You may have never heard of Gretchen Peters, but if you’ve flipped on a country radio station sometime in the past decade, you’ve surely heard her work. In addition to writing “Independence Day”, the song that catapulted Martina McBride into country superstardom, Peters has also written for Patty Loveless, George Strait and numerous other Nashville giants. In addition to this day job, Peters has a singing career of her own, releasing seven solo-folk/country albums over the past 13 years. But before moving to Nashville in the late 1980s, Peters lived in Boulder, Colorado; it seems even after all these years, Peters’ mind and heart is still set on her old stomping grounds.
On One to the Heart, One to the Head, she turns her gaze back to the American West with a collection of songs celebrating its land, its mythology and its inhabitants. Texas country singer Tom Russell joins her on the journey. Russell, no songwriting slouch himself, has been recorded by Johnny Cash, Dave Alvin and Nanci Griffith, to name just a few. Their two voices — Peters’ pure-and-clear soprano, Russell’s whiskey-soaked rasp — somehow manage to mesh wonderfully, creating a sound as raw and beautiful as a desert landscape, and the songs they’ve chosen for the album bring to mind Marty Robbins, John Steinbeck and the cowboy songs collected by John Lomax.
Largely a cover album, One to the Heart, One to the Head has only two original songs on the record (one penned by Russell and an instrumental track composed by Barry Walsh). However, it manages to sound like an album full of new material, thanks to the fresh take Peters and Russell have on the songs. The supporting musicians, including accordionist Joel Guzman and Walsh, former keyboardist for Waylon Jennings, create an atmosphere so lifelike it almost seems like you’re listening to them performing in some dusty New Mexico cantina.
Though the material Peters and Russell chose for this project ranges from Bob Dylan (“Billy 4”) to Townes Van Zandt (“Snowin’ on Raton”) to Mary McCaslin (“Prairie in the Sky”) to Bonnie Raitt (“Sweet and Shiny Eyes”), surprisingly, the best song on the album is their version of Tom Dundee’s “These Cowboys Born Out of Their Time”. Its been recorded by various folkies through the years, but Peters and Russell deliver the best version by far. The song itself epitomizes the theme of the entire album, thanks to lyrics such as, “The range has been settled for years now / The old wranglers passed on with their kind / But every now and again, you run into these men / These cowboys born out of their time.” It’s simultaneously a stunning eulogy to a lost world and a tribute to those modern-day men struggling to hold on to a past rapidly becoming obsolete.
The frontier may be long dead, but Peters and Russell sure do an excellent job of making it come alive again, however briefly, in song.