“I get a lot of juice from the musicians in the room,” says Gretchen Peters.
In the case of her new album, Blackbirds, “juice” is certainly understatement. Recorded in Nashville, the album features a who’s who of modern American roots music: Jerry Douglas, Jason Isbell, Jimmy LaFave, Will Kimbrough, Kim Richey, Suzy Bogguss and more. But it’s not the guests that make Blackbirds the most poignant and moving album of Peters’ storied career; it’s the impeccable craftsmanship, her ability to capture the kind of complex, conflicting, and overwhelming emotional moments we might otherwise try to hide and instead shine a light of truth and understanding onto them.
Blackbirds is, in many ways, an album that is unafraid to face down mortality. But rather than dwell on the pain of loss, the music finds a new appreciation for the life we’re given.
“During the summer of 2013 when I began writing songs for Blackbirds, there was one week when I went to three memorial services and a wedding,” remembers Peters. “It dawned on me that this is the way it goes as you get older – the memorial services start coming with alarming frequency and the weddings are infrequent and thus somehow more moving. You understand the fragility of life, and the beauty of two people promising to weather it together.”
Peters found herself drawn to artists courageous enough to face their own aging and mortality in their work (Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Nick Lowe), but noticed all the material was coming from a male perspective.
“As brave an artistic risk as it may be for a man, it’s much riskier for a woman to speak about it,” says Peters. “There’s a cultural expectation that women artists should either shut up about it or disappear entirely. Aging seems to be a taboo subject for female singer-songwriters, in part because our value has depended so much on our youth and sexuality. The depth and beauty and terror and richness of life in my fifties is obviously, to me, the deepest well of experience I can draw from as an artist. I want to write about that stuff because it’s real, it’s there, and so few women seem to be talking about it.”
If anyone can open up that conversation, it’s Peters. Inducted into the prestigious Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2014, she has long been one of Music City’s most beloved and respected artists, known never to shy away from darkness and struggle in her writing. Martina McBride’s recording of her stirring “Independence Day,” a song that deals with domestic abuse, was nominated for a Grammy and took home Song of the Year honors at the CMAs, and her work has been performed by everyone from Etta James and Neil Diamond to George Strait and Trisha Yearwood. “If Peters never delivers another tune as achingly beautiful as ‘On A Bus To St. Cloud,’” People Magazine wrote, “she has already earned herself a spot among country’s upper echelon of contemporary composers.”
Blackbirds follows Peters’ 2012 album Hello Cruel World, which NPR called “the album of her career” and Uncut said “establishes her as the natural successor to Lucinda Williams.” If anything, though, Blackbirds truly establishes Peters as a one-of-a-kind singer and songwriter, one in possession of a fearless and endlessly creative voice.
In an atypical and unexpectedly rewarding move, Peters teamed with frequent tourmate Ben Glover to co-write several tunes on the new album, which evokes the kind of 1970’s folk rock of Neil Young, David Crosby, and Joni Mitchell that Peters grew up on, albeit with a more haunted twist.
“I haven’t been a big fan of co-writing and it’s not my natural M.O.,” she explains, “but I feel a deep kinship with Ben. I knew before I went in to write with him that there were no depths to which he wouldn’t go. I felt a certain safety.”
The first song she penned with Glover, the murder ballad “Blackbirds,” is set deep in southern Louisiana and opens the album with an ominous, country-noir vibe that simmers just below the surface of the entire collection.
“That song just kind of came out of us,” says Peters. “Writing it was a lot like investigating a crime. We were sitting in my writing room and we had some lines and the chorus and we were just talking to each other trying to figure out ‘What actually happened here? What’s the story?’ It felt like we were following clues.”
Geographically, the album leaps around the country, with particularly heartrending stops in Pelham, New York, where Peters probes the hidden darkness of the leafy suburbia in which she grew up (“The House On Auburn Street”), and the Gulf of Mexico, where a fisherman lays his wife to rest after losing everything in the BP oil spill (“Black Ribbons”). “When All You Got Is A Hammer” is the story of a veteran struggling to adjust to life at home after fighting overseas, while “The Cure For The Pain” takes place in the waning days of illness in a hospital, and “Nashville” brings us back to Peters’ adopted hometown.
Despite the varied locations, the songs on Blackbirds are all inextricably tied together through their characters, whom Peters paints with extraordinary empathy and vivid detail.
“These songs are stories of lost souls, people trapped in the darkness, or fighting their way out of it,” she says. “I think we need to talk more about that, more honestly. We throw words like ‘closure’ around as if it’s a panacea, but sometimes pain outlasts us. Sometimes it doesn’t go away. There is no way out but through.”
Finding the way through is what Peters does best. The songs on Blackbirds may take place in the dark night of the soul, but Peters ensures we never lose sight of the delicate beauty of the journey. Sometimes, as she sings so compassionately, “The cure for the pain is the pain.”