Part 2: Gretchen Peters Discusses Her Songwriting Successes and the “Good Old Boys Club” of Country Industry


Gretchen Peters is an accomplished recording artist, having released seven studio albums, including her most recent, “Hello Cruel World,” a masterpiece that tells brilliant stories in Gretchen’s stunning sultry-strong, Rickie Lee Jones meets Bonnie Raitt tone. In addition to being a recording artist, Peters has signifiant success as a songwriter, having been nominated for Grammy Awards in 1995 and ’96 for Martina McBride’s “Independence Day” and Patty Loveless’ “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am” respectively. She has also had songs recorded by Etta James, Trisha Yearwood, and George Strait, and was nominated for a Golden Globe for best original song in 2003. Most recently, Peters was inducted this year into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Peters chatted with us in part two of a two-part interview about her experiences in the country music industry. 

Let’s talk about the industry climate in the ’90s, say, versus now. Have the changes influenced the way you write?

Well, I don’t think it’s changed the way I write, ‘cuz I was never really capable of paying too much attention to it in the first place. Even back in the ‘90s when it seemed like I was just able to turn in 40 songs to my publisher and one of them would be cut by Patty Loveless or Trisha Yearwood, things were going great, but even then the idea of trying to figure out what they want was paralyzing to me, so I learned really early on to just ignore that. In retrospect I think what happened in the ’90s for me is the trajectory of where I was trying to go as an artist – and when I say artist I don’t mean recording artist, I mean artist in the global sense – the trajectory of where I was trying to go as an artist and the trajectory of music row happened to intersect at that moment. The kind of songs that recording artists like Trisha and Patty and people like that and Martina were looking for happened to be the kind of songs I was writing, and I think I was the kind of writer that would write a song that was a bit left of center but a mainstream artist of that ilk could afford to put one of those songs – not twelve of them maybe, but one – on an album and I was really lucky that way.

And I don’t think I did anything different, I think the two worlds, my world and that world, moved farther apart, and I think that’s a natural thing, and that’s kind of the way it goes. I’m grateful for the time that I had and the success that I had in that world, but I don’t really think I changed anything. If anything what the current climate has done for me is it’s freed me to exist in other worlds as an artist anyway. There’s no question in my mind that I belong somewhere else, I’m not capable of writing the kinds of songs that I’m hearing, although frankly I haven’t heard very much of them because I don’t listen to the radio much, but the stuff that filters through, it’s foreign to me. And I think the kinds of songs that were getting recorded and getting successful sometimes in the ’90s were actually the kinds of songs that are more that you hear more in the folk and the Americana world now. That feels more like home to me. And I think it feels more like home to a lot, I mean judging from people that come to our shows, there are a lot of people who were big fans of a lot of mainstream country artists in the ’90s that have just become disenchanted and they’re seeking out people like me because they’re not finding what they want on the radio.

Well, I think there’s definitely a lot of depth that once was on radio that’s sort of disappeared.

Yeah, and you know, you can theorize a lot about why. When I got my first record deal one of the big new things was consultants and focus groups deciding what the single should be, and there was a lot of outrage over that. The old school record company way of thinking is that that’s the A&R job – the record label finds an artist they believe in, makes the record, and they and the artist and the producer decide what songs are going on the record. The job of an A&R person who’s worth his or her salt is figuring those things out like what the single is gonna be. All the power shifted to radio at some point. I mean, I remember being sort of appalled that my record company was polling radio people to see what the single should be. That’s not the cause of all this, but it wasn’t a good development. I think that the music was healthier when people who really loved and felt protective of the music were making musical, artistic decisions. Now we’re way past that and everybody’s pretty much accepted that we’re selling tires and beer and life insurance and pharmaceuticals on the radio and that’s what music does, that’s what commercial music is about it’s all about the radio and it’s not about the art.

But, the bright spot is that there are other worlds where great songs exist. They are not particularly lucrative, that’s the bad news I guess, but everybody that I know, myself included that’s really been in this for a long time… I remember being 17, 18 years old and my stated goal to myself was just to be able to make a living as a musician. And it never really changed. So I’m grateful for having a lot of success in the ’90s but I never came into this expecting or motivated by the idea of getting rich or anything. So, working in a smaller pond with a smaller but very devoted audience doesn’t bother me a bit.

I think there’s something very real to be said about connecting deeply with a smaller group versus kind of connecting with a larger group.

Totally. It’s more meaningful on both ends really, it’s more meaningful to them and it’s more meaningful to me. And I don’t know… I think there’s an argument to be made in saying that if you’re connecting with a huge group there are exceptions obviously, but are you really connecting and for how long? The trajectory tends to be massive success followed by massive indifference. Whereas if you have a slower growing career and you build your audience by tens, boy, they tend to stick with you. And one thing that I love about the way my career has turned out which looks absolutely nothing like I thought it would, I’m not even sure I knew what it’d look like, but one thing I love about it is I do feel like wherever I go artistically, the people that have followed me will follow me there. There’s nothing I can do, I guess short of putting out a disco record or something, that’s going to alienate them, because they’re wiling to go with you wherever you gotta go next. A lot of people are under the pressure of massive success I think probably are almost paralyzed by the thought of change because the definition of an artist is to want to change, but change is really risky for people who’ve made millions and millions of dollars off of being one thing.

Let’s switch tracks a little bit. You’ve mentioned frustration at being referred to as a ‘female songwriter’ …

Well it’s a ridiculous term. If you flipped the switch, I don’t think I’ve ever read any male writer referred to as a male writer or a man writer or even a writer who writes songs for men, it’s a ridiculous term, and people shouldn’t use it.

That’s true – ‘male songwriter’ sounds so ridiculous yet ‘female songwriter’ is something we hear all the time.

Yeah. My second publishing deal was at Sony Tree Music – it was still called Sony Tree back then because it was the derivation of the publishing entity that was this great, classic old Nashville publishing company that started out as Tree and they had people like Merle Haggard and Harlan Howard and Willie Nelson. It was, to a huge extent, a good old boys club, like I don’t even know if they had any women writers, it was really, really predominantly male. And when I signed with them the head of the company was a woman, Donna Hilley, who was a great publisher, and she was a big part of my life for 15, 20 years. When I signed with them, I asked her, before I signed, I said why do you want me. Because I think it’s important to know why you’re being asked to the dance, you know? And she said, “I want more women writers.” And I… Part of me felt sort of proud to carry that banner, and part of me just sank. Because I thought well, I don’t want to be categorized like that, I want you to want me because you want good writers. But I understand where she was coming from, I understand she was trying to turn the tide a little bit, so I get it. But I just have always felt that that’s a ridiculous and rather insulting term, because I’d rather be judged alongside all my fellow writers, not delineated by gender.

A lot of writers now feel like they can’t write songs from the perspective of a woman because they won’t get cut.

Well there’s a parallel to the early… I guess it was probably the very early part of the ’90s, late ’80s maybe even. I remember this distinctly, being told that radio stations would only play one female per hour. So if you consider how many records they play in an hour, only one of those could be by a female artist. I was told this because whoever told me was warning me that I’d better write guy songs, whatever those are, because your chances are gonna be very limited. So this is not a new thing, this was happening back then. And then later on in the ’90s it became very female dominated. And then it went away. And here’s what astonished me and really kind of disgusted me of the reasoning behind that thinking. The reasoning in radio was our audience is female, they’re housewives, which is also a term I despise. But our audience is female, and they are threatened by female artists, they wanna hear guys. And this is mostly 99% male radio execs talking at this time. And I’m thinking wait a minute, I’m a female, I would love to hear another woman tell me her story. I’d love that, I don’t believe that’s true. And of course, it turned out not to be true, witness the rise of artists like Mary Chapin Carpenter and Trisha Yearwood and all the ones I mentioned before, but that was the line of thinking then.

I think this is just part of, now that this preponderance of male artists and bands and this idea that women can’t get on the radio, which is true right now, I think it all comes from this idea that we can predict what an audience will respond to, which I think is where radio always goes wrong. They always think they know what the audience will respond to, and case in point for me, “Independence Day.” I mean, radio was so dead set against that song, that record, and it was by dint it was two things that made that record work: one of them was just coincidentally the OJ Simpson thing all kind of broke during the life of that record and suddenly the radio stations that said that the topic was too dark and they didn’t want a song about domestic abuse on the radio, all of a sudden a lot of them changed their minds. But really more than that even was the fact that people just called in and wanted to hear the song. And I think second guessing audiences in that way is really dangerous and really wrong because they will prove you wrong every time. If you think about songs that have had the biggest impact on commercial radio like “The Dance” for instance, a slow ballad, radio people will tell you, “we don’t want any slow ballads, they don’t work on radio.” But most of the really, really impactful songs have broken those rules. “Strawberry Wine” is a waltz and it’s five minutes long almost, I mean it breaks the rules in so many ways. “Independence Day” broke the rules in so many ways. And those songs, they live, and they have more impact, I think, so this whole idea of these strict parameters within which we have to keep our songs and our records in order for them to work on radio, it’s not true.

But you know, there’s always been this rub, and this tension between what the radio wants and what the record labels are getting them and what they wanna do and there’s always been that tension and it will continue and I hope the pendulum swings so that some of the young women that are making great records – I mean Brandy Clark is fantastic, Angaleena Presley is fantastic – they’re great, and they really have something to say. I really hope the pendulum swings for their sake, but the other part of me just thinks maybe radio is not where everybody belongs. There are lots of other ways to be heard these days.

Yeah, I mean you mentioned demand and people calling in and the thing that my mind jumped to these days is social media and how you can create a buzz without radio. And I guess something I’m constantly trying to figure out in Nashville is how much social media and the online community of listeners are still second fiddle to radio listeners and if that’s changing in a broad way or in a very small way and what that play is like.

Well, you know, the mainstream by definition can’t turn on a dime, it’s very slow moving and if you’re smaller and under the radar, you can turn a lot quicker. I think that the mainstream is slow to come to the realization that things like social media can really be a game changer and they’re sort of surprised and then they don’t do it well a lot of times because what they fail to realize is that one thing about it is that it has to be personal. There was this sort of attitude back in the day that an artist had to be at arm’s length from the audience and had to keep this element of remove from the audience. They would never answer an email or do anything like that personally, there always had to be people filtering in between. That always made me incredibly uncomfortable, so social media for me was such a relief to just be able to be myself and I think people responded to that. But I think a big record label is a big machine and it’s hard to turn around and it’s hard to change the way things are done and there’s a tendency to stay with what’s worked before too long. And that’s why I think some independent artists have sort of surprised everybody by doing things in a new way and doing better, but it’s a very different world now.

I think having said that, social media is important it and it can be an incredible boon but I do think one thing that hasn’t changed is that good old fashioned touring does more for you than anything, at least I think that’s true for us. I feel like I’ve had a lot of pre-existing attitudes especially over here in the US, not so much in the UK which is really my biggest market but over here there were a lot of minds I had to change, a lot of people who if they knew me at all sort of associated me with Nashville songwriter sits in a cubicle writes hits kind of thing as an artist and I had to overcome that to a great extent and the only thing that really worked to do that is to play for people, to tour. There’s no replacement for live music, there’s no replacement for sitting in a dark room really concentrating on the music, it’s just we’ll never be able to replicate that digitally, it just is what it is, and if you can sing a song to people and move them, that goes farther than anything.

It comes back to the connection, and being in a room – you’re totally right, that’s the ultimate experience of that music with someone.

It is, and again, it’s a two way street, it is for me too. As bone-breaking as it is to tour all the time, and 2012 and 2013 were the hardest touring years of my life, but for me it’s a one time only experience, it’s like watching somebody walk a tightrope. There’s a community and a communion that happens and I mean I really can’t overstate how important it is to me. It’s the thing that you can’t digitally reproduce, the thing that’s not going to change no matter how much the business or the stuff around it changes, that remains the same.

Connect with Peters on her website, Facebook, and Twitter.

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