Listening to AM radio during the daytime one is apt to hear Martina McBride belt out the chorus to “Independence Day”. The song serves as the theme to conservative talk radio host Sean Hannity’s program. Hannity’s misuse of the song is clear to anyone familiar with the lyrics about a mother getting revenge on her abusive husband while her child watches. Hannity focuses on the clarion call for help dressed in patriotic cloth as the events happen on the 4th of July. But the song is about death and trauma, not America the Beautiful. I strongly dislike Hannity and his politics, but I smile a little when I hear that song because I hope it makes the songwriter richer. She, Gretchen Peters, deserves success. The country-folk singer has released 10 wonderful albums during the past 15 years. She is an expressive and evocative vocalist, but Peters is best known as a songwriter, penning hits for Faith Hill, Neil Diamond, George Strait, Etta James, Aaron Neville, and many others (including McBride and her signature number).
Peters performs her songs in an intimate conversational style. She sings to you as a friend with whom she shares the details of her private life in many guises. Her tunes are populated with telling observations about the lies we believe and tell ourselves and the moments in which we take off the mask and wonder why we cannot be true and honest with the person in the mirror. As the ironic title of her latest album implies, Peters knows about the dark side of life. She greets the “cruel world” with a cheery “hello”, not because she is a Pollyanna but because she understands this life is the only one we have.
Consider the song “Dark Angel” with its blunt plain language: “There is no heaven / There is no hell …And there is no hereafter / There is only here.” Her narrator finds solace in the love of another even though she acknowledges it can never be enough. Sure, we all die. Those we love die. That’s all there is. But we can have the here and now, and that will have to be enough. We have no other honest recourse.
Or the working waitress on the five minute long track called “Five Minutes”, about a woman who wonders what happens to love when it disappears, her daughter’s growing up and maybe growing wild, and a good man’s love which she cannot reciprocate. She doesn’t have the time or energy to figure things out, plus she is painfully aware that time is passing her by. She’s getting older and cannot slow the clock down. However, she does have time for a cigarette before heading back to work. That’s enough to get her through for the moment.
Peter’s characters reflect on their situations. We hear them tell their stories. We feel their pain, and if we are lucky, find inspiration in their tales. But Peter’s not writing narratives of redemption. She’s much more interested in trying to find the elusive truths that lie in the details of how we live. Her characters are interesting because they are us—or more precisely contain the same thoughts and feelings and behaviors we all share. Let’s face it, most of us unhappy most of the time. That’s not depressing. The question is why aren’t we more depressed, considering our shared fate. We all live and die alone.
These songs may initially seem gloomy. “We think we’re walking on the moon, but we are dancing in the dark” the narrator of “Idlewild” moans. Yes, we are still dancing. We have little control over what others may do. The Hannitys of the world may misuse music for their own ends. Those we love will die, as will we ourselves. But art can enrich our lives, and Peter creates the highest kind that does not flinch in the face of these unsettling facts.