Nashville is a town that attracts a lot of guys with guitars. On any given afternoon you’ll see them on the sidewalks, in the clubs, wandering around music row. You can’t miss them at the downtown Greyhound station and at the airport baggage claim. You see them lugging their instruments into and out of dozens of hotel and motel parking lots, packing them into the back seats of cars with out-of-state plates and driving off somewhere in the service of a paper-thin dream. And there’s always an attendant note of sadness because somehow, the picture always seems so transient, so unrooted. It’s almost as if Woody Guthrie were the patron saint of troubadours and the cost of entry into the guild is that you first have to be willing to leave your wife and kids and light out for parts unknown in the name of some abstract notion of freedom, repeating in some form for the rest of your life the sad, weary mantra that Tom Waits first opined: It was a train that took me away from here, but a train can’t bring me home.
And maybe we’re so used to hearing that kind of story, that when we run across a guy like Centricity Music artist Andrew Peterson, a guy with a guitar, yes, but a guy-with-a-guitar who is so intentionally rooted in the stuff of life—in family, friendship, community, home and even the very plot of land he lives on—that he seems almost counter-culture. Okay, maybe Andrew Peterson is counter-culture. But it’s not his fault. It’s the culture that shifted.
Over the last ten years Andrew Peterson has quietly carved out a niche for himself as one of the most thoughtful, poetic, and lyrical songwriters of his generation. More recently he’s established himself as the grassroots facilitator of an online literary and songwriting community (www.RabbitRoom.com) and an emerging fantasy novelist as well (The Wingfeather Saga). But it’s still ultimately that sense of rootedness that listeners, readers and fans seem to respond to most deeply—because Andrew’s songs (and books) remind us again and again of simple, solid things like love and friendship and hope and redemption and beauty and how our stories were meant to be shared, and how the darkness will not always hold sway, and how we, being human, need to hear those things over and over again, because otherwise we become disconnected from the very stories we’re living in. All of which brings us, in a roundabout way, to our real starting point, because somehow, Andrew Peterson’s new, twelve-song project, Counting Stars (produced by Ben Shive, with Andy Gullahorn) manages to do all that without ever leaving home.
“So often we think of the grand adventure being out there somewhere waiting for us,” Peterson says, “like you have to leave home to find it. One of my favorite songs on the new record, ‘World Traveler’, was written about my slow realization that a life is just as much an adventure if you’re a family man as it is if you’re a pirate on the high seas. Every human you meet is a great mystery, and that includes your wife and children. The tears and the laughter and stories and the small daily wonders we share in our little house in the hills have so much more significance to me nowadays than any of my travels around the country.”
PortraitFramed in a largely acoustic context and underpinned by a sense of gentle but ancient and unyielding strength, Counting Stars aches and glows, finding infinite wonder in the stuff of hearth and home, family and friendship, struggle and storm. Perhaps it’s because the writing approach this time around involved a conscious departure from the string of concept albums Peterson has released in recent years. Opting for a more introspective, confessional approach seems to have opened a greater sense of vulnerability in the writing process.
“This album grew into something I couldn’t foresee and didn’t intend,” Andrew admits. “Instead of starting with a concept and following it like a map, I just wrote whatever found its way out of my heart and head. What that means is that Counting Stars has songs that are so personal I’m a little embarrassed to include them. Creating this way is a lot like waking in a strange, dark room and having to feel around for the light switch. You get a few bumps and bruises and you learn a few things about the room along the way, but you don’t really know where you are until you find the switch and flip on the light. I walked into the creative process with a sense of expectation, wondering what God was going to teach me, and because of that, I think these songs really reveal something to me as well as to the listener.”
Enlisting the collaborative chemistry of long-time friends and fellow songwriters Andy Gullahorn and Ben Shive, (collectively known as “the Captains Courageous”), Peterson holed up for eight days in the barren hills of western Washington State to record the new project. The sparse beauty of the windswept landscape seems to be reflected in the minimal instrumentation and rounded peaks and valleys of the music, while the lyrical elements are all but inseparable from the friendships that birthed them.
“What Christ calls his followers to isn’t just friendship with each other, but kinship,” Andrew says. “That means we’re bound by more than similar interests, or even chemistry, but by a common covenant with a common Father. When life gets messy, and it will, there’s something stronger than friendship to bind us together. I’ve shared so much of my musical life with Andy and Ben. They help me remember to pay attention to things that matter. At some point in all our careers we made a choice to lean into what lasts, to write songs for something richer than record sales. Maybe God used someone’s song to draw us to himself, or maybe we were given the gift of seeing one of our own songs do that for someone else, and that revelation changed everything.”
Arguably the most stunning revelatory moment on Counting Stars, “The Reckoning” is a deeply honest, deeply worshipful, yearning, psalm-like outpouring of the heart that spontaneously took shape as Andrew sat on his front porch watching a violent Tennessee storm blow in.
“I love the humility that a big, dangerous storm system gives us,” Peterson explains. “Everyone remembers they’re quite small and powerless in the scheme of things. In the twenty-first century, with jumbo jets and air conditioning and high-speed internet, we still sometimes have to run for our lives and hide in the closet under a blanket. Storms are good for us in that way. Sometimes I ache for God to draw back the curtain and reveal himself—but if he did, we’d likely burn to a crisp. We ask him to show his face, but we don’t know what we’re asking. He’s more holy and powerful than we could possibly imagine. And yet, we were made for him.”
While at least a half dozen of Peterson’s new songs—like “Dancing In the Minefields”, “Planting Trees”, and “God of My Fathers”—joyously celebrate his connectedness to his creator, family, friends, fellow artists, and even to past and future generations, a secondary theme also clearly emerges on the record; one that speaks of the great battle between hope and despair. Songs like the sparsely melodic “In the Night My Hope Lives On”, the slow-building “You Came So Close”, and the weary but unwavering “The Last Frontier” each move from a place of pain or struggle to one of a hard-won eternal hope.
“There have been some really difficult situations in the lives of people around me recently,” Andrew says, “and I’ve seen more than ever the power of the darkness in the world. More than that though, I’ve been awestruck by the even greater power of the tiniest flicker of hope. It doesn’t take much light to send the darkness scampering. The title Counting Stars ties the themes of relationship and hope together in the hope of God’s promise to Abraham. We’re a part of the cloud of witnesses, passing the promises of God to our children and their children, building this Kingdom that has no end. And in the middle of it, when the powers of hell are arrayed against us, we just have to look to the stars and remember as Tolkien said that ‘the shadow is only a small and passing thing: there is light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.’”