GRETCHEN PETERS – Dancing With The Beast (Scarlet Letter/Proper PRPCD148P)

Dancing With The BeastHaving enjoyed her biggest success to date with the Ben Glover co-penned southern gothic ‘Blackbirds’, it is, perhaps, not too surprising to find echoes in Dancing With The Beast. In terms of narrative, the slightly swampy ‘Wichita’, which Glover also co-wrote and which features Jerry Douglas on Dobro, is another murder ballad, this time round a mentally handicapped 12-year-old girl taking a gun to protect herself, her dysfunctional divorced mother and little sister from an abusive man as she sings “I hope I was the last thing that you saw that night in Wichita”.

More specifically, the politically pointed ‘Lowlands’ traces a similar melody to the Grammy winner’s refrain on a song written in response to the 2016 election with lyrics reflecting the sense of disquiet about a man who “lies just for the sake of lying.. sell you kerosene and call it hope.” This one’s not written with Ben Glover, but he does have three co-write credits, the first up being the album’s opening number, a three-way split with Matraca Berg, a melancholically, world weary reflective song about growing old and times changing as she sings “I get lost in my hometown, since they tore the Drive-In down”, perhaps carrying with it hints of incipient Alzheimer’s.

Throughout the album, she’s backed by Doug Lancio on guitar and synths, guitarist Will Kimbrough, keyboard player Barry Walsh, bassist and John Gardner on drums, the songs populated with a variety of female characters and driven by a feminist perspective. The moods vary. On the dreamy, piano-backed ‘The Boy From Rye’, steeped in the insecurities of female adolescence, it’s one of wistful reflection on a summer romance with a boy from out of town who, “His smile knowing and ironic” divided friendships as “One by one he broke our virgin hearts/And set us one against the other”. In contrast, the more musically muscular but equally poignant ‘Life Is A Disappearing Act’ turns its gaze on a middle-aged woman who, widowed after fifty years of marriage, having lost two babies at birth and a son to the Iraq war, mentally and emotionally rather than physically, now finds herself alone, lonely and isolated, trapped in a “dark cocoon” and “crying at the kitchen sink” , “if Jesus is comin’ soon And if he is, he better make it quick”.

She turns the mirror on herself, and any touring musician, for the whisperingly sung ‘The Show’, which, accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar and piano, reflects on life on the road, “somewhere between Bend and Birmingham”, drinking hotel coffee that “tastes like kerosene”, saving up the energy for “Nineteen songs and one more night to go”.

Clearly, it can take its toll (“I clutch this guitar to my chest and wonder just what I’ll have left/When all of this hard traveling’s finally done”), especially on sustaining a relationship, and she reprises the theme on ‘Lay Low’, where, “a good three hours to Aberdeen”, she sings how “Tonight I’ll call to say hello, but your phone’s just gonna ring I know” and of the need to take some time out to recharge.

The other two Glover co-writes play back to back. Like ‘Blackbirds’, they’ve both recorded their own versions, the title track here to be found on his current Shorebound album, both swelling towards the end and featuring a nervy acoustic guitar line, but her’s without the prominent strings and the drums held back until towards the end and Kim Richey on background vocals. A song about that voice that whispers in your ear that you’re no good or you can’t do it, be it depression, a sense of insecurity or whatever, and how the best way to deal with it is to “circle round the room together /Seal this devil’s bargain with a kiss.” However, lyrics like “It isn’t that he doesn’t care about me/If anything it’s that he cares too much /It’s only that he wants the best for me /It’s only that I don’t try hard enough” also lend themselves to an interpretation of an abusive relationship that chimes with the #MeToo movement, especially given the confessional and emotionally bruised way Peters’ delivers the lines.

The second, underpinned by Walsh’s piano and again echoing Blackbirds’ melody line, is ‘Truckstop Angel’, a variation on ‘Honky Tonk Angels’ that addresses prostitution and self-respect as the character sings of being unsure if she’s predator or prey, but that “One day I’m gonna leave here /Gonna hit my lucky streak, Gonna spread my gorgeous wings and fly/Above all this concrete”.

At the end of the day, this is an album about rising above the weight and the burdens, imposed by both others and yourself, a simple humanity and moving epiphany found in the gorgeous ‘Say Grace’, Douglas on dobro and Richey on backing, taking refuge in faith or friends as the lost, the despairing, the bruised and the broken are welcomed to share in prayer at shelter by the bus station depot, the lesson of the day being “Forgive yourself for all of your mistakes You can start all over if that’s what it takes… You are not a loser, you are not a hopeless case” .

It ends with just her and a fingerpicked acoustic guitar for ‘Love That Makes A Cup Of Tea’, a song that, born of a dream about her late mother in which “she held my hand and she said, ‘You know, honey, there is love that makes a cup of tea’.” In many ways an echo of the blessing in ‘Kindness’ on Glover’s album, it’s a celebration of how, for all the big dramatic moments, of “love that moves a mountain” or “love that fights for justice knowing justice won’t be done”, sometimes the smallest, simplest human moment can be the most profound. There is sadness, there is weariness, there is trepidation, but, as the conclusion to Lowlands notes, at the end of the day there is also hope, because “We get a lot of clouds here in the lowlands /But now and then a little light gets through.” This is a beacon.

Mike Davies

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‘Disappearing Act’ – official video:

Gretchen Peters announces new album

Gretchen Peters
Photograph courtesy of BBC

Described by Uncut magazine as “One of Nashville’s greatest talents”, Gretchen Peters is releasing new album Dancing With The Beast next month. It’s the follow-up to 2016’s acclaimed record Blackbirds, which was named Album of The Year by the Americana Music Association.

It’s with some anticipation that the record is being released, and she has put together an especially timely record, with the contributions of Matraca Berg and Ben Glover amongst others. Dancing With The Beast puts female characters at the fore, from teenage girls to old women. And intentionally so. With the 2017 Women’s March and #MeToo Movement as bookends to her writing time, Peters knew that a feminist perspective would be the critical core of the record. “Those two events just put everything — as so many things in 2017 — in really stark relief,” she admits. “You can trace the feminist DNA in my songwriting back to ‘Independence Day’ and probably before. The thing that 2017 did is just put it front and centre. It was very easy to kind of go to sleep for a while and just not think about that stuff because we were lulled into complacency for eight years.”

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‘Disappearing Act’ – official video:

The Essential Gretchen Peters

The Essential Gretchen PetersTwenty years on from Gretchen Peters’ debut solo album, The Secret Of Life, comes a career retrospective double CD set – half greatest hits, half demos and rarities. Gretchen is almost as well known as writer of songs for other singers and a collaborator as for her solo work so her guests on these tracks include some major names: Tom Russell, Bryan Adams, Ben Glover, Matraca Berg and Suzy Boggus.

The set opens with the crunching guitar of ‘Blackbirds’ from her most recent solo album but with her wide-ranging experience there isn’t a single Gretchen Peters sound. Most of her songs are built on her acoustic guitar, of course, but the wistfulness of ‘The Aviator’s Song’ and ‘On A Bus To St. Cloud’ are in complete contrast to the anger of ‘When All You Got Is A Hammer’. I think I prefer her angry.

There are musical touches that don’t let your attention wander. ‘The Matador’, a song reminiscent of both Leonard Cohen and Suzanne Vega, features accordion and percussion that sounds like distant fireworks and ‘Sunday Morning (Up And Down My Street)’ has organ and bells – not “churchy”; the organ is electric and the bells are a glockenspiel, I think, but the feeling of Sunday morning in suburbia is perfectly captured.

The second disc includes a radio edit of ‘Pretty Things’, a live ‘Woman On The Wheel’, a piano-based interpretation of the traditional ‘The Cruel Mother’ and several demos and work tapes. Notably among the latter is ‘Five Minutes’, which appears in full on the hits disc. And don’t forget the cover of ‘Wild Horses’ with Berg and Boggus.

There is a huge variety of styles and moods here and, moreover, some superb songs. If you don’t know Gretchen’s music this is the perfect way to get acquainted

Dai Jeffries

The Essential Gretchen Peters (Proper PRPCD134)

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‘Five Minutes’ – live in the studio:

Matraca Berg – Love’s Truck Stop

Matraca Berg didn’t set out to write five #1 hits in a single calendar year… to be nominated for Grammys in each of the past three decades… to have her seminal “Sunday Morning To Saturday Night” named one of the 10 Best Records of the Year in any genre by Time, Entertainment Weekly, USA Today and People, as well as myriad daily newspapers… or to end up in the prestigious Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame at such a young age. But here she is; one of the most consistently successful songwriters in America and she’s also a great singer, though only rarely makes her own albums.

Folking  are therefore thrilled to get behind the latest release of the new Matraca Berg album, ‘Love’s Truck Stop’ on Proper Records.

Maybe it was the deadline. Maybe it was the notion that she was making “a record.” Maybe her critically acclaimed 2011 album The Dreaming Fields (her first album in 14 years) that inspired the lithe songstress to keep reaching and writing.

For whatever reason, Love’s Truck Stop – a collection of songs that celebrate the spark of the human spirit, the resilience of women and the joy of being alive even when it’s difficult – is easily, in our opinion, the most engaging record of Matraca Berg’s career yet

“There’s something to the notion that creativity seeks creativity,” says Matraca, “The right people – the writers, musicians, even co-producer just lined up when I needed them. I had no idea who they were, no master plan, but there they were!

“It was a very small group of people, so there was this very special cohesion: it was like everyone was moving in the same direction, all moving towards the same thing. And I’m not sure if it was working at such a fast pace or the fact that I was working towards something I didn’t quite know, but could feel. It made me wanna get in the studio every day, to chase these songs to see where they were going to take us.”

The “group of people’ were Jason Goforth, a former missionary/activist turned roots musician who plays just about anything that makes music. Berg saw him backing co-writer Angel Snow at a gig at a tiny, out of the way room and the response was visceral.

“I literally chased him into the parking lot to ask if he’d work on this record,” she says with a laugh. “He probably thought I was mad, but he showed up. So it was him, and David Henry who came in as a friend and wonderful cellist/violinist/vocalist and ended up as co-producer… and me! The three of us, coloring in the songs, trying to figure out the best way to bring them.”

After Goforth and Henry (who is a veteran of the Cowboy Junkies) came David Mead, Over The Rhine, Mindy Smith and Yo La Tengo. Berg also drew on her myriad group of friends. Emmylou Harris, Kim Carnes, Pat McLaughlin, Pistol Annie’s Ashley Monroe and husband Jeff Hanna are among the vocalists.

“Emmy? Pat? Jeff Hanna?” laughs the eternally young old soul. “They’re just friends. It’s one of the beautiful things about Nashville – you call your friends, then they open their mouths! Suddenly, it’s ‘OH! That’s EMMYLOU…’

Harris’ appearance on the chilling “Magdalene,” inspired by Berg’s work with Becca Stevens’ Thistle Farms and Magdalene Project, which helps get prostitutes off the streets and give them skills to become a part of mainstream society, is stunning. Emmylou, during the recording, said, “This hit me the same way Patty Griffin’s ‘Mary’ did when I went in to sing on that…”

A diverse cast of characters, truths and locales, Love’s Truck Stop covers a lot of ground. From the scalding Cajungrass “Black Ribbons,” with its post-Gulf of Mexico oil spill bite, to the Ghandi graffitied bathroom of the “Love’s Truck Stop,” the all over but the good-bye “We’re Already Gone” and the languid flow of the girl stuck in California missing that sweet boy back home in “Sad Magnolia,” there is compassion for the downtrodden, the long gone and the outcast – all strung across lean tracks that evoke the mountains, the coffeehouses and those cracks in the walls and sidewalks where lost souls often find themselves.

That esprit de corps has always given Berg’s songs an incandescence and sparkle. Not one afraid of the gritty or the real, she finds pretty in the worst possible places. There is the elegiac piano-strewn confusion of an alcoholic’s child “Fistful of Roses,” the tautly plucky get-over-it-or-else “Buried Your Love Alive,” the against all odds folk of “Foolish Flower” that find the heart of resilience and thrive in spite of the odds.

Those get it girls… the woman who has no idea what comes after leaving in “Waiting On A Slow Train,” the 20 year old waitress with the Bible verse tattoo in “Her Name Is Mary”… survive against the odds, sowing love and light in their wake. You might not notice them, but Matraca Berg and her co-writers do.

“It’s the stories most people miss that’re most inspiring. Not the great big stardom stuff, so much as the woman making it work in spite of the odds. Sometimes just surviving that break-up, losing someone you love is everything. We’ve all been there, and it’s nice to know you’re not alone – even when it feels like no one else could ever hurt like this.”

“I just hope this record gets to the right people,” Berg says of her aspirations. “The people, who like me, who like the girl in ‘Her Name Is Mary,’ who find their truth and their strength in the songs. I’m always humbled by the stories people tell me about what music means to them – and if anything here does that, well, then, it was worth everything.”

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