I talked to Jane Kramer (who is opening our upcoming show at Isis Music Hall in Asheville, NC this week) recently about songwriting, empathy, feminism and the secret recording project I’ve been working on for the past 2 1/2 years. We had a great, wide-ranging conversation, and you can find out what I’ve been up to and read the interview at Ashvegas:
…there is always one thing holding everything together in any work of Gretchen Peters, and that is the clear mark of a master storyteller at work.
There are few songwriters of Gretchen Peter’s quality out there at the moment (or any moment) and although her songs cover many diverse subjects it is as a writer of “women’s songs” that Gretchen excels, and over the 3 to 5 minutes of a song’s time frame, works like “Arguing With Ghosts”, “Blackbirds”, “The Boy From Rye” and “Wichita” give us real stories of real people that are full of emotion and often pain. There is always something about Gretchen’s vocals on these songs that makes you believe that these are real friends, perhaps more than that even, they have become “ghosts on stage” with her over the years…
To read this review in its entirety, visit The Southside Advertiser Edinburgh.
photo by Rebecca Kemp
…Peters’ style is stripped back, raw and melodic and the purity of her voice lends itself beautifully to the most majestic of songs. The soulful smoothness of Say Grace, from her 2018 album Dancing With The Beast, was simply stunning; while The Matador, where she was joined on stage by Seonaid from the accompanying Southern Fried String Quartet, a group she first collaborated with at Perth’s Southern Fried Festival in 2018, attracted some of the biggest applause of the night and delivered a real ‘wow’ factor. Fellow Quartet member Alice brought her cello on stage for the song Five Minutes, before Idlewild finished off the first half….
To read this review in its entirety, visit Six Shooter Country.
photo by Andrew Newiss
“…Even after accommodating Walsh’s grand piano and a podium for the string quartet the stage looked spacious. The Cadogan’s acoustics were perfect and filled to its 950 capacity it was the ideal setting for an evening of musical engrossment. And how that was rewarded. Peters pulled no punches with her opener ‘When All You Got is a Hammer’, a deeply moving picture of the damage wrought on the family of those from war. The band gave a sense of restlessness to the opening of ‘Disappearing Act’ so, “Good things come, good things go/ If it lifts you up it will lay you low” came as little surprise. Also from the latest record was ‘Wichita’, a brooding, menacing song Peters tells as its principal character, a ‘little kid’…”
To read this review in its entirety, visit Your Life in a Song.
“…Like many of Peters’ songs, there was a narrative and a picture woven before your eyes that transported you to that time and place. With a voice that can sound as if she has been bruised and damaged but which can then go on to soar, she’s like a blend of Stevie Nicks, Sheryl Crow and Rickie Lee Jones but ultimately her voice remains distinctly her own. ‘Wichita’ was a brooding song full of darkness and despair from the viewpoint of a twelve-year-old but also with a measure of hope and triumph in adversity by way of revenge. ‘Save Grace’, ‘Everything Falls Away’ and ‘The Matador’, the latter a lyrical masterpiece with a mesmerising vocal performance by Peters and a highlight of the first set, were all received warmly by the attentive audience before the beautiful ‘Five Minutes’ and then ‘Idlewild’ ended the first set of the evening…”
To read this review in its entirety, visit Americana-UK.
June’s free download was taken from a Transatlantic Sessions performance in Glasgow, Scotland. “On A Bus To St. Cloud”, features Aly Bain, Jerry Douglas, Barry Walsh, Russ Barenberg, Phil Cunningham, Tim O’Brien, John Doyle, Michael McGoldrick, John McCusker, Donald Shaw, Daniel Kimbro and James Mackintosh. It was recorded at the Royal Concert Hall during the Celtic Connections Festival on 3 February, 2019.
Many thanks to Tidal for the opportunity to write about two of my biggest heroes, Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn. This essay was published March 7, 2019 to mark Women’s History Month. An excerpt:
“My real education in songwriting began that night. You have to be real. The songs come from a place that lives deep inside you. The rest is show business; the songs are bits of your soul. You don’t create them from shiny, sequined words, you create them from that place that holds your pain, your dreams, your unguarded self. The reason the circus is magic is because, beneath all the tawdry sparkle and sleight of hand, there is a child’s innocent heart. So it was, and is, with Dolly.”
To read this essay in its entirety, visit Tidal Read.
When it comes to poetry, I can think of no other songwriter who gets it the way Gretchen Peters does. A member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Peters wrote “Independence Day,” which became a huge hit for Martina McBride. “Independence Day” catapulted Peters to the Country Music Association’s Song of the Year award in 1995.
She sang it in Lewisville, offering up a solo acoustic version, complemented by her own deft work on the piano.
Peters shared with the crowd how vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin co-opted the song during the 2008 campaign, against Peters’ wishes, and how the songwriter sought to “reclaim” it and restore the full luster of its poetry. It is not a flag-waving anthem, as Palin sought to make it by seizing only on the chorus and not the rest of the lyrics, which read like the pages of a chilling work of fiction.
It’s a song about a battered woman who puts an end to being a victim, who seeks her own “Independence Day.”
My own favorite song of Peters’ is “Idlewild,” which chronicles the 1960s as well as any poem I’ve ever heard. It carries a truism common to all great songs or great poems: You learn something new every time you hear it.
Peters led a lyrical parade of tunes from her new album, Dancing with the Beast, whose entries shimmer like finely crafted short stories, albeit with a dark undercurrent that profiles its hard-life heroines in strikingly different ways. She also sang her achingly beautiful “Five Minutes,” which actress Elizabeth McGovern (Downton Abbey) has covered with her band, Sadie and Hotheads.
To read this review in its entirety, visit the Dallas Morning News.
Florida’s Disney Resort, a palm tree in Fiji and an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico – ideas for songs and tunes often emerge from the strangest of circumstances as a packed weekend audience at the Millennium Forum in Derry learned during the final concert of the TransAtlantic Sessions tour.
A musical concept that began as a television series 25 years ago, the tour is billed as a blend of Irish, Scottish and American folk and an impressive 16 performers, including five singers, took to the stage from places as varied as West Virginia, the Shetland Islands and Nashville, Tennessee.
First up was Scotland’s guitarist-singer Paul McKenna performing one of his own compositions, Long Days, about what he described as a most unhappy experience as a musician at Florida’s Disney Resort, the writing of which, he says, helped cheer him up and ease his homesickness. He followed this with his version of the classic Irish ballad, The Banks of the Moy, a soft, lingering tribute to Michael Davitt, a 19th century agrarian campaigner and labor leader who founded the Irish National Land League.
A catchy tune about a palm tree in Fiji provided one of the most amusing introductions of the evening, with multi-instrumentalist Tim O’Brien from Wheeling, West Virginia explaining that he wrote Keith In A Palm Tree upon hearing (mistakenly) that Rolling Stones’ guitarist, Keith Richards had cracked his skull on the island after falling out of such a tree. One half expected lovely gyrating dancers in grass skirts to emerge stage left.
Tim also sang the lead track from his album Where the River Meets the Road which recounts the journey of an Irish emigrant to the ‘eastern bank of the Ohio.’
Molly Tuttle, in her mid-20s and the first woman to win the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Guitar Player of the Year Award, in 2017, then again last year, introduced her set with a forlorn love-lost ballad, Million Miles. Then demonstrated her ample skills on the strings by playing claw-hammer style, a style normally associated with the banjo.
Warmest reception of the evening went to Derry-born Cara Dillon who sang a dirge entitled Sailor Boy, a woman’s lament for her lover lost at sea. A special treat for the home audience with loud encouraging cheers was her soft rendition of The Banks Of The Foyle about her native Derry.
Such is the lyric-writing success of New York born singer, Gretchen Peters, she was inducted to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame four years ago. Her talent for telling universal truths was reflected in her rendition of The Matador, a metaphor for life and love, which abounds in powerful, punchy lines such as ‘I bound his wounds, I heard his cries, I gave him truth, I told him lies.’
Displaying empathy for characters in her songs, she introduced Black Ribbons, which she wrote with Matraca Berg and Suzy Bogguss for her double AMA Award-winning album, Blackbirds, as emerging from stories she heard after the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico eight years ago, about people whose lives were destroyed, some later committing suicide.
Instrumental highlight of the evening for me was a moving tribute by accordionist Phil Cunningham to Liam O’Flynn, former uilleann pipe player with Planxty.
Credit goes to the fine backing musicians throughout the two-hour-plus concert, compère and dobro maestro, Ohio-born Jerry Douglas, who has recorded an impressive fourteen solo recordings, as well as a group of musicians from Scotland, including Donald Shaw, a founding member of Capercaillie. Their foot-stomping reels interspersed well with the soothing ballads.
Reflecting the homey, communal nature of the performance, aside from floor lamps, couch and coffee table at the rear of the stage, guest singers also contributed their vocal harmonies to great effect in support of each other.
A guaranteed best seller every time, Transatlantic Sessions starts its annual perambulation around the U.K. each year as a fixture in the Celtic Connections programme. The formula is simple enough; a, more or less, constant group of musicians, most from over here but a few from over there, joined by a handful of guests, different each year, with a slight bias towards acts from over there. This year’s impressive guest line-up was Tim O’Brien, Gretchen Peters, Molly Tuttle, Cara Dillon and Paul McKenna. This was the first night and, whilst not everything fell into place straight away, expectations were definitely met in the end.
The continued success of the show is impressive when you consider that the original TV series was made back in 1995 (it started as a TV only thing, although the last TV series was made in 2013). Co-musical director Aly Bain was quoted last year as saying: “the ‘special relationship’ across the Pond has come under scrutiny recently, but in the context of this music it remains as strong as ever.”
The first couple of guests, Scotland’s Paul McKenna and U.S bluegrass starlet Molly Tuttle. Paul said that as a Glaswegian he had always wanted to play on the Royal Concert Hall stage. His material was strong though, including, Banks of the Moy about the imprisonment of Michael Davitt, founder of the Irish Land League which organized resistance to absentee landlordism, ‘far from the lovely sweet banks of the Moy’. Paul got into his stride in the second half with his own very fine song The Dreamer, which he wrote whilst living in the United States about the extent to which the 1960s civil rights dream was unfulfilled given persistent discrimination and police killings.
Molly Tuttle has won lots of awards although she’s only 25. Save This Heart (from her EP Rise) gave her a chance to show us her exceptional claw hammer guitar technique. She played two songs from her forthcoming debut album When You’re Ready due to be released in April – Take The Journey in her second half slot was her strongest contribution on the night but we were left with the sense that we hadn’t seen what she is really capable of.
The ‘house band’ features an extraordinary array of talent: Aly Bain, Jerry Douglas (also master of ceremonies), Russ Barenberg, Phil Cunningham, John Doyle, Mike McGoldrick, John McCusker, Donald Shaw, James Mackintosh and Daniel Kimbro – who was very ably subbing on double bass for Danny Thompson, who sadly isn’t well enough to join the band this year and, as fine a player as Daniel is, you can’t help but miss Danny’s towering presence.
The first half really got going when Doyle, McCusker and McGoldrick played a set of tunes from their Wishing Tree album from last year. Played with their trademark verve and passion, the set was enhanced by the rest of the house band all locking into gear behind the trio. The audience response to this, and to other instrumentals, was if anything more enthusiastic than for most of the guest singers – which does not say the singers were not appreciated, only that this is an audience that has a strong liking for Scottish and Irish traditional tunes when played as well as this. John Doyle also did a single guest slot, giving us a fine rendition of his own song Burke & Hare, also from The Wishing Tree, telling the tale of the infamous murderers’ activities in Edinburgh in 1828, and using a nursery rhyme about the murders for the chorus.
Tim O’Brien was making a welcome return to the house band as well doing a guest slot. He instantly had a warm, authoritative presence in front of the mike, singing and playing, mostly mandolin, with relaxed confidence. He sang two of his own compositions from his most recent album, the later the title track. Guardian Angel he introduced quite cheerily as the night’s first tearjerker and then told us it was about the death of his older sister when he was nearly two years old. Where The River Meets The Road (the album’s title track) he said was about his Irish great grandfather’s journey to his hometown of Wheeling in West Virginia once he arrived in the U.S. Tim’s songs are always top notch and he sings with an effortless conviction that completely draws you in. He also played one instrumental titled Keith In A Palm Tree which, he explained, he wrote after Keith Richards fell out of a palm tree in Fiji in 2006 sustaining a serious head injury. A cheerful, fun tune, it included, half-way through, a thud representing Keith’s head meeting the ground! More Tim O’Brien would have been great but the format limits guest’s contributions and in no time it’s time to move on.
The final guest from across the Atlantic was Gretchen Peters. Another superb songwriter and assured performer, she sang Wichita, a hard-hitting song about sexual abuse, co-written with British singer/song-writer Ben Glover, from her recent album Dancing With the Beast (read Glenn Kimpton’s review here). Black Ribbons imagines the devastating impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 on one family in Louisiana. On A Bus From St Cloud brilliantly describes the narrator’s experience of imagining seeing someone you are estranged from and miss, even when your feelings about them are ambivalent, in different, random places. A captivating performance from Gretchen.
Cara Dillon was in great form, she seemed relaxed and sang as resolutely as the big accompaniment required. Continuing a pattern established by others, she sang two songs from her recent album Wanderer – Sailor Boy, a traditional song about death at sea, had Tim O’Brien subbing for the vocal that Kris Drever adds to the album track, and Banks of the Foyle which a reduced size band gave an appropriately uncluttered backing to. P For Paddy is a great sing-along song that Cara sang with real zest (she covered it on her great 2009 album Hill of Thieves).
Aly Bain led off another great set of tunes, including a tune from his native Shetland and a John McCusker tune. An outstanding moment in the evening came with an air written by Phil Cunningham for the mighty uilleann piper Liam O’Flynn who died last year. Phil explained in introducing it that he wrote the song for Liam some time before he died, so Liam had heard it, and Phil told Liam that his playing with Planxty had been the inspiration for Phil to play traditional music. The tune didn’t have a title until the set list was being put together in rehearsals for the show when it became So Long Liam – a beautiful, dignified tune featuring exquisite accordion from Phil and lovely, respectful pipes from Mike McGoldrick.
At the heart of the Transatlantic Sessions is an utterly reliable engine room that is on top of everything – tunes, key and time signature changes – always keeping things on track. All in all a hugely entertaining evening from the large cast of characters that have assembled for this year’s Transatlantic Sessions.
Visit the Folk Radio UK website to read this article in its entirety.
Towards the end of this epic gig, US dobro guitar-slinger and laid-back master of ceremonies Jerry Douglas addresses the fired-up Celtic Connections crowd in Glasgow’s preeminent concert hall. “We know you all could be at home watching Game of Thrones,” he says, “so thank you for coming out.” But squint and there are a few similarities between HBO’s bingeable fantasy hit and the Transatlantic Sessions project that has long been shepherded by Douglas and Shetland fiddler Aly Bain: both have sprawling cast lists, weave together stories from two continents and take great delight in surprising their audiences.
Part melting pot, part jam band, Transatlantic Sessions was originally conceived as a TV showcase in the mid-90s, mixing together folk musicians and traditions from the US, UK and Ireland. It debuted as a freewheeling live show at Glasgow’s roots music festival in 2004 and has been an annual fixture ever since (the current incarnation is also heading out on tour to England and Ireland).
With Douglas and Bain leading a crackerjack 11-piece house band, including foot-stomping fiddler John McCusker, uilleann pipes virtuoso Michael McGoldrick and former Celtic Connections artistic director Donald Shaw on piano, the 2019 edition is further bolstered by five guest artists. That means 16 bodies mingling on a busy stage already dotted with homely floor lamps, low-slung couches and a coffee table stacked with what looks like a hefty rider.
Part of the fun of Transatlantic Sessions is witnessing how the guests are willing to pitch in. As well as playing their own expertly crafted songs, young Scottish folk guitarist Paul McKenna and US mandolin master Tim O’Brien merge into the ensemble to add extra texture as required. Rising Californian bluegrass talent Molly Tuttle and empathetic Irish singer Cara Dillon – who could likely sell out this venue herself – step up to provide haunting backing vocals for Nashville Hall of Famer Gretchen Peters on the brooding Black Ribbons, which was inspired by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill encroaching on Louisiana.
The rotating spotlight on artists – interspersed with the occasional rollicking suite of foot-stomping reels – adds light and shade to a show that, with a halftime breather, runs long at almost three hours. Outlier highlights include Douglas swashbuckling his way through a bluegrass cover of Jimi Hendrix’s Hey Joe that transcends its jokey premise, and accordionist Phil Cunningham paying tribute to the late Irish folk pioneer Liam O’Flynn with a moving instrumental newly named So Long Liam.
O’Brien, a road veteran with a wickedly dry sense of humour, is a particular joy, capable of switching from tearjerking tales in tribute to the sister he lost as a child to an almost tropical track commemorating the time Keith Richards fell out of a tree in Fiji. He also tags in to duet with Dillon on the plaintive Sailor Boy, from her 2017 album Wanderer, which is a spine-tingling delight.
At 25, Tuttle is at the younger end of the ensemble, but her energetic claw-hammer guitar technique makes a lasting impression. Her propulsive, mob-handed Take the Journey is one of the evening’s later highlights and further proof that the Transatlantic Sessions honours the special UK-US musical relationship at a time when the political one seems more than a little frayed. “See? We can all get along,” says Douglas, before adding, with just a hint of glib Trumpian emphasis: “We have the greatest songs.”
This year’s edition of the Celtic and American traditional music roadshow generated as much collective energy as ever
-by Clive Davis
Another evening, another party. No concert series I know of is as downright joyous as these long-running celebrations of Celtic and American traditional music. Year in, year out, the fiddler Aly Bain and Dobro guitarist Jerry Douglas preside over performances that evoke the informality of a sing-song in a pub.
If Rhiannon Giddens’s guest appearance in 2016 set a benchmark that will be hard to beat, this year’s edition of the roadshow generated as much collective energy as ever. It’s always intriguing to see how Bain and Douglas calibrate the line-up throughout the night, creating endless permutations of the dozen or so musicians on the stage.
The humour was irresistible too, whether in the form of the accordionist Phil Cunningham’s muttered asides between numbers or a calypso-like mandolin duet by Tim O’Brien and Russ Barenberg that asked us to imagine that indestructible ne’er-do-well Keith Richards having a mishap on a tropical island. Douglas was also on mischievous form, turning Hey Joe into a scampering bluegrass anthem.
Gretchen Peters offered a more introspective glimpse of material from her new album, Dancing with the Beast. Even some of the old hands in the band seemed to be paying close attention to the clawhammer guitar technique of the much-acclaimed newcomer Molly Tuttle — who, like Peters, will be back here on tour soon. Cara Dillon supplied wistful Irish balladry, while the Scottish singer-guitarist Paul McKenna included a song inspired by memories of playing seven shows a day, five days a week at Disney World in Florida. Inspiration strikes in the most unpromising places.
This was a night, though, when the men stoking the engines came to the fore. It seemed strange not to see the token Englishman, Danny Thompson, at his usual post on double bass, yet Daniel Kimbro was an accomplished replacement. John McCusker’s fiddle playing was ecstatic and James Mackintosh’s brush-based drumming offered a masterclass in soft power. As ever, the guest artists stayed on stage on sofas when they weren’t performing. It’s an inspired touch. By the end, I didn’t want to leave either.
As part of the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow, Scotland, we performed a live set for BBC Two Scotland at the beautiful Cottier’s Theatre, originally Dowanhill Parish Church. It was a stunning backdrop for music, particularly appropriate for “Say Grace”.
The whole program, which also includes Loudon Wainwright III and Scottish band Imar, can be seen here.