One of the most respected songwriters and recording artists of our time, Gretchen Peters‘ latest album, ” The Night You Wrote That Song : The Songs of Mickey Newbury” which is due for release this Friday 15th May via Proper Records, is her own take on the songs of the late artist who has had a profound effect on her career. A fellow member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Mickey had little commercial success in his own right ( he was one of the first to rebel against the conventions of Nashville’s music business) but gained a reputation as a ” songwriter’s songwriter”, mentoring and influencing many other artists including Roger Miller, Kris Kristofferson, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. His songs have been successfully recorded across many genres of music even before he landed a recording deal of his own, scoring hits for the likes of Tom Jones, Kenny Rogers and the First Edition and Andy Williams.
This album’s release and associated tour dates were of course set long before this global pandemic took hold, to coincide with what would have been Mickey’s 80th Birthday, and it will now be taking place in two stages with be a digital release going ahead on Friday as planned but with the physical release delayed until next month ( pre-order/pre-save here
Gretchen kindly agreed to answer some of my questions for Think Country in the run up to release day, I hope you enjoy our on-line ” chat”!
LH I know that this album has been a labour of love and has been many years in the making. Would you say, in part, that is because reinterpreting another artist’s work brings with it added responsibility?
GP There’s no question I felt a responsibility to do right by him. It was a daunting thought, partly because Mickey’s own records and performances were so stunning. Besides being a brilliant songwriter, he was a world-class singer and a great guitar player. So maybe that contributed to my taking my time to get the album done – but the main reason it took so long is that until I put out Dancing With The Beast I felt like I still had things that needed saying, songs and records of my own I needed to record. I felt, after Dancing came out, that I’d put out three really strong records in a row (starting with Hello Cruel World), and had nothing to prove to anyone, most importantly myself.
LH But of course another reason is just the sheer volume of songs there were for you to choose from. Can you tell me how you went about selecting the twelve that finally made the cut?
GP I knew from the start that I didn’t want to make a record of Newbury’s hits. The most important two things for me were 1) did I love the song and 2) did I feel like I could bring something to it? A lot of my favorite songs of his are not well known. I have loved “The Sailor” and “Leavin’ Kentucky”, for instance, for decades, and they’re both fairly obscure. It was freeing to forget about presenting some kind of representative survey of his songs and just choose the ones I wanted to sing. In the end, that’s the only thing you can do. It’s not like I’m improving on the originals, so it was best to choose the ones I feel most deeply, and hope that comes through in the recording.
LH Let’s go back to when your mother ( to whom you dedicate the album) first introduced you to Mickey’s music. What was it about his songs that resonated with the teenage Gretchen?
GP I actually introduced my mom to Mickey’s music – I discovered him during a period when I had just discovered country music and was buying lots of used records in a shop in Boulder, Colorado because I couldn’t get enough of it. I would bring these records home and my mother, who was always more interested in what my sister and I were listening to than her own generation’s music, just fell in love with him like I did. My mom was very adventurous, musically. She wasn’t a musician but she was a dedicated listener and fan. And it was the sadness in Mickey’s voice, I think, coupled with the lyrics that hooked both of us.
LH Had you already started to write songs yourself at that point?
GP I had fooled around with songwriting but not much. I had been playing the guitar for about 10 years, and up to that point I had been listening to everything, writing down lyrics and chords and trying to learn to play and sing other people’s songs. I didn’t have a great urge to write my own – I wanted to understand how to play and sing, and how the songs I loved were put together. I didn’t realize it then, but there’s nothing like writing the lyrics and chords down and memorizing a song to teach you how it’s made. I consider that my primary education in songwriting – studying other people’s songs. I’m glad I didn’t start writing seriously until later, because those 10 years gave me time to internalize the knowledge of things like structure, rhyme scheme, melody.
LH How has Mickey’s influence manifested itself in your writing over the years……are there any of your songs in particular that it helped shaped in any specific way?
GP I think more than anything I was drawn to something I sensed in him – his absolute refusal to compromise. He made these beautiful, crazy, over the top records and they were commercially unsuccessful but artistically sublime. And he kept on doing it over and over again. I loved his vision, his sense of what you could do with a record – he was into sound effects, he’d put rain and train sounds and crickets and all manner of sound effects on his recordings, which made them almost like movie soundtracks or little country-folk operas. And his lyrics are poetic in the same way that Leonard Cohen’s lyrics are; I think of him almost as a country Leonard Cohen. He wasn’t afraid to write about very big subjects, like faith, and death, and world history.
LH And has any of his rebellion against the conventions and expectations of the Nashville music business rubbed off on you?
GP Definitely. He was a beacon for me during the middle part of my career when I felt a lot of pressure to try to reproduce my hits. There were people who thought I was crazy for trying to make records when I could just sit at home and “collect the mailbox money”. I hated that so much. That kind of mindset assumes that money is the motivator for writing songs, and it disrespects a person’s calling to be an artist. I would have suffocated if I hadn’t been able to make records and tour.
LH Looking at the recording process for this new album, can you put into words how it felt when you first stepped inside the historic Cinderella Studio where Mickey himself often recorded ?It’s a converted garage I gather.
GP It’s very small, and hasn’t really changed much at all since the late 60s. The music history that was made in that building is incredible. Wayne Moss, the owner and founder, played the iconic guitar lick on “Pretty Woman”, among other things. Wayne told me a lot of stories about who had recorded there, what had gone on. In fact, the first time we went in, I just talked to him for a long time – didn’t record anything. Linda Ronstadt recorded her first solo album there – she sang her vocals in the bathroom, because it was the only room where you could close the door and not get sonic bleed from the other musicians. I sang my vocals in the same bathroom, right between the sink and the toilet!
LH Just three of you, including of course your husband and co-producer Barry Walsh, laid down each track there I understand? Was that to ensure you got the essence of each song captured to begin with?
GP We kept it very small for several reasons. I knew I wanted to make a stripped-back record. Not a lot of overdubs, just voice and guitar or piano. I wanted Mickey’s lyrics to be front and center and I wanted the record to feel very intimate. And with just the three of us (me, Barry and Will Kimbrough), I was able to get live performances for most of the songs, instead of me overdubbing the vocals later on. If you can capture a live performance there’s almost always something magic in it.
LH Unusually you play guitar on just one of the completed recordings…..can you tell me about that decision?
GP Barry and I recruited Will Kimbrough, because I didn’t want to play guitar – I just wanted to concentrate on singing. And since Mickey had a very distinctive guitar style, I was looking for someone who could sort of channel that – not copy it, but create a parallel element. The acoustic guitar on the record is a really important voice, and that’s all Will. I did end up playing rhythm guitar on “Why You Been Gone So Long” so that Will could tear it up on electric.
LH You’ve been closing your live shows with ” Why You Been Gone So Long” for quite some time now ( complete with Barry’s keyboard gymnastics!) but are there any other tracks that you are particularly looking forwards to performing live when you can get back out on the road again?
GP We had just dipped our toe in the water when the coronavirus pandemic shut down all our touring. We were playing “Frisco Depot” live at shows, and were about to start rehearsing some of the others. I was most looking forward to playing these songs with my band on our UK tour. We were talking about arrangements, and where we’d put the Newbury songs in our set. I especially looked forward to playing “The Sailor” – it’s so dramatic and spacious. I can’t wait to hear Barry, Conor McCreanor and Colm McClean play it. All three of them are strong, strong musicians, and especially so when it comes to songs like that.
LH Of course you have had to postpone your tour plans, but you had chosen to be here in the UK around release time….you have always had particularly strong support from this side of the pond right from the start of your career, haven’t you?
GP I really don’t think it’s overstating it to say I owe my career to fans in the UK. They have kept me going at times when I had nothing else going on. And when I had a bit of success as an artist, and was able to step up to larger venues and bigger audiences, the same core of fans kept showing up along with all the new ones. I treasure them, keep up with them, celebrate their joys and commiserate their losses. I can look out at the first three rows of any show we do in the UK and see folks who came to see me when I was playing 50 seat venues. That is so, so special to me.
( LH You can find details of all Gretchen’s proposed tour dates, including the rescheduled UK shows in early 2021, here https://www.gretchenpeters.com/shows/ )
LH Thank you so much for your great first lifestream last week ( hopefully there’ll be more to come ) …..what else are you doing to help pass the time in quarantine ( any book or music recommendations, new hobbies maybe…or is puppy Oliver more than enough to keep you and busy!!)
GP We’re reading, watching movies, listening to music, and cooking – much the same as everyone else, I guess. It’s been nice, I won’t lie – we have spent so much of our life touring that standing still for awhile is lovely, although I miss the road. And we do have Oliver, who has us on a schedule of walks and play and naps, and keeps us from getting too lazy. Recently we’ve loved Ricky Gervais’ Afterlife, the new season of Ozark, and we’ve been reading Ivan Doig’s “Last Bus to Wisdom” and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Water Dancer”. Even Barry has been cooking!
LH Do you have any message for your fans wherever they may be?
GP We miss you. We miss spending those 90 minutes with you, in the dark, communing in music. We need it as much as you do. We will be back, and we’ll all be together again, and it will be even better than before because now we know what we have to lose. Stay safe, and stay strong.
LH And along with all your fans, I can’t wait for a time when that is possible! Thank you so much for your time…and your music….Gretchen!
Gretchen will be joining Bob Harris on his BBC Radio 2 show this Thursday from 11pm BST playing some of the album’s songs live from her home in Florida where she is currently spending quarantine, and there will be an online live-streaming event at 7pm BST on the Americana Music Association’s Facebook page on Friday.