We enter 2016 and find Gretchen Peters embarking on a UK tour only a few months after her last visit to the UK where she performed a string of sold out shows. In 2015 the ‘Blackbirds’ album had given Peters her highest chart placing ever in the UK where she has been embraced as both a singer and a songwriter, which has not always been the case for artists in Nashville (Chris Stapleton may have recently changed that way of thinking). To coincide with the tour UK label Proper Records has put together a stunning two disc career retrospective set that will please fans old and new.
The Essential opens with the title track from the aforementioned ‘Blackbirds’ a murder ballad, co-written with fellow singer-songwriter Ben Glover, that paints a bleak tale on which Peters is able to channel her inner Johnny Cash and Nick Cave. ‘Blackbirds’ the album is revisited throughout this collection with ‘When All You Got Is A Hammer’ tackling the very relevant subject of veterans returning from overseas and the problems they can encounter another standout.
It’s hard to believe that Peters released her debut album ‘The Secret Of Life’ as far back as 1996 and the title track is included here. “The Secret of life is Monday night football, Rolling Stones records and mom’s apple pie” she sings and the song is both catchy and heartfelt. It also demonstrates, reinforced by the production and instrumentation, that although branded a country songwriter due to the hits she had penned for Martina McBride (Independence Day) and Trisha Yearwood (On A Bus To St Cloud), she wasn’t going to be easy to pigeon-hole. A new recording of ‘On A Bus To St Cloud’ and a terrific acoustic version of ‘Independence Day’ are included here.
For a collection littered with terrific tracks personal favourites include the dark, brooding ‘Hello Cruel World’ and ‘Five Minutes’ which is such a great song with the ability to make you understand and care about the people in the story. Then there is ‘The Cruel Mother’….. Occasionally something pops up and just stops you in your tracks and you just have to hit the repeat button. ‘The Cruel Mother’ is that song, frankly my jaw was on the floor. Peters delivers a version of the folk tune that is hauntingly beautiful despite the harrowing subject matter with partner, in life and music, Barry Walsh on piano and David Henry on cello deserving of high praise for their performances. ‘The Cruel Mother’ has been performed by such folk luminaries as Joan Baez and Martin Carthy / Maddy Prior / Steeleye Span while historians have traced the text back to the seventeenth century and I doubt it has ever been interpreted better than this.
Long standing fans that have followed Peters from the early days will be pleased to see that ‘Essential’ contains quite a few rarities including ‘When You Love Someone’ a duet with regular song writing partner Bryan Adams that originally appeared on the soundtrack to ‘Hope Floats’ the Sandra Bullock / Harry Connick Jr film. A punchy live recording of ‘Woman On The Wheel’ and some interesting work tape versions of some of her better known songs are also included. These include a striking piano duet with Ben Glover of ‘Blackbirds’ and an acoustic ‘Five Minutes’ that are both superb. A couple of demo tracks are also present with ‘The Chill Of An Early Fall’ her first hit as a songwriter via George Strait in 1991 a very welcome addition to the album. If the mention of demo tracks raises a red flag regarding quality don’t worry as a Gretchen Peters demo sounds like the completed track for many an artist.
It is always interesting to see which songs really good songwriters look to cover and Gretchen Peters doesn’t disappoint with a quite lovely rendition of the Rolling Stones classic ‘Wild Horses’ performed as a trio with Suzy Bogguss and Matraca Berg, I didn’t find the John Lennon penned ‘Love’ quite as effective but I’m sure I’ll be in the minority. I was a little taken aback by the idea of ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ but I needn’t have worried as the vocal is stunning and gives a new lease of life to a song that is maybe a little too well known.
In all honesty as a career retrospective this really does live up to the title of essential. Gretchen Peters is a superb singer and songwriter and as she is in the UK to promote this album I urge you to get along to a show if you are able. I very much doubt that you will come away disappointed from the show or this very fine album.