GRETCHEN PETERS – Blackbirds (Scarlet Letter Records/Proper PRPCD124P)

BlackbirdsOne of last year’s finest albums was Ben Glover’s ‘Atlantic’, and one the finest tracks on that was ‘Blackbirds’, a southern gothic tale of an unfaithful heart murder he co-wrote with Peters and on which she duetted. It resurfaces now for her own version, providing both the album’s title and, with stripped bleak, ominously swelling bonus track reprise, its bookends. Where Glover’s was a brooding acoustic number, Peters, who delivers it solo, colours her first version with a sparse, throaty electric guitar fuzz, restrained organ fills, a fuller chorus and a swelling instrumental break. It’s a different approach, but no less electrifying in its dark power, setting the thematic and emotive scene for the contemplations of death that follow.

It’s one of three numbers she co-penned with Glover, second up being the next track, ‘Pretty Things’, an achingly wearied, musically understated number built around guitar arpeggios that disarmingly harbours a lyric about numbing the pain, the cruel vagaries of fate and life’s “slow parade of losses.” The third, ‘When You Coming Home Baby?’,  sees her duetting with Jimmy LeFave on another downbeat number about separation and desperation as, backed by banjo and Jerry Douglas on dobro, she sings “Cause you got a bottle, don’t mean you have to drink.”

There’s one other co-write, reuniting her with her Wine, Women and Song tour collaborators Matreca Berg and Suzy Bogguss, who also provide backing vocals, for ‘Black Ribbons’, the heady brew of baritone guitars, accordion, banjo, charango and mandola underpinning the sense of anger and helplessness in a tale woven around the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as a fisherman lays his wife to rest. There’s also a single non-original, David Mead’s ‘Nashville’, a gently rolling leaving and coming home love song to the city that, with its twilight skies ambiance, brings a rare note of optimism and light to the otherwise overcast proceedings.

The pull between the need to escape and the desire to stay are evident too on the piano-backed, strings-painted ballad ‘Jubilee’, a nod to her New York childhood that conjures the gospel hues of Randy Newman in its musings of mortality and familial bonds that give a poignant but celebratory tug to the lines “I’m an orphan thirty years on how I miss my father’s voice and my mother’s arms. I was you once, and now you’re me. It’s in this circle that we make a family.” Piano and strings again accompany another song about death on ‘Everything Falls Away’, the sea and the tide serving as the metaphors for loss as she recalls “a voice on the phone saying I’m sorry” and going to down to the sea to remember happier times.

Dreamy yet haunted by an overwhelming hurt, ‘The House on Auburn Street’ again takes her back to those New York days and uses a late 60s childhood memory of a neighbours’ house burning as a metaphor for the end of innocence and suburbia’s underbelly, foreshadowing tragedy in the line “I found you on the roof shooting sparks into your veins and staring vacantly across the green suburban plains.”

Peters says the album is about “lost souls, people trapped in the darkness, or fighting their way out of it”, and that finds its strongest expression in ‘When All You Got Is A Hammer’, a blues underpinned number about injustice, with surly baritone guitar, charango, dobro and Jason Isbell on harmonies, as Peters sketches a powerful portrait of a soldier who “came home from the desert with a medal on his chest”, ill-equipped to fit back in, suffering post traumatic stress, left to fend for himself and unable to “feed his own damn children on the money that he brings home.” Peters superbly catches that sense of impotency and rage in the memorable line “when all you got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

A hospital provides the setting for the despairing ‘The Cure For The Pain’, the final cut before the ‘Blackbirds’ reprise, as with a simple delicate electric guitar and melancholic strings arrangement, the protagonist begins by damning the hell, the “sorry waste”, he’s come to where waiting for death doesn’t come with movie violins, just “machines and medicine”, and ends by blessing the pills, the sheets, the food that you can’t eat and “the damned who walk these halls”, hauntingly recognising that, in a line loaded with both nihilism and empathy, “the cure for the pain is the pain.”

It is not, perhaps, the sort of thing you might put on to lift you from the depths of depression or the contemplation of the inevitable, but such are the glimmers of light shining through these wonderful songs and magnificent performances, that, even at the darkest, Peters’ compassion, anger and sense of the preciousness of the moments we have lead you to not go gentle into that good night, but to rage and say “Goddamn this losing fight.”

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: http://www.gretchenpeters.com/

It’s not on the album, but you gotta love this. Gretchen, Matreca Berg and Suzy Bogguss:

Gretchen Peters announces new album

Gretchen PetersFresh off her induction into the prestigious Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Gretchen Peters has confirmed the 9th February release of her new album Blackbirds. Co-produced with Doug Lancio and Barry Walsh and recorded in Nashville, the album features a who’s who of modern American roots music: Jerry Douglas, Jason Isbell, Jimmy LaFave, Will Kimbrough, Kim Richey, Suzy Bogguss and more. But it’s not the guests that make Blackbirds the most poignant and moving album of the GRAMMY-nominee’s storied career; it’s the impeccable craftsmanship, her ability to capture the kind of complex, conflicting, and overwhelming emotional moments we might otherwise try to hide and instead shine a light of truth and understanding onto them.

The eleven tracks on Blackbirds face down death with a dark grit and delicate beauty.

“During the summer of 2013 when I began writing songs for Blackbirds, there was one week when I went to three memorial services and a wedding,” remembers Peters. “It dawned on me that this is the way it goes as you get older – the memorial services start coming with alarming frequency and the weddings are infrequent and thus somehow more moving.”

She found herself drawn to artists courageous enough to face their own aging and mortality in their work (Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Nick Lowe), but noticed all the material was coming from a male perspective. “As brave an artistic risk as it may be for a man, it’s much riskier for a woman to speak about it,” says Peters, whose incredible catalogue of songs—including ‘Independence Day’ and ‘On A Bus To St. Cloud’ — have been recorded by everyone from Martina McBride and Neil Diamond to Etta James and Trisha Yearwood. “Aging seems to be a taboo subject for female singer-songwriters, in part because our value has depended so much on our youth and sexuality. I want to write about that stuff because it’s real, it’s there, and so few women seem to be talking about it.”

In an atypical and unexpectedly rewarding move, Peters teamed with frequent tour-mate Ben Glover to co-write several tunes on the new album, which evokes the kind of 1970’s folk rock of Neil Young, David Crosby, and Joni Mitchell that Peters grew up on, albeit with a more haunted, country-noir vibe simmering just below the surface.

Geographically, the album leaps around the country, with particularly heartrending stops in southern Louisiana at the scene of a crime (‘Blackbirds’), Pelham, New York, where Peters probes the hidden darkness of the leafy suburbia in which she grew up (‘The House On Auburn Street’), and the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, where a fisherman lays his wife to rest after losing everything in the BP oil spill (‘Black Ribbons’). ‘When All You Got Is A Hammer’ is the story of a veteran struggling to adjust to life at home after fighting overseas, while ‘The Cure For The Pain’ takes place in the waning days of illness in a hospital, and ‘Nashville’ brings us back to Peters’ adopted hometown.

Despite the varied locations, the songs on Blackbirds are all inextricably tied together through their characters, whom Peters paints with extraordinary empathy and vivid detail. Blackbirds follows Peters’ 2012 album Hello Cruel World, which NPR called “the album of her career” and Uncut said “establishes her as the natural successor to Lucinda Williams.” If anything, though, Blackbirds truly establishes Peters as a one-of-a-kind singer and songwriter, one in possession of a fearless and endlessly creative voice.

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Blackbirds Tracklisting:

1. Blackbirds
2. Pretty Things
3. When All You Got Is A Hammer
4. Everything Falls Away
5. The House on Auburn Street
6. When You Comin’ Home
7. Jubilee
8. Black Ribbons
9. Nashville
10. The Cure For The Pain
11. Blackbirds (reprise)

Artist’s website: www.gretchenpeters.com

Nashville Star Suzy Bogguss: New Album – Lucky

Luckyhires_110532Suzy Bogguss didn’t set out to craft a Merle Haggard tribute record. Some might call that serendipity; she just calls it “lucky”.  An accomplished artist and songwriter and a CMA, ACM and Grammy Award winner, Bogguss and her husband/co-producer Doug Crider were combing through songs to consider for her next project. Never one to hew to a particular style, having branched out into jazz, folk and swing sounds alongside traditional and modern country, Bogguss kept coming back to a set of songs that spoke to her…and they just happened to be by Haggard.

“He really is the poet of the common man,” says Bogguss, who kicked off her career with 1989’s Somewhere Between, her debut album named after one of Haggard’s early songs.  “Not every artist has music that is as universal as Merle’s. It’s pretty heavy-duty stuff, and I think that’s why to so many of us who sing and write songs, he’s such a king among us. When I hear his songs, I feel like I’m listening in on someone’s life.” And with Lucky she makes the country rebel’s compositions her own, reinterpreting classics like “The Bottle Let Me Down,” “Silver Wings” and “Today I Started Loving You Again” from a female point of view.

Suzy Bogguss, an Illinois native and one of country music’s most pristine and evocative vocalists, made her major label debut in 1989.  She quickly became one of the key artists that defined those golden days of ’90s country. She scored a string of Top 10 singles with country radio staples like “Outbound Plane,” “Drive South,” “Hey Cinderella,” “Letting Go” and “Aces,” and her 1991 album of that name was certified platinum. In addition, she scored a trio of gold albums and notched more than 3 million sales.

With Lucky the singer comes full circle: “My very first song on the radio was by Merle”  But the new CD is not a tribute album. Of that, Suzy is adamant. “I don’t want it to be viewed that way. I had been wanting to make a record based in country and blues and I just kept thinking of great Haggard songs, so it just made sense to quit denying that what I really wanted was to sing an entire album of his songs! I have always looked to great singer/songwriters for material outside of my own. These songs are perfect for me at this time in my life.

“I didn’t try to imitate Merle, this is my interpretation of his songs,” she continues. “Besides, Merle is still doing his own thing. He’s hard at work, and people are still lining up around the block to see him.”

Lucky is remarkable in its freshness. Its acoustic-based arrangements, while sparse, crackle with vibrancy. Each song is driven by the perfect marriage of Suzy’s delicate voice and the adventurous, yet tasteful, playing of the band.

“Merle would experiment. He would take his band The Strangers into the studio and they’d be pioneers,” Suzy says. “Each one of Merle’s records sounds fresh and you hear that in these different songs we chose. I really miss that fearlessness today.”

Suzy followed suit. Assembling her own ace band at her home studio—along with an A-team of singer-songwriters, including Jessi Alexander, Matraca Berg, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Gretchen Peters and Jon Randall Stewart, to lend background vocals—she cut a dozen Haggard tunes. They range from the boozy lament “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” and the raunchy “Let’s Chase Each Other Round the Room” to the sombre one-two punch of “You Don’t Have Very Far to Go” and “Someday When Things Are Good.”

“Merle’s songs were on the 8-track player in my dad’s car. Saturday nights when I would drive around with my friends, this was a part of our soundtrack. Back when country music talked about real adult problems and how we deal with them. We felt like we were eavesdropping on the secret lives of our parents,” Suzy says. “Merle’s songs feel familiar… and slightly dangerous.

Throughout Lucky, Suzy’s bohemian spirit—for nearly five years, she lived in and traveled the country by camper—is palpable. In “Silver Wings,” she delivers an almost cinematic vocal. “There’s a movie playing in my head when I sing that song,” Suzy admits. “And in many of his songs.”

“What I really wanted to illuminate is not only is this guy awesome to see live and awesome to listen to on his records, but his songs are very relatable for somebody else to communicate to other people,” Suzy says. “Not every artist has music that is as universal as Merle’s”.

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SUZY BOGGUSS – American Folk Songbook CD and Songbook (Loyal Dutchess Records LDR 1006)

When I took my first faltering steps into the world of ‘folk’ music my music teacher presented me with a book of American folk songs edited by Alan Lomax. That memory is once again evoked by this glorious collection of songs and what better way than to reminisce than with Suzy Bogguss. It sounds very much as if Ms Bogguss and I travelled the same road for isn’t it best that in the first instance you should ‘enjoy’ what you’re performing and if possible invite everybody in who’ll listen? If that is the case then this comes across in a presentation that is simple yet effective utilising amongst others the skills of musicians including Jerry Douglas (dobro), Stuart Duncan (fiddle & mandolin) and John McCutcheon on hammer dulcimer. Along with long time associate Pat Bergeson on guitar Suzy’s lyrical style is all encompassing with an easy going approach that will appeal to anyone who feels a kinship with predominantly traditional ‘folk’ music. Opening with the unrequited love song “Shady Grove” of which the melody in the UK is more recognisable as that employed by Fairport for “Matty Groves” (but nowhere near so gory) the catalogue of 17 tracks reads like a top of the pops list of those we have loved. “Shenandoah”, “Red River Valley” and Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer” are all treated with dignity never allowing the arrangement to become indulgent thereby giving an honest, orderly representation of the chosen material. The hardback book is well laid out with piano accompaniment and guitar chords and Suzy’s informative notes make for interesting reading but not (thankfully) in a scholarly way. This project was obviously put together by someone who wants to convey the message that ‘folk’ music is good for the soul and if you’ll allow it you too can become an advocate. If the CD and book get the kudos they deserve I hope it won’t be too long before another recording is in the offing – perhaps with “The Titanic” and “Jesse James” amongst them?

PETE FYFE

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Artist Web link: https://www.suzybogguss.com/