It wasn’t part of the marketing program – social isolation wasn’t part of anyone’s life plans for 2020 after all. It was somewhat out of character for someone whose politeness and warmth are well known – this is someone who would post daily photos of her puppy on Twitter #oliveroftheday, when she wasn’t singing the praises of another artist. And she laughs a little – just a little bit - sheepishly about it now.
But oh boy, if you’re going to make a splash that, however inadvertently, puts your name out there as you prepare to release a new album, you may as well do it in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, practically signing off as Pissed Off of North Florida.
Gretchen Peters, an artist with nine albums of Americana/folk country of her own and a songwriter with a long history of quality material for Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, Martina McBride, Faith Hill, and even Neil Diamond and Etta James (there’s also some Bryan Adams co-writes in there but let’s draw a veil over that on this site), is someone whose preferred medium is the quietly powerful, character-driven song. She’s in the Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame but her public presence doesn’t come festooned with diamantes or headlines.
However, there she was in the opening paragraphs of a WSJ story about how seriously or otherwise Americans were taking social distancing rules, with one of her tweets about boorish joggers making no allowance for others on the path at Seagrove Beach inspiring her to not just step aside but yell at the idiots (“Give me some distance here!”) and demand they pay attention.
“It’s happening everywhere but sometimes I think … our dumb country,” Peters says today, her laugh devolving into a sigh. “Can we all agree to listen to doctors and experts?”
At home with musical and life partner Barry Walsh, Peters is doing ok really. No gigs, but at least “I can’t complain: we get out every day in nature, we get out in sunshine down here, we have this puppy … it’s a lot better than being locked up in the house”. And being in the one place for weeks at a time, probably for the first time this century, has given her a chance to think about what it is that matters, to gain “clarity” she says.
Something similar happened in the process of making her new album, The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs Of Mickey Newbury, her first album of all-covers, all of them written by one of her musical heroes and a songwriter admired by his peers – and their accountants, when they had hits with his songs - if not half as well known by the public as he should be.
“Making this record was a way of me stopping and taking stock,” Peters says of a record which is an understated masterclass in interpretation and singing as much as writing. Taking stock not just of what she was doing, but why. And how Mickey Newbury played a crucial role in both.
If the name doesn’t ring a bell it’s kind of perversely right that while Newbury’s first hit as a writer was a song made huge by both traditional country figure Don Gibson and Welsh powerhouse Tom Jones (Funny Familiar Forgotten Feelings) and he at one point had hits on country, easy listening & R&B charts via Eddy Arnold, Andy Williams and Solomon Burke, his two best known songs were a moment of late ‘60s psych pop by future hairy legend of country, Kenny Rogers, (Just Dropped In To See What Condition My Condition Was In) and Elvis Presley’s florid interpretation of Newbury’s combination of three American standards in An American Trilogy.
That his own albums in the 1970s in particular, and his drive for independence in how he made them, helped spawn the outlaw country movement of Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, and provided a template for moody, adventurous approaches to traditional American writing, has been lost outside songwriter circles.
Nonetheless, in one sense, it is obvious why anyone would want record these Newbury songs: they are very good songs that tell stories, that hit home, that mean something. And in the hands of Peters, even the idiosyncratic Just Dropped In, resonates with tenderness and feeling, and, most crucially in a record of covers, a sense that they actually belong to her.
As a songwriter, what does immersing yourself in another writer, whose influence on you is clear and whose work you already knew, tell you about yourself as a songwriter?
“First of all, I don’t think you ever embark on something like this without learning something about writing. I learnt a lot from digging deep into his songs. I learnt a lot about the DNA of his songs and the way they are put together,” says Peters. “One of things I learnt was that he really played fast and loose with structure sometimes. He was capable, fully capable, masterful even, at writing a classically structured song, but he also sometimes we’d go completely off the page and do something brilliant and ‘against the rules’. You can do that when you are that good.
“The other thing that I think I came away with was a clearer understanding of what it was about Mickey that spoke to me when I was 19 years old: that was the combination of deep empathy in his songs and that well of sadness that he carried with him, that he drew on to write the songs. That spoke to me as a 19-year-old fledgling singer-songwriter - I mean just starting out - it spoke to me of all the things that I loved about music. I really loved the catharsis of sad songs and stories. It all revolved around stories.”
In a “letter” to Newbury, who died in 2002, published in the Americana magazine No Depression this month, Peters explains how as “a halfhearted college student, a fledgling bar singer, and a closeted country music fan” in Boulder, Colorado in the 1970s she was fed a steady diet of country albums from the likes of Haggard and George Jones, and then Newbury, by a friend who worked at a record store.
Hearing something in those songs – “looking back, I think I was looking for myself” - she’d diligently write down the lyrics and chords, scoured the writing and playing credits, and immersed herself in it all. Those songs became roadmaps, those stories became guides.
“Another thing was the mystery that he left in his lyrics,” she says. “There was always something that was not fully said, and I think that was a huge lesson for me. I don’t think I could have even told you that I was learning at the time, but I definitely internalised that is something that I wanted to accomplish in my writing. In much the same way the Leonard Cohen does: there is a veil beyond which you can’t see I think that’s why I find both of their songs so compelling.”
You can see the truth of this through all of Peters’ career, the ability to give us detail that illuminates but does not overwhelm the characters or the story. She leaves space in the songs for us to read in or project or imagine.
“I know that I learnt a lot about that from him.”
Both Peters and Newbury approach characters as the basis of their songs and in theory, she knew and understood these characters of his already. But did that change as she approached them from within, as a performer, rather than from without, as a listener?
“I think inevitably it does because in the act of singing the lyrics you are having that much more intimate relationship with the words. You don’t just gravitate to this line or that line, you have an intimate relationship with all of the lyrics and have to think about where this is coming from and what does it mean,” says Peters. “But in terms of identifying with his characters, I think there is a kind of thread that runs through a lot of his characters that is a kind of restlessness and dissatisfaction. I would hazard a guess that that was probably a thread that ran through him. A lot of them are young men who are adventurous and want to see the world and yet they have this sense of isolation that sets them apart, not always in a great way.
“Something about that I really felt. I felt that way, I felt that itch that he had. I think that was my way in to his songs because identified with those characters, even though in most cases they are young men - I don’t think that really matters; those feelings are very universal of restlessness and dissatisfaction and a little bit of anger now and then. And I picked up on that.”
The connection, not just between Peters and the characters, but the listener and the characters, is only enhanced by the approach she’s taken which is not exactly bare but is hardly loaded with sonic extras.
“We definitely knew we wanted to make a very spare record, for a lot of reasons. Primarily, I wanted to put Mickey right front and centre. One of the things that really bothers me about some singer-songwriter records, especially people with unique voices let’s say, is when the production crowds a bunch of stuff around the voice,” she explains. “I wanted the words to be front and centre. I think if I have any particular ability as a singer it’s to make people listen to the words. I’m not even sure what that is and why that is but I think I have the ability to bring the lyrics to the forefront.
“I also knew I wanted to try and get intimate. I think that’s my comfort zone anyway: I like to have a very intimate conversation with the listener. But I wanted to have the experience in making the record of a couple or three people in a room. We recorded every track with me and Barry and [guitarist] Will Kimbrough and we felt like if we can’t make this work with just three, then we can’t make it work.”
Kimbrough was important for two reasons: she wanted not to have to focus on playing; and in the original recordings, Newbury’s unique guitar style made the guitar “almost a second voice” she thought, and she wanted someone who could channel that idea and be that second voice. The result was “a delightful way to make a record”, and part of that was where it was recorded: the tiny, off-Music Row Cinderella Studios outside Nashville where Newbury had broken away from the establishment centres and recorded his first albums.
“We thought wouldn’t it be great if we could get into the studio where Mickey made those great records and some of that magic was in the walls but we went in there fully ready for it not to work, for whatever reason,” Peters says. “It was a pretty low-commitment first foray, two or three songs I think, with the idea that if it worked we would go back and do two or three more.”
The studio’s location, north of Nashville, was one thing, another was that it was “like a little time capsule from 1965. It really has not changed much and all of this music history is there” including the studio owner and sometime producer of Mickey Newbury records, Wayne Moss, still running the joint, and some old session musicians from then still there and playing.
It took Peters and Walsh several years, with months in between sessions, to record the album – in the meantime releasing the stunning album of original songs, Dancing With The Beast. In different circumstances, with different artists maybe, it might not have worked. Might not, at least, have been sustained. But there was something fated about this.
“Those connections meant a lot to me because I didn’t know Mickey and I wanted to get as much of that connection as I could get,” says Peters. “When we walked out of there that first time with three really great sounding tracks, we thought okay, we’re going to do this.”
The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs Of Mickey Newbury is out now.