100 Greatest Women, #92: Gretchen Peters

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March 25, 2008

100 Greatest Women

#92

Gretchen Peters

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.

Gretchen Peters

Essential Singles

  • “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)

Essential Albums

  • Gretchen Peters (2001)
  • Burnt Toast & Offerings (2007)

Industry Awards

  • CMA Song of the Year – “Independence Day”, 1995
  • Folkwax Artist of the Year, 2007

==> #91. Roba Stanley

<== #93. Sweethearts of the Rodeo

100 Greatest Women: The Complete List

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  1. JonathanNo Gravatar says:

    Another great choice here– Peters is a major talent who, like Matraca Berg, should’ve been a star in her own right.

    “Independence Day” is one of the few times (I’d even say two, along with “Whatever You Say,” which I still consider her best single) when McBride’s bombast has truly been in service to the song. And the way she’s attempted to follow it up by recording cloying “issue” songs ever since only draws attention to how great a song “Independence Day” actually is.

    “On a Bus to St. Cloud” would be among my top 10 Trisha Yearwood singles. Which, given her catalogue, is no small feat. And, depending on the day, I might also say that it’s my favorite of Peters’ compositions.

  2. Jordan StaceyNo Gravatar says:

    It’s kind of sad how she never had a hit song that she sang, but her writing is some of the best to ever come out of nashville. The only other female songwriter from this period of time I would consider her equal is Matraca Berg. They have both had many hits as songwriters but none as singers. Gretchen’s crowning achievement is undoubtably “Independence Day”.

  3. KevinNo Gravatar says:

    Excellent observation on Berg, one of the most significant female songwriters in the genre’s history. I thought it was important to include songwriters on this list, too, since their impact is as great as many artists.

  4. JonathanNo Gravatar says:

    Hmm… I tried posting earlier, but the internet must’ve eaten my comment.

    Another excellent choice here– I fully agree with Jordan that Peters is a major talent who, like Matraca Berg, should’ve become a star in her own right.

    “Independence Day” is one of the few times (I’d even go so far as to say precisely two times, counting “Whatever You Say,” which I still think is her best overall performance) when McBride’s bombast has truly been in service to the song. And the way that she’s attempted to follow it up with an endless series of cloying “issue” songs only highlights what an excellent song “Independence Day” actually is.

    “On a Bus to St. Cloud” would rank among my top 10 Trisha Yearwood singles. Which, given her catalogue, is really saying something. And, depending on the day and my mood, I’d probably say that it’s Peters’ best song. But for a writer with her kind of depth, that’s a tough call.

  5. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar says:

    both Peters and Berg are excellent songwriters, but mediocre singers

  6. Jordan StaceyNo Gravatar says:

    Paul: I wouldn’t ever say that they’re great singers, but they both are good. Gretchen is probably the weaker of the two. The thing that convinced me that Matraca is a good singer is her song “Back When We Were Beautiful”. Of course she’s no Martina or Trisha, but I would never call them mediocre.

  7. KevinNo Gravatar says:

    I saw both Berg and Peters at Joe’s Pub in NYC last year, and thought they were in fine voice. Singer-songwriters, when doing their own material, have an ownership over it that comes through in their singing that creates a different feel. To hear Peters do “Independence Day” and “If Heaven” was like hearing them again for the first time. That same night, I actually heard “Dreaming Fields” for the first time, which Berg said was going to be on the then-upcoming Trisha Yearwood CD. She had the whole room in tears.

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