Kate chatted to Gretchen Peters ahead of her release of “The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury”. Gretchen would have been preparing to tour the UK and Europe before the pandemic struck and this tour has now been rescheduled to March 2021.
KW: Good morning!
GP: Good morning to you too and thank you for calling.
KW: Were you affected by the recent storms that hit Nashville?
GP: We are actually holed up in Florida. We have been here since St Patrick’s day so were not affected this time. But we have the fires.
KW: A better place to be in lockdown.
GP: Definitely, yeah, definitely. We’re feeling pretty grateful about that.
KW: I think that it is going to be a long time before we get back to any sort of normality.
GP: I think that you are correct. But I am pretty much resigned to that. It is what it is.
KW: Once you get to the acceptance phase it’s easier.
GP: Yes, once you realise that you are not in control of it, it’s easier. You cannot do anything about it so you have to make the best of it and get on with it.
KW: I saw your live stream on Sunday. How was it for you?
GP: It was really nice. We wanted to do it before but we didn’t have great wi-fi so had resisted any live streaming, but it turned out to be okay. It was lovely to see comments from everyone and nice to see all of our fans from the UK who would have been attending our gigs next week. I really enjoyed it. It did my soul good. We are going to do some more, a couple of live streams linked to the album release, and then carry on live streaming once a week. I really miss the interaction and just being with like minded people, I really, really miss it. It was great fun to do.
KW: We are all missing the gigs but it must be so difficult for musicians. This is their livelihood with no light at the end of the tunnel at the moment.
GP: We’re all going to have to get used to whatever the new normal is. But by the same token, I told somebody the other day we’re not going to stop gathering in places to eat or to experience music together. For people that’s a very basic pleasure that we will somehow find a way. I don’t know what it is going to look like exactly but I have a lot of faith that we will find it. What is heartbreaking now I think, is seeing the venue’s struggle, especially the small to medium sized venues. The larger ones will probably survive. They’re struggling and that’s hard because we get to know the people when we tour over there. We get attached to certain venues. We so look forward to coming back to certain places. We love the crews. Everytime we come back we see the same crews, it’s almost like family. It’s like a reunion. I’m trying to do everything to help promote them. I’m trying to amplify that on my social media. People have to remember the venues, otherwise we wont have anywhere to play when we come back.
KW: I would normally be coming over to Nashville in September for the AMA, but even if that goes ahead I wouldn’t be coming until next year. It is not so much the venues but the long haul flight at this time. Anyway, let’s talk about your new album. Why did you choose to record Mickey Newbury’s music particularly?
GP: I had it in my mind for a long, long time, I mean over ten years. I was toying with the idea that I did want to eventually make a record of his songs. And I guess, I mean, the primary reason is just because I loved him! I loved his songs, but not just his songs, I loved him as an artist. I loved his singing, his record, and his visions. All of it, the whole package. He was probably, well not probably, definitely one of the artists of that era. You know in the late 60s, early 70s, he was the most important artist for me. That is funny because there are a lot of artists who are far more well known than him. People like Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and Waylon Jennings. If you asked all of those musicians who was a big influence on them, they would say Mickey Newbury, and yet people don’t know who Mickey is really. So I guess the secondary reason for me to want to do this was that I just think people should know more about him. I think that my hope is that, you know, a lot of my fans who maybe don’t know so much about him will go down that rabbit hole, and after they hear this album and go “Well, who was this guy?” and discover his records and otherworldly voice, and you know all of that.
But primarily I just really wanted to do it. I identified with him deeply, especially as a young artist. I think you can tell sort of intuitively, I guess from his music that he wasn’t down with the sort of Nashville assembly line approach. He was in to doing his own thing. He had his own vision for who he was and it was very much counter to what Nashville was doing at the time, and his records were admittedly so out there they were even weird sometimes, but in a beautiful way. But he just would not bend artistically and I love that about him and I guess I really identified with him. I also feel like, as I got more successful as a songwriter, and people tried to put me in that slot as a ‘Nashville songwriter’, I really understood. He was making these gorgeous records and I think the Nashville establishment would have been just as happy if he had just sat home and written hit songs. I got my fair share of that sentiment too, there were a lot of people that would have preferred that I just try to rewrite ‘Independence Day’ over and over again.
For all those reasons I identified with him deeply. He knew who he was and where he was going and what he wanted to do. I just admire that greatly, and then there’s just the simple fact that he was a brilliant, brilliant, songwriter and performer.
KW: I must admit I didn’t know his music at all so it did send me down a rabbit hole and I started listening to his music. I really like ‘Lie to me Darling’, it is so beautiful. I love that song.
GP: Yeah, there’s so many great ones. Ironically, he is probably, if he is known, he’s probably best known for an “American trilogy, which Elvis Presley recorded, none of which he wrote, they’re all old American spirituals, but he did put it together and you know kind of created it. But I think it’s funny that people that know only a little bit about him would think he wrote American trilogy. I’m like, no, but just listen to the songs he wrote, you know, the ones he actually wrote!
KW: How did you choose the twelve tracks that you chose? How long did it take you whittle down the list?
GP: We made this record, over time, which was a wonderful way to do it. We didn’t do the normal thing of going into the studio with a band and having a week and say ‘okay these are the twelve songs we’re going to record’ and then recording. We went in over the course of two and a half years. We would go in whenever we thought we had two or three songs that we really wanted to get. We would get those two or three recorded and then we would leave. Sometimes we wouldn’t come back for six months.
So because we did that, it was a very slow-growing kind of organic process choosing the songs. Right off the bat, at the first session I knew three that I wanted to try because I was in love with them. One of them was ‘The Sailor’, which I think is maybe my favourite track. We recorded it in the studio where Mickey recorded in Nashville. It was kind of a little isolated cocoon, away from Music Row, away from all of that so we could take our time and just let it happen easily and organically. I knew pretty early on as far as song choices were, that I didn’t want to make an album of his hits. I thought that would be pretty one dimensional and that would be me trying to fit myself into those songs. So I really had, you know, very simple criteria for choosing songs. Number one, did I love the song, and number two, was it something I felt I could put myself into? Some of those songs ended up being very well known and some of them ended up being totally obscure. Here’s the thing, he had already recorded his beautiful versions of these things and he was such a great guitar player and great singer. There was no question of me trying to do another version only better. The only place I could go with this was which of these stories do I feel like I can tell? And tell convincingly and honestly, at the end of the day. That’s not any different from the process I go through with my own songs. Sometimes I write songs that I just don’t feel I can tell that. And then other ones I feel like, yes I know! I know how to tell the story. So in the end it’s really the same process. But I did have to throw out the idea of doing, you know, all of his hits, or on the other hand all of his obscure songs. I mean I just looked at them as songs and nothing else, and didn’t worry about the popularity or how well known they were.
KW: I was going to ask you about the recording process and why you chose that studio, but you have answered that.
GP: I’ll tell you a little bit more about why we did. My husband Barry and I found out about three years ago that the Cinderella studio was still running. I really wasn’t aware that it was still operating. In fact it’s the oldest continually running studio in Nashville. Barry said, wouldn’t it be interesting to try recording there and it was a complete experiment, we had no idea. We had our usual people that we like to record with us, but we just thought – what if some of the magic is still in those walls at that place?
We went in with really no expectations, really just ‘let’s see’. It’s a little converted garage, it’s nothing fancy it’s just basically just like it was in 1971. There’s so much music history there I mean, aside from Mickey Newberry. For instance, Linda Ronstadt recorded her first solo album there, and she recorded her vocals in the bathroom, which is where I recorded mine, because they don’t have a vocal booth, they just use the bathroom.
KW: I’ve seen quite a few artists live stream from their bathrooms recently. If I remember correctly, Margo Price did one in her bath with their children and Jeremy.
GP: Yeah, you can actually get pretty good reverb in the bathroom!
We tried, I think, three songs that first session. It was just me, Barry and Will Kimbrough. We wanted to keep it very stripped down and very naked. I wanted to have Will there because he’s a great guitar player and I didn’t want to play guitar. I just wanted to to concentrate on singing, and let Will handle the guitar part. The reason for that is because Mickey was such a distinctive guitar player that I needed someone that could not imitate his guitar parts, but sort of channel them. So it was just Barry and Will and me, and it was magic. So we kept going back, and we ended up couple years later with an album.
KW: You’ve written lots of songs for other artists as well, what’s one that another singer has recorded that you’re most proud of?
GP: Well, I mean, there’s the obvious one, which is ‘Independence Day’. I’m very proud of that. However, I have to mention that I’m extremely proud, that although this record didn’t get any particular notoriety or recognition I’m very, very proud to have written a song that Etta James recorded, because in my mind Etta James was one of the greatest singers on the planet. I mean, just an incredible voice, and I got the chance to hear her before she passed and, I mean, that voice! Just amazing, so I’m equally proud of that although people don’t really know it much.
KW: But it’s personal to you, isn’t it ?
GP: Yes, absolutely.
KW: I’d just like to say thank you very much for your time. I really appreciate it and I really love the album, it’s beautiful. Looking forward to seeing you on your return in 2021.
GP: Oh, thank you Kate, thanks very much. It was a pleasure talking to you. Thank you very much and keep safe!