Artist: Gretchen Peters
Label: Scarlet Letter
Release Date: 02/10/2015
“Sometimes all it takes is that vivid visual image that gives you the idea for the song,” Gretchen Peters said of Blackbirds, her new, highly-anticipated release. Indeed, Peters, throughout the album, wraps her lyrics ever so poetically and often metaphorically around striking images: the blackbirds against the black smoke rising from the sugarcane in the title track, the suburban house fire encapsulating so much about the ’60s in “The House on Auburn Street,” the devastating Nashville flood in “Pretty Things,” the spilled BP oil—and the incalculable damage it wrought—in “Black Ribbons.”
Blackbirds builds on the momentum of Peters’ 2012 masterpiece, Hello Cruel World, and her 2014 induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Not only does Blackbirds feature the largest band (six pieces) she’s ever had in the studio and several collaboratively written songs, it also features guest spots from roots luminaries Jerry Douglas, Jason Isbell, Jimmy LaFave, Kim Richey, Suzy Bogguss, Matraca Berg, Will Kimbrough and producer, Doug Lancio, among others, to create a lush sound to frame Peters’ uniquely poignant lyrics.
“Basically, I called my friends,” Peters said. “I love to collaborate and my favorite thing to do above all is to sing duets. Peters likewise exulted at having guitarists Kimbrough (“the top level of shimmer”) and Lancio (“the underlying groove”) in the same room. “I was thrilled to have Jerry Douglas add those special touches that only he can,” she added. Lastly, she described LaFave, a longtime friend, as “a singular singer, not like anybody else,” and perfect for “When You Comin’ Home.”
Peters admits that she “stepped up” from a songwriter standpoint on Hello Cruel World and now has a stronger platform and “louder voice” than ever before, especially here in the States. With the bar now raised, Peters realized she had more freedom to try some new approaches, starting with the fact that two very different versions of “Blackbirds” open and close the record. “You get the anger in the first one and the sorrow and regret in the second one,” she said. Peters had only the first verse of this harrowing murder tale written when she called Irish/Americana artist Ben Glover. “We discovered and started putting the story together mostly by listening to what the song was telling us,” she said. This is one of three songs co-written with Glover, reciprocating her own contributions to Glover’s brilliant recent release, Atlantic. Peters finds magic not only in Glover’s ability to write lyrics but his guitar grooves, which helped lay the foundation for “Pretty Things” and “When You Comin’ Home.”
“When All You Got Is a Hammer” is as succinct a three-minute summation of the veteran’s plight as you’ll ever find. The themes of Clint Eastwood’s recent film, American Sniper, can be aptly encapsulated in the song’s lyrics: “Well they show you how to shoot and they show you how to kill / But they don’t show you what to do with the hole that you can’t fill.” Peters, who has family members that inspired the song, believes that the post-war damage to veterans’ psyches is now so pervasive now that “they come back and everybody forgets that they’re here.”
Elsewhere on the album, Peters felt privileged to cover David Mead’s “Nashville.” “It’s a song that has been in my life for ten years now. One night, I heard David Mead and this cello player, David Henry, do the song, just the two of them and knew I wanted to do it at some point. I was actually able to get both of them to record with me in the studio and felt especially good about getting David Mead’s stamp of approval.”
With Blackbirds due out tomorrow, Peters is currently touring with Mary Gauthier and Eliza Gilkyson in an in-the-round format, billed as “Three Women and the Truth.” Touring begins for the album in late February (mostly with her husband, the versatile keyboardist, Barry Walsh; she’ll also be doing a full-band show in Nashville, an album release show at New York’s SubCulture and a Pennsylvania date with Jerry Douglas). In the meantime, as with her last two excellent releases, allow yourself to get completely lost in Blackbirds, which offers unique insights into so many aspects of life that many fear addressing. Peters puts emotions into words—eloquently and potently, giving her songs lasting power that few can match.
– Jim Hynes