus to St. Cloud”), among others. Etta James, Jimmy LaFave, Sarah McLachlan, the Neville Brothers and Bonnie Raitt have also recorded her material.

But the New York-born, Colorado-raised Peters was no staff songwriter; when she moved to Nashville in the late 1980s, she “didn’t even know that was a job description,” she recalls with a laugh. “I wanted to be a singer-songwriter.” Many of the above-cited songs, which dealt in themes like domestic abuse and existential compromise, were culled from Peters’ own albums.

“Blackbirds,” her tenth, is a beautiful-sounding collection dressed in rustic Dobro, delicately fingerpicked guitar and mandolin, cello and pump organ, whose songs address mortality and loss — the kind of songs that move listeners to nod heads in intimate recognition as Peters’ sweetly gritty soprano gives voice to their own knotted emotions.

“Rained three days when we awoke
Sun came out and the levee broke
Like some cruel and cosmic joke
God’s playing
I don’t pretend that I believe
I know there ain’t no guarantees
Still morning finds me on my knees
and praying”  — “Pretty Things”

“I think [the 2012 album] ‘Hello Cruel World’ paved the way for it,” Peters explains by phone from a New York hotel shortly after returning from a UK tour. “I really felt like I was getting at something good. I was getting at the deep stuff on that record, pressing a little harder into subjects that were slightly uncomfortable.

“It wasn’t as though I sat down and purposely wrote 11 songs about mortality. It was what was in the room with me, and what started to emerge. … It’s just a natural and pretty rich topic for someone in my stage and age of life. Because, you know, it’s on our minds. I have a parent who’s in her 90s. I’ve been to my fair share of funerals and memorial services now. It starts to encroach and it starts to be something that comes and lives with you at a certain point. I don’t mean that in a morbid way at all; I mean this is the reality of life in your 50s.”

“There ain’t no boat, there ain’t no train

To take us back the way we came …

It’s not like you think it’s gonna be

Not like the movies that you see

Ain’t no soaring violins

Just machines and medicines” — “The Cure for the Pain”

While writing for “Blackbirds,” her inspirational touchstone was what she calls the bedrock American “’70s folk-rock” that shaped her as a songwriter: Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Simon & Garfunkel, Neil Young — troubadours of their time, whose lyrical commentary often directed pop culture discourse. Peters hears their sonic imprint on “Blackbirds.” Not incidentally, they were album artists.

“For me it goes all the way back to vinyl, to dropping the needle on the first band on Side 1, having that journey through Side 1 and flipping it over and having the same journey on the second side, with an artist you love,” she says. “That experience to me is the ultimate. I think of my records with that in mind.”

Other artists have mined the 57-year-old’s catalogue for hits, but her own recordings do not receive similar radio exposure — which suits her just fine.

“It isn’t harder to connect, it’s harder to get the opportunity to connect,” she says, acknowledging that mainstream radio’s youth-fixated gatekeepers block most mature artists from being heard. “I’ve had more intense and strong and visceral reactions to this album in the what — five days? — that it’s been out than any other work that I’ve done, and that leads me to believe that there are at least some people out there that are hungry for honest and hopefully artful treatment of this subject matter. When you do have the opportunity, people really respond strongly. I seem to be seeing more reaction to this record than to any record I’ve made previously. That tells me to keep going.

“I was never looking for a huge audience anyway; I’d rather have a small and passionate audience. And what’s the alternative? You have to keep on going. You may not get the youth-oriented
artist opportunities, but you have to do what you have to do artistically.”

Three Women & the Truth Tour presents Gretchen Peters in the round with Mary Gauthier and Eliza Gilkyson in 8 and 10 p.m. shows at McCabe’s, 3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. $32.50. Call (310) 828-4497 or visit gretchenpeters.com.

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