After too many years as a relatively unknown artist, Gretchen Peters is finally getting her due. Critics are raving about her spectacular new album, Blackbirds, and in October she was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Fellow musicians have known about her brilliant songwriting for decades. Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Raul Malo, and James House joined Peters on her debut album in 1996, and she has written hit songs for Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis, George Strait, Martina McBride, and Patty Loveless.
With all those country music friends, Peters’ choices of best concerts she’s ever attended may be somewhat surprising.
She puts a 2010 Neil Young show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium at the top. Young performed solo that night on acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and pump organ, and many left the theater saying they had just seen a full-blown, one-man rock show.
“I’ve seen so many rock shows and so many bands, and Neil Young rocked harder all by himself that night than any band I’ve ever seen,” Peters recalls. “It was astonishing. He had a pump organ and a piano on either side of him, and his guitars. It was like watching a mad scientist in his lab.
“A lot of times when I see a show, it’s hard for me to totally lose myself in it — there's still some part of me observing. His performance was so primal, so elemental, and so pure that I was just awed. I think I held my breath through most of the show.”
Peters, who lived in Colorado in the 1970s, cites a Rickie Lee Jones show at Denver’s Rainbow Music Hall as the most influential. Jones had just released her first album, which included the hit song “Chuck E.’s in Love.”
“I didn’t know anything about her except that I couldn’t stop playing her record,” Peters says. it fascinated me. She seemed to combine musical elements that hadn’t been combined before. She was clearly a singer-songwriter, but there was also jazz, folk, and country. And there was this singular voice, not just in the literal sense but in the writerly sense.
“I felt like I had found something completely new and that was very important to me, because I was a musician who had so many influences—jazz from my parents, rock and roll from my older siblings, folk and country which I mostly found on my own—that I almost couldn’t make sense of them in my early years.
“And then she came out on stage and did a fairly radical thing,” Peters remembers. “The stage was dark; all you could see was the tip of her lit cigarette. She walked out, leaned on a lamppost — a stage prop — smoked and sang a very slow ballad. Not the usual up tempo, get-the-audience-going sort of opening song, and it sucked everyone into her vortex.
“Suddenly I understood the power of silence, of creating a dramatic moment and inviting an audience into it with you. It was the most theatrical rock show I’d seen, with the exception of David Bowie. It wasn’t so much that it inspired me to do stage-y shows or use props or anything—although a few props can be wonderful for vibe—but it taught me to use space and quiet and dynamics. My favorite moments on stage have been those times when you could feel the audience holding their breath.”