Several years ago, the multi-talented Peter Asher (award-winning guitarist, singer, manager, and producer) told a roomful of record industry folk that certain acts will never achieve the same success in England as they would in the United States and vice versa. He offered two examples. He explained that country music’s Dixie Chicks would never be as huge in the United Kingdom as they were in the United States. The opposite would be true for Robbie Williams, whose massive success in Britain would not be replicated in America. As a former British Invasion artist from the 1960s (Peter and Gordon), Asher knew there were exceptions. But he emphasized that these were exceptions. National identities could limit international triumphs.
One thing Asher didn’t address was that some musicians do better abroad than in their home country. That’s true of Gretchen Peters. She has achieved recognition in the United States, mainly as a songwriter who has composed hits for Faith Hill, Etta James, Bonnie Raitt, George Strait, Shania Twain, Neil Diamond, and many others. But none of Peters’ nine studio albums have charted in America. She’s a much bigger deal across the pond, where three of her last four albums have made the top 100.
So it’s no wonder Peters decided to make a live album in England where audiences would be more receptive. The Show: Live from the UK has just been released, but it was recorded in 2019 before the COVID pandemic. She has already announced she will retire from touring in June 2023.
The Show contains 18 of Peters’ most powerfully emotional songs that include tales of murder and abuse (“Wichita”, “When All You Got is a Hammer”), aging and forgiveness (“Say Grace”, “When You Are Old”), love gone wrong (“On a Bus to St. Cloud”, “Arguing With Ghosts”), family conflicts (“Five Minutes”, “Disappearing Act”) and what it all means (“The Secret of Life”, “The Matador”). These capsule descriptions overlook the richness of Peters’ compositions. Her material offers complex lessons in simple language that can catch one unaware. In her hands, love can make a cup of tea on one song while a cup of coffee can provide the reason for existence the next. She can turn a listener’s smile into a heartache with a quick change in perspective about what is really going on. Or as Peters puts it in “The Matador”, she can root for the bullfighter or the bull. She’s not sure which one deserves it more. The song itself is about the struggle.
Peters doesn’t include her best-known cuts (“Independence Day” and “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am”) perhaps because they are better recognized as performed by the singers who had hit records with them, Martina McBride and Patty Loveless, respectively). The sequence of the live songs here in performance works as a set with levity and melodrama mixed in somewhat equal measure. Peters can make one cry with what may seem a throwaway line but then get one to laugh at the absurdity of it all.
Take a song such as “Idlewild”, a multilayered tale of a family trip, the death of President John F. Kennedy, current events from the time like the war in Vietnam, and how it’s all perceived in the mind of a child riding in the backseat of a car. “We think we’re walking on the moon, but we are dancing in the dark,” sings the narrator, who conflates time, her parents’ marriage and divorce, and the promise of the American dream. Maybe the English appreciate Peters more than her fellow countryfolk because she’s not afraid to confront the decline of the American nation’s promise over time—or accept that it was always a delusion.
Peters’ lyrics are poetic in their rich imagery and descriptions of the human condition. She deservedly won the Academy of Country Music’s Poet’s Award in 2021. The Show reveals the depth and breadth of her talents. She’s accompanied by her touring band that features Barry Walsh (piano, vocals), Colm McClean (electric guitar, vocals), and Conor McCreanor (electric and upright bass, vocals), as well as an all-female Scottish string quartet featuring Seonaid Aitken (violin), Amira Bedrush-McDonald (violin), Sarah Leonard (viola), and Alice Allen (cello). This frames Peters’ impassioned vocals with a formal backing. She sounds eloquent even when being colloquial and never comes off as pretentious. The arrangements allow her voice to always be at the forefront.
Asher may have been right when he described the limits of music to transcend national boundaries at times. Peters’ live shows in the United Kingdom reveal this is not always the case. Audiences in America would do well to jump on the bandwagon and catch her while they still have the chance to check out this marvelous live album.