Favorite Songs by Favorite Songwriters: Gretchen Peters

This, for me, completes a trifecta of features on artists who’ve shaped my life thus far. Alan Jackson was an early childhood favorite that shaped my love for country music in general; Gary Allan’s moody angst spoke to my teenage years; Gretchen Peters is an artist I found near the beginning of my college years, at a time when I was starting to gravitate toward more thought-provoking, mature material than I had in my youth … at, you know, the wry old age of eighteen.

Now, what it says about me that I immediately loved something as dark as Blackbirds in the summer of 2015, I don’t know – especially as a starting point in her discography. That was also the year I dug into the country music beyond my radio dial, and found a plethora of modern-day favorites that enriched my life in ways I can’t properly describe. I’ve always loved Peters’ head-on bluntness in her subject matter. Whereas other listeners have found it too bleak for their liking, for me, that’s always been part of the appeal. Her mantra is “sad songs make me happy,” and the core meaning of that statement is simple: there’s beauty that comes from facing our darkest fears and insecurities head-on, and there will be clarity at the end, even if the ride to get there is often too uncomfortable to see it through.

It’s safe to say, then, that my deep-dive into my favorite songs in her discography has been a long time coming, and while those aforementioned lists for Jackson and Allan were easy to compile, this was much tougher. Diving into the deeper intricacies beyond the basic text was an absolute treat, but also made containing this list to a mere 25 songs insanely difficult. Also, if it looks there’s a bit of a recency bias to this list, it’s because I hold all of her 2010s work as some of the best of that decade, and Blackbirds may be my favorite album of all time, for deeply personal reasons. Which is to say that this list also gets personal at points, as it should. Without further ado:


#25

Waiting For The Light To Turn Green

The Secret of Life (1996)

Written by Gretchen Peters and Suzy Bogguss

It’s funny how it turned out, but the song that starts this list is also the one that starts Gretchen Peters’ debut album. The ray of light within the darkness is a bit more direct than in her later works, but no less effective, offering a confident promise from someone destined for more in life that her chance will come … some day. It’s rooted in the reality that that chance won’t just come and she’ll have to take action to make it happen. Of course, what I’ve always loved about Peters’ work is her sense of populism, and how, even though she’s ready for the next step, she knows that her hard-working neighbors deserve their chance to shine, too.

#24

To Say Goodbye

Burnt Toast & Offerings (2007)

Written by Gretchen Peters

Burnt Toast & Offerings is Peters’ divorce album, and for me, a real turning point in her songwriting structure, favoring a more abstract approach that’s no less blunt in its actual message. Again, she’ll go darker than most writers would dare, touching upon a loss of innocence, divorce and eventual death here that can shape an entire live. For as many goodbyes as we’ll have to endure throughout the journey, we’ll never be ready to make that final one. Really, there’s a hopeful twist of irony here that, to me, undermines her best work, how even though we’ll have our darkest days, we’ll push on ahead regardless. We won’t want to, but we will. It’s probably the best example of how “sad songs make me happy.”

#23

Circus Girl

The Secret of Life (1996)

Written by Gretchen Peters

On the surface, this is probably Gretchen Peters’ strangest song, if only for its approach and framing. Yet that’s part of the charm of how she gives a voice to disparaged characters. For example, a circus girl constantly on the move and doing her best to offer hope and levity for people she knows she’ll never see again, one night at a time. It’s hard not to draw the parallels to the musicians themselves who find comfort in the work, but not the anxiety or pressure that comes with a hectic schedule. Still, it’s worth it in the end, and if that blast of harmonica that creeps in every few lines isn’t enough of a motivator, I don’t know what is.

#22

Eddie’s First Wife

Gretchen Peters (2001)

Written by Gretchen Peters

We still haven’t quite gotten to the darkest Gretchen Peters songs yet, though “To Say Goodbye” would certainly be a contender for any other discography. And while I wouldn’t say there’s any “fun” moments here, “Eddie’s First Wife” does, at least, provide a moment of levity. It’s important to establish some context, though – namely how, in 2001, very few writers would have ever dared pen a song as strikingly progressive as this, where a woman leaves her Archie Bunker-esque husband for a woman and leaves the poor guy just bewildered by the entire situation. It’s fun without being outright gimmicky, flipping traditional societal expectations for women and family, and doing it all while being surprisingly groove-heavy for Peters’ usual style!

#21

The Chill of an Early Fall

Chill Of An Early Fall (1991)

Written by Green Daniel and Gretchen Peters

While I wouldn’t say George Strait’s take on a Gretchen Peters song is anywhere near as powerful as other acts’ cover choices – more on that later – there is something to the straightlaced, subtly effective demeanor through which he sells a song. And that’s perfect for this – an uneasy wave of bad memories that’s only downplayed because this character is used to this vicious cycle, which, in a sense, brings out a lot more power in the sentiment through the understated delivery because of it. Plus, I’ve always thought there should be more country songs about seasonal depression.

#20

Jubilee

Blackbirds (2015)

Written by Gretchen Peters

This will be a recurring theme throughout this list, but part of the beauty of sad songs is finding the ray of hope within them, even when they focus on the bitter end. Yet with “Jubilee,” this character is ready for that release, if only because there’s greater hope in embracing the possibility of what lies ahead, rather than remaining on Earth and being reminded there’s nothing left for her anyway. Yes, it’s a bit more broadly written than usual for Peters’ style, but there’s still something so beautiful about the sentiment itself, that it’s able to transcend that criticism and be a legitimately gorgeous meditation on death. Her absolute best songs confront the inevitable struggles we can’t turn away from, but there’s something refreshing about a song where we can just let go, too.

#19

The Secret of Life

The Secret of Life (1996)

Written by Gretchen Peters

This is one instance where I’m including the original version over the well-known hit version, if only because there’s something more grounded to Peters’ delivery of fairly simple life advice. Granted, I don’t think it’s the type of song she’d write now, but for as familiar as the lessons here are, the key takeaway is that the real “secret to life” is that there isn’t one; we’re free to make our own happiness on our own time and terms and don’t need to compete with others over who finds it first. Again, like with “Jubilee,” it’s a bit more broadly written than Peters’ usual cuts, but the real lesson, as usual, is still found between the lines.

#18

Sunday Morning (Up and Down My Street)

Burnt Toast & Offerings (2007)

Written by Gretchen Peters

You know, this may be the one selection here where there isn’t a darker subtext to the framework. It’s a genuinely jubilant reflection on the Sunday stillness surrounding an otherwise sleepy town, where the mundanity is the reward, if only because there’s plenty of other moments in life to wage those inner (and outer) wars with ourselves and the world around us. Couple that with one of Peters’ best production balances with the firmer bass and willowy piano and organ, and this is a happy song that makes me really happy.

#17

Black Ribbons

Blackbirds (2015)

Written by Gretchen Peters, Matraca Berg and Suzy Bogguss

To repeat myself, “dark” is the most common (and, admittedly, overused) adjective to describe Peters’ work, but this is one I’d describe as both oddly seedy and timely. It’s one of my favorites, musically – adopting a folk-like, sea shanty timbre in the loping chords and sneakily supportive bassline, all while offering a potent, ominous production balance, too. Fitting, given that it’s about a fisherman laying his wife to rest in the aftermath of the BP oil spill, where the real destruction waits ahead as he sifts through destroyed dreams and questions of what really remains for him. It’s adventurous only in sound, aiming for a story that cuts with a much sharper hint of sadness and reality.

#16

Lillies of the Field

Gretchen Peters (2001)

Written by Gretchen Peters

I don’t even know where to start with this one. On pure story and framing alone, this is one of Peters’ best, finding one man take another man’s life for impregnating his girlfriend – with her encouragement, I might add – all while obviously squandering his dreams of leaving town while she goes on to do just that. Yet the song is way more delicate and meditative than the story would suggest, slightly shying away from the complex framing to focus on the larger picture of wasted dreams and potential, where both main characters are dangerous cowards that know exactly what they are. Somber as hell, of course, and one gets the feeling that the female character’s escape is anything but that, but it’s also a fantastic reflection on how one’s social circumstances can sometimes force some heavy-handed decisions.

#15

Independence Day

The Way That I Am (1993)

Written by Gretchen Peters

For those “in the know” with Peters’ writing credits, you knew this would make its way here eventually. For good reason, too, as while her songs can be intentionally vague in fleshing out the deeper meaning, this is one of her most straightforward messages – and people still utterly miss the point with it. Oh, country radio programmers certainly didn’t, and that they were headstrong in their initial refusal to play it is the all proof needed as to why her writing was too good for them anyway. So, here it is – an unraveling of a woman’s abuse through the eyes of her child, in which she returns home one day to find her home burned down with her father still in it. Powerful, just in a basic sense, but even more powerful is the detail toward the end that states how, even though this mother and her child are now worlds apart in the aftermath, the mother’s imprisonment is emblematic of a personal revolution, and the child far more mature than what her years may imply, given the circumstances of what she’s seen, fully understands the reasoning. A deserved, genuine classic. A top-five, at least, for other discographies; we’ve still got a ways to go here, though!

#14

The House On Auburn Street

Blackbirds (2015)

Written by Gretchen Peters

I admit, it’s strange writing about this after just writing about “Independence Day,” if only because both deal with burning homes that act as extended metaphors. And yet where there’s celebration in burning down painful memories of abuse and pain on that track, “The House On Auburn Street” is more literal in its approach, as everyone in town watches the destruction while the inhabitant watching is forced to say goodbye to childhood memories. It’s a painful listen, echoed by the faint, warm, well-picked acoustics and delicate touches of piano to provide some levity, where, ultimately, for us, it’s like watching someone lose a part of themselves in a literal slow burn while the other spectators look on. Again, though, there’s something deeper to the story, like how the narrator’s younger perspective adds a delicacy to the memories; meanwhile, they watch a sibling “shoot sparks into their veins” and only half-understand the deeper complexities of it all, making one remember and question how growing older makes that innocence eventually fade away.

 

#13

Germantown

Halcyon (2004)

Written by Gretchen Peters

Even for as gloomy as Peters’ stories get, her songs, to me, always reflect a refreshing lack of judgment. Again, I keep calling her approach blunt, but that’s more with regards to how far she’ll reach with her messages. The actual characters and stories are complex, especially here, which shows a young couple presumably on the run from a presumed robbery of sorts. And while one partner is the instigator of the plan, the other one is more uncomfortable, offering the notion that, for them, love was enough to survive whatever presumed financial troubles were waiting for them down the line. It’s what makes the minor accents of the piano and the lingering guitar ring with a sadness that draws sympathy from the listener. Their intentions were understandable, but the moral ambiguity is strong, and they crossed a line for which there is no return. That just sours the love anyway.

#12

Woman On The Wheel

Hello Cruel World (2012)

Written by Gretchen Peters

The most common criticism – that I’ve seen, at least – levied at Peters’ work over the years is that it can lack in variety and tempo, or just be too dark for its own good. I, of course, disagree with that, but I get it, too. “Woman on the Wheel,” then, is a fantastic rebuttal to that, with a fierce hook and meaty electric guitar accompaniment that carries a real pulse and groove behind it. And honestly, my favorite part of this song just may be Peters herself, not only for her performance, where that bite is so well-deserved, but for the direct focus on her and her deeper message of the important yet still subservient role women play in traditional societal expectations – which she flips on its head, of course. And it does it all by being a legitimately great sequel to “Circus Girl.” What more can one ask for?

#11

You Don’t Even Know Who I Am

When Fallen Angels Fly (1995)

Written by Gretchen Peters

What I’ve always admired about Peters’ writing perspective and framing – beyond everything else mentioned so far, of course – is that she gives a voice to characters that feel left out and forgotten. Either that, or characters one wouldn’t dare sketch in a commercial country song; ironic, given the genre’s tagline about its focus on real life. Again, the well-known singles here not named “Independence Day” are easier to decipher than the deep-cuts, but that doesn’t make this any less of a brutal listen, focusing on a housewife on the perpetual edges of exhaustion and taking needed action to resolve it. Yet there’s never any fury cast at the husband who fails to appreciate her. If anything, she disappears into the night and knows that her final words to him won’t mean anything because … the real damage was done a long time ago, and that detail makes that turnaround of the hook hit with so much dramatic impact. George Strait was good at underplaying “Chill Of An Early Fall”; Martina McBride was good at giving a righteous, anthemic swell to “Independence Day.” Patty Loveless is just bitterly blunt here, and it’s just as, if not more, effective.

#10

Pretty Things

Blackbirds (2015)

Written by Gretchen Peters and Ben Glover

This one is tricky to discuss, mostly because it tackles the hazed-out phases of depression that can hit a bit too close to home, especially for this particular list. It nearly earns the title of “progressive country” with the spacious, atmospheric reverb, willowy backing vocals and deeper, thicker acoustics that all feels a few years ahead of its time. What’s even more gutting is the content, especially in what isn’t said – a general defeat where one struggles to find a purpose, yet knows they’ll find that light again … even though it’ll fade out again eventually and they’ll be back at square one. And that’s before the gentle ending solo that’s much darker than it implies. There aren’t many Peters songs that tackle this subject head-on, but – spoiler alert – it won’t be the only one here, either.

#9

Ghost

Burnt Toast & Offerings (2007)

Written by Gretchen Peters

See, when I say Peters goes where few writers often do, that’s also a reference to general artistic framing, and how this is the opener to her excellent 2007 album, Burnt Toast & Offerings. In that context, it’s the first step in overcoming a moment of self-doubt that leads to journey of self-discovery. On its own, it’s a track I’ve always loved for its subtler touches, like the creeping bass that plucks at just the right moments, the subtle swell of melody on the chorus bolstered by the gorgeous piano play, Peters’ own rise in tension toward the end – you’ll know it when you hear it – and the cold opening that quickly establishes a sketch of someone that time forgot.

#8

Let That Pony Run

Homeward Looking Angel (1993)

Written by Gretchen Peters

The opening lines of this song remain some of my favorite of all time: “Mary was married with children / Had the perfect suburban life / ‘Til her husband came clean with the help of Jim Beam and confessed all his sins in one night.” It’s a common theme for country music, sure; but it says so much with so little. That’s considering, too, how “Let That Pony Run” is more complicated than that anyway. It finds its character caught in the aftermath of the situation, free to move on with her life yet unable to find the courage to do so. But the subtext is hopeful, acknowledging how she’ll be fine one day after that shock fades and she finds the strength to explore the freedom to find herself. And there’s never any judgment cast even when there easily could be – partly because she’s not sure what to really make of all of it, but also because the song hints she needed this break anyway; this love died a long time ago. Again, hope within the darkness.

#7

Five Minutes

Hello Cruel World (2012)

Written by Gretchen Peters

Like with “Lillies of the Field,” there’s a lot to unpack here. Like with Peters’ best work, though, the empathy, lack of judgment and emotional complexity that shape this track reflect what I love most about her writing. It’s a simple piano ballad with hints of violin to add some gentle rollick to the track, but it’s weary at its core, centered around a young, single mother working as a waitress trying to do her best while also acknowledging that her teenage daughter is making the same mistakes she once did. Again, there’s no judgment cast here. She’s an alcoholic with no clear future and a mountain of pressure piling on her, and there’s a realism to this track that shows why Peters is one of most cutting writers out there. There’s no happy ending; just five minutes to reminiscence on a bleak past, reflect on a gloomy present and ponder a bleaker future.

#6

On A Bus To St. Cloud

Thinkin’ About You (1995)

Written by Gretchen Peters

The fun part about including a few outside Peters covers from artists is taking comfort in how they obviously know a good song when they hear it.

Sadly, though, country radio didn’t – I’d ask “what else is new?,” but this was in 1995, folks – and I can’t understand why. Not only is Trisha Yearwood in top vocal form, she’s always been one of the finest emotive interpreters the genre has ever had, accentuating the torture an old friend’s memory has on someone, especially on the bridge. It’s worth noting, too, that Yearwood had no clue Peters meant the haunting to stem from a suicide when she recorded it. That you can’t tell the difference anyway here is a testament to each of their top talents.

#5

Arguing With Ghosts

Dancing With The Beast (2018)

Written by Gretchen Peters, Matraca Berg and Ben Glover

I like to imagine certain Peters songs as part of a larger narrative, with this, to me, acting as a painful predecessor to “Jubilee,” in which an older woman confronts her final days and can’t help but look on with dread for what’s to come before the peace comes in the very end. Speaking as someone who had a grandmother that suffered from dementia around the time this song released, and was sometimes self-aware enough to realize she wasn’t who she used to be, the basic sentiment always wrecks me, especially after having to watch that moment of realization from her over and over again. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for looking on ahead with the same sort of fondness and grace as, say, the character in “Jubilee,” but it’s easier said than done, and no one can imagine how they’ll take it until they’re at that stage. That’s scary to confront.

#4

Dancing With The Beast

Dancing With The Beast (2018)

Written by Gretchen Peters and Ben Glover

Happiness is a fleeting emotion.

Dark and heavy for me to say, I know, but that’s the simple element I love about this track. Like with “Pretty Things,” “Dancing With The Beast” tackles depression, but in a way that’s a bit more optimistic, citing how it’s a constant cycle of ups and downs that’s tough, but will only completely destroy us if we let it. Easier said than done, I know, but it’s a shot of hope that’s always important to consider and can be the adrenaline rush someone desperately needs to survive, even in the throes of that darkest moment in the dance. More than any other Peters song, I think I’d call this her most objectively therapeutic, especially with the uptick in intensity, buzzy percussion, and subtle, cathartic guitar groove as it progresses.

#3

The Matador

Hello Cruel World (2012)

Written by Gretchen Peters

Of course, you can dance with a beast, or you can battle it head-on to the death. But this fight is of a much different variety, and as far as music about the creative process itself goes, this is one of the best of its kind. Yet what I’ve always loved most about the track is the duality of its framing, how that tortured matador represents the “singer” and “artist.” Both engage in the craft to feed their vanities, but in different, deeply complex ways. Both are chained to audience expectations, and while the consequences are different, both, ultimately, are tortured spirits. The artist seeks to write the perfect song and has to accept that the audience won’t always get the message, even when they’re willing to listen. The singer seeks to write the biggest hit and has to repeat that over and over for a much more fickle audience. And yet both are also prone to wallowing in their self-destruction. Again, duality is the key here, and that extends to the relationship an act has with its audience and its loved ones. The artist can’t help but fuel their passion and sometimes put it first over family, while a singer’s busier schedule means they have to put work before anything else. For as specific as the framing is, it’s also oddly relatable both ways.

#2

Everything Falls Away

Blackbirds (2015)

Written by Gretchen Peters

As stated in the introduction, I often cite 2015 as a changing point for my musical interests. Helpful recommendations from websites like this one helped me discover music beyond country radio, and for that I am ever grateful. And yet while most escape that institution for its lack of a consistent sound, I left because I wanted something to hit me in my gut – and really, it’s more fitting, to me, to favor lyrical content over sound any day in the country music genre.

It’s no secret that Blackbirds is one of my favorite albums of all time, if not my favorite. Released in February, I heard it in June, which is likely the last time anyone would want to listen to dark, moody sad songs, especially from a writer like Peters. Speaking as someone who had a friend die in March of that year, though, “Everything Falls Away” both wrecked me and gave me exactly the comfort I needed. And like with “Arguing With Ghosts,” it’s hard for me to objectively say why it’s a favorite of mine. It’s a rare moment in Peters’ discography where the general mood is shaped by its soundscape, from the opening piano chords to the violin and spacious tones that support it in the low-end for something hazy and uncertain, to Peters’ cry toward the end that gives me chills whenever I hear it. It’s broadly written, but it works in capturing not only the commonality of suffering one faces in the aftermath of the loss of a loved one, be it divorce, death or pure separation, but also how difficult it is to express that to anyone other than ourselves. To me, there’s only one better song in her discography.

#1

Idlewild

Hello Cruel World (2012)

Written by Gretchen Peters

To be honest, I wanted to finish this before Halloween. October would have been the perfect time to discuss these songs. But while relishing in the darkness can bring comfort, sometimes it’s uncomfortable … because it has to be.

So there’s something fitting about saving it for now, too – especially when this song’s sentiment is both timely and timeless. But before diving into that, let’s examine the context: a reflection of mid-1960s America in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the middle of the Vietnam War and the time that’s past since, examining what has and hasn’t changed. What hasn’t changed – and what will never change – is how hate begets hate, and how political problems can turn into fights for justice, peace … sanity.

But it’s lines like, “We’re picking up my grandma who is getting very old / And they think she’s dying / But I think she’s laughing / I think she’s riding Halley’s Comet from Fort Lauderdale to here,” or referencing Kennedy, “the one who died today,” that reminds listeners how this is coming from a child’s perspective – one who doesn’t understand the complex details of how these situations came to be yet understands way too much, including the common root of the problems. It’s a song where a character is forced to grow up way too fast and understand the deeper intricacies of the hatred that fuels the worst types of decisions, and also a reflection on how those lessons will fade for others with time until it happens again. The settings change, the situations change, the people change – the consequences and systemic issues that fuel them don’t, really. Peters’ own performance reflects the general innocence of the character perspective, but also the quiet desperateness and fear for what she does and doesn’t know, or what lies ahead. And that’s a common fear that should strike all of us. It it doesn’t, nothing will change. I can’t think of a better song to represent Peters at her best or most empathetic.

2 Comments

  1. Great songwriter and decent singer. Don’t know quite a few of these songs but I was a bit surprised at the omission of “When All You Got Is a Hammer”.

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