Sometimes a great song sneaks up on you over time. And sometimes they shock you and freeze the first listen in a strong snapshot memory. And in that spirit, I’ll always associate the new Gretchen Peters song “Woman On The Wheel” with Harding Road and nearby H.G. Hill School. I dropped my daughter off on a Saturday morning, and Gretchen’s new album “Hello Cruel World” had been spinning in my CD player with the volume down for some reason. So my very first impression of this impressive album came improbably from turning up the player at the start of track number six. And there suddenly was this unfolding story that jolted me like the first time I heard Shawn Camp’s “Tune of the Twenty Dollar Bill” or more recently Kevin Gordon’s “Colfax.”
Peters, singing in her plush and reassuring alto, sets a scene: a small time carnival with daredevils and kitschy attractions. Then we meet the main character, and she’s spinning slowly on a wheel while a carnie throws knives at her. The protagonist is made real and vivid quickly, but she’s also established as any maturing woman in the modern world. Part of her life – the gig – she has some control over. The reliability of the people around her is a roll of the cosmic dice. I’ve only solidified my first impression, that this is a brilliant song by a writer who keeps coming up with them.
“I got the idea after seeing the French film “Girl On A Bridge,” Gretchen told me. “The woman in the film is contemplating suicide when a knife thrower persuades her to come with him and be his human target instead. There was something that I recognized in her, a need to feel fully alive, along with which comes the element of danger.”
She also associates the woman on the wheel with the artist, who must expose herself as day to day part of her work. You have to “stay close to the abyss,” she says. “Because that’s where all the good stuff is.”
Gretchen Peters, who will open our show this Wednesday, is almost always introduced as the writer of the celebrated Martina McBride hit “Independence Day,” and that was a rare and remarkable fusion of song, singer and commercial success. But there is much more there. Her work has been recorded by Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis and George Strait. Patty Loveless’s electrifying “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am” came from Gretchen’s pen. Precious few Music Row hit songwriters are capable of realizing their own work in satisfying recordings, but from 1996 on, Peters has released solo albums of uncommon depth and perception.
Her new CD, the first solo studio outing in five years, was shaped by monumental events and challenges in 2010, from the Nashville flood to a friend’s suicide and more. Closer to home, she processed learning that her son was transgender, and she married keyboard player Barry Walsh, her companion of 20 years. Peters says, “I knew I didn’t want to literally write a song about the flood, a song about my son, etc. I was more interested in writing about the feelings of disorientation, loss, clarity, regret – and letting those emotions inform each song in a more organic way. . . I look at that year as a great gift to me, as both a writer and a human being.”
The opening title track has a defiant stride and lush string arrangements as Peters sings about facing down life’s trials without self-medication or illusions. “Five Minutes” is an elegant short story that paints a life in a few lines. “Natural Disaster” is an extended metaphor about love’s struggles that would have fallen apart in the hands of a less careful wordsmith.
“I am very slow at writing,” she says of her style. “There’s always a wonderful spell in the middle when it feels like your sails have caught a good wind, but for me there’s an equally difficult period before and after when I’m doing the meticulous and not very glamorous work which is craft. Editing, picking at adjectives, weeding out weaknesses.” That’s how you do this young people; it’s hard work to make it look this easy.
Speaking of meticulous, we’ll close our show this week with the great Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver. This stunning, sartorially splendid band has played Roots twice before, and whenever they visit, it reaffirms our love and respect for the core traditions of bluegrass music. When I reviewed our team’s Bluegrass Underground taping in February, I said that I feel like Doyle’s band and the Del McCoury Band are the two finest bluegrass bands working today, and I stand by that. Quicksilver’s impeccable vocals, worked out with rigorous precision, don’t suffer for lack of passion. The tunes are assembled as tight as a race car transmission, with intricate gears all locked together. Also like a race car, they can go very, very fast.
Doyle’s passion is on full display in his newest release, “Sing Me A Song About Jesus,” and you don’t need a music journalist to decipher what this CD is about. It’s nothing new of course for Lawson, whose shows and recordings have for years balanced the sacred with the secular in roughly equal proportions. Not everyone who loves and follows bluegrass is as steeped in faith, but just about everyone is moved and uplifted by DL&Q singing an a cappella gospel number.
Also on the bill, the exciting and buzzed about rave-up folk music of Pert Near Sandstone out of the Twin Cities area, the all-ages fun of family band Martin Family Circus and the no-apologies hard-core country music of J.P. Harris and the Tough Choices.
So you won’t have to make any tough choices to see all five of our artists. Come out to the Loveless Barn on Wed. or tune us in over the usual variety of outlets. It’s gonna be a clinic on how roots music is done.