As the composer of such classics as “Independence Day,” Gretchen Peters is a capable expert in the art of telling stories. Nowhere is that more apparent in her upcoming disc, Dancing With The Beast. Her first album since 2015, she tells Music Update Central that she feels the disc represents her strength as a wordsmith.
“I'm certainly not a frequent writer of sort of big love songs,” she admitted. “I'm not really a political songwriter, and I don't write protest songs, so to speak. But what I've been doing my whole career is telling stories. I think stories are the way that we open up that empathy space and figure out how does it feel to be somebody else. That's how we empathize this. It's the basis of great novels, and great films and I think great songs, too.”
Sometimes those great songs lend themselves to a darker point of view, as evidenced on “Wichita.” Of the song, she says “The way I approach writing these songs that are based on characters is I just live with the characters long enough until they start talking to me and telling me what their story is. I think that's the way that you get a really authentic l story. That's kind of how you get to the emotional truth of the thing is live with the characters.”
Though Dancing With The Beast is full of stories about various female characters, “The Boy From Rye” illustrates that the effect that a single male has on multiple women. She says she’s writing from her own past in the song. “I have very distinct and vivid memories of being fourteen and fifteen years old and just the awakening and awareness that happens. Being with my friends, teenage girls, and this kind of disorienting competition that gets set up. I think for girls it's a treacherous time of adolescence I really wanted to write something about that because I remember feeling like the ground was shifting under me and feeling that my friends were in competition for boys, and why did I feel suddenly as though I was being judged externally rather than internally. What was all that about? When you're fourteen and fifteen old, that's hard stuff to figure out.”
But, It’s not all dark moods on the disc. Take “Say Grace,” a song that Peters says is about the redemption we all need to feel from time to time.” I feel like, especially in these times that we're in right now ... I was really looking for some light with the darkness. ‘Say Grace’ was that song for me. Again, I think that song is really all about empathy. It's just all about imagine yourself in these positions of these people that are struggling with something in life, whether it's being displaced, not having a home, being poor, whatever it is. Imagine yourself in that place and say grace, say thank you.”
And, though it’s very much in the singer-songwriter vein, there’s a weariness to “The Show” that evokes a comparison to Merle Haggard’s mid-career epic “Footlights.” Peters knows the song well, saying “Well, what a compliment. Thank you. That really is such a personal little snapshot for me. When I wrote it and when I sing it, I picture this one particular little hotel where we played an event. When we're playing a certain venue in Oklahoma and I see the corner, and I see the stoplight, and I see the church across the street. It's all visual to me. That line, to me the crux of it, I think the line about the hotel coffee tastes like kerosene, and I'm happy as I think I'd ever been. That's kind of it right there. It's like all kinds of nasty stuff that you think you wouldn't want to deal with, and at the same time, it's blissful. It's wonderful. It's where you're supposed to be.”
And, the road is exactly where Peters will be – playing the music from Dancing With The Beast – here, there, and everywhere. “Well, we're launching the album in the UK, which is a huge territory for me. It's really my biggest audience. We'll be over there for a month. Then we're coming back. We're touring all over the states, Canada, back to the UK and Europe for festivals, and we're pretty much going to be booked through December when we will collapse in a heap.”
And, at those dates, don’t be surprised if fans request “Independence Day,” or “On A Bus To St. Cloud.” While the former was a CMA Song of the Year following Martina McBride’s recording, Trisha Yearwood’s emotional version stands as one of the best records cut in Music City in recent memory. Although not a chart blockbuster (A # 59 Billboard hit in 1995), Peters remains touched when fans bring up the song.
“I feel immense gratitude that the song visited me, that the song didn't go to Bob Dylan's house instead of mine,” she says. “You know what I mean? There's a bit of mystery in that song that I think gives the song longevity. I think if you don't reveal everything in a song, it gives people the opportunity to kind of live inside of it.”
Dancing With The Beast will be released on May 18.