March 25, 2008
There was a brief period in the mid-nineties where it seemed like the women in country music had seized control over the genre, artistically and commercially. When women swept all of the major categories at the 1995 CMA Awards, a songwriter named Gretchen Peters collected Song of the Year. It was only the second time that a woman had won that award, and the first time that a woman won for a song that she hadn’t recorded herself. But that was hardly the most history-making thing about “Independence Day.”
Peters had arrived in Nashville in 1989, drawn to the expanded interest that country music had been showing to offbeat singer-songwriters like Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett. While she would eventually secure the recording contract that was her original goal, it wouldn’t be until 1996, after she had established herself as one of the genre’s most credible songwriters.
Peters had her big breakthrough with the George Strait single “The Chill of an Early Fall” in 1991, which topped the Radio & Records singles chart and also served as title cut for a platinum-selling album. However, the song was an anomaly for Peters, as it was recorded by a male artist. In the years that followed, Peters’ star rose with the crop of intelligent new female artists who were looking for material that spoke to their modern experiences.
A young Martina McBride closed her 1992 debut album with “When You Are Old”. Early the following year, Pam Tillis had a major hit with “Let That Pony Run”, an empowering story song about a woman who is left by her cheating husband, but finds strength on her own. Suzy Bogguss, who would later become a songwriting and touring partner with Peters, had a minor hit with “Souvenirs.”
McBride had her first hit in the fall of 1993 with “My Baby Loves Me”, a bouncy love song that peaked at #2. Then, in 1994, RCA pulled another single off of McBride’s sophomore album, one that Peters had taken nearly a year to write. “Independence Day” told the tale of an abused wife through the eyes of her young child, who returns home to find her house burned down with her father inside of it. Coupled with a powerful video, the song still struggled up the charts. Some major country stations refused to play it all, and it peaked outside the top ten. Consumers spoke with their wallets, however, and it powered McBride’s album to platinum sales.
In 1995, “Independence Day” received a Grammy nomination for Best Country song, then later that year, she won the CMA Song of the Year trophy, only the second time in history that a woman had been honored with that award. K.T. Oslin’s 1988 winner was another socially conscious hit, “80′s Ladies.”
That same night, Patty Loveless won Album of the Year for When Fallen Angels Fly, a win that was largely helped by Peters’ “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am”, a top five hit earlier that year. The Loveless hit also earned Peters her second consecutive Grammy nomination for Best Country Song.
In 1996, Peters landed a recording contract and released The Secret of Life, which featured her own versions of “When You Are Old” and “On a Bus to St. Cloud”, the latter of which was a minor hit for Trisha Yearwood. Faith Hill covered the title track and took it to the top five in 1998.
As Peters began to emphasize her own recording career, artists ranging from Neil Diamond to George Jones continued to record her songs. Her most recent big country radio hit came in 2004, when Andy Griggs took “If Heaven” to the top five. An amusing sidenote about the song: in a reflection on her childhood, she describes heaven as her hometown in 1965. Griggs wasn’t born until 1973, so he changed the year to 1985 in his version.
In 2007, Peters received widespread acclaim for her album Burnt Toast and Offerings, a stark, confessional record that explores personal challenges she had recently gone through. It made several Best of 2007 lists, and led to her being named the Folkwax Artist of the Year.
But for all of her accomplishments as a singer-songwriter, it’s the impact of “Independence Day” that remains her biggest legacy. Despite resistance from country radio at the time, the song was still able to spark a dialogue about spousal abuse, breaking the taboo that surrounded the topic.
Before “Independence Day”, Rosanne Cash and Reba McEntire had recorded songs that dealt with the subject, but they weren’t sent to radio and they didn’t resolve the situation in any way. In the years since, Faith Hill, Dixie Chicks, Tim McGraw and Miranda Lambert have kept the conversation going.
Today, the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville displays an early hand-written draft of “Independence Day”, a testament to the history-making significance of that song, and the lasting impact that Peters has made on country music through writing it.
- “Let That Pony Run” (Pam Tillis, 1992)
- “Independence Day” (Martina McBride, 1994)
- “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am” (Patty Loveless, 1995)
- “The Secret of Life” (Faith Hill, 1999)
- “If Heaven” (Andy Griggs, 2004)
- Gretchen Peters (2001)
- Burnt Toast & Offerings (2007)
- CMA Song of the Year – “Independence Day”, 1995
- Folkwax Artist of the Year, 2007