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Gretchen Peters

Burnt Toast & Offerings

(Scarlet Letter; US: 7 Aug 2007; UK: 9 Apr 2007)

Country Existentialism

Gretchen Peters seemed to have it all and know it all. During the ‘90s, she penned a number of best-selling records for country artists like George Strait, Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, and Shania Twain, but it was Peters’s composition “Independence Day” as recorded by Martina McBride that made her a wealthy woman.

“Independence Day” won the Country Music Association Song of the Year in 1995, and was a monster hit that still gets played every day on right-wing talk show host Sean Hannity”s radio program (albeit denatured into a jingoistic anthem far removed from its original context).

Peters was happily married for more than 20 years to a man who loved her just the way that she was, at least according to the title of another hit that she wrote and Martina McBride recorded. Peters also found spiritual peace. She understood “The Secret of Life”, as the title of a hit song she wrote recorded by Faith Hill says.

Well, the latter was not exactly true. While the lyrics of “The Secret of Life” offer some pithy examples, such as: “a good cup of coffee”, “a beautiful woman”, and such, the upbeat melody disguises the song’s punch, which comes at the end. The last line is, “The secret of life is nothin’ at all”. Country existentialism. This should have been a clue that all was not right in Nashville.

Sure enough, Peters divorced her husband, who was also her manager, booking agent, and producer for more than two decades. Now she’s written and recorded a whole bunch of new songs, got a band together, and taken back to the road. As a successful songwriter, she doesn’t have to endure the hardships of touring, but she chooses to. Her new songs are personal, somewhat autobiographical, and sometimes dark, but they are always poetic, melodic, and insightful. Peters is not composing confessional tales as therapy. She’s reflecting on the conflicting impulses of her life and writing pop songs. This leads to some real interesting observations that resonate on a number of levels. Beware—even the simple songs have hidden depths.

There’s that tale about a waitress at a beach town resort singing about the “Summer People”, whose irresponsible vacation behavior irritates her. The first person narrator knows that she’s no better than those she serves. When Peters sings that she’s tired of “the sun and the top 40 radio”, one can’t help but think Peters is singing about her glory days and mainstream radio success. She’s ready to give it all up—and in a sense already has. Or there’s Peters’s sympathetic look at “Jezebel”. The woman who wrote and sings the song left her husband for another man here croons, “Your pride’s your gift and love your only sin / Wear them like a crown / Your scarlet hand-me-downs”. Peters isn’t afraid of displaying her passion, nor does she apologize for it or demonize the one left behind.

The topics of the other material ranges from story songs about good love and bad, the pleasures of being on the road and the joys of sleeping late at home, the thirst for experience and being satisfied with what one has, the thrill of first meetings and the heartbreaks of saying goodbye—in other words, the everything and nothing that makes living such a complex experience. Peters does one cover, the Johnny Mercer/Harold Arlen boozy classic “One for My Baby”. It’s an odd choice, but fits in here because of its emotional edge. The torch song always tried to have
it both ways. The singer knows that his love affair is over, but can”t help celebrating the glory of it all. Better to have loved and lost. etc. Peters understands the deeper meanings of that statement. It’s not a message of solace, but a victory cry.


Steven Horowitz has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa, where he continues to teach a three-credit online course on "Rock and Roll in America". He has written for many different popular and academic publications including American Music, Paste and the Icon. Horowitz is a firm believer in Paul Goodman's neofunctional perspective on culture and that Sam Cooke was right, a change is gonna come.

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