Gretchen Peters may be the finest singer-songwriter you’ve never heard sing. But chances are, you’ve heard her songs.
Since arriving in Nashville in 1987, Peters has written hits for some of country music’s most prominent artists. They include the Grammy-nominated “Chill of an Early Fall” for George Strait, CMA Song Of The Year “Independence Day” for Martina McBride, and the achingly beautiful “On a Bus to St. Cloud” for Trisha Yearwood.
But Peters has crafted her own stellar recording career with original songs gracing eight brilliant CDs, beginning with her debut album, “The Secret of Life,” in 1996. “Hello Cruel World,” released in 2012, was hailed by NPR as “the album of her career,” and in 2014 Peters was inducted into the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.
Her 2015 CD, “Blackbirds,” was named the Americana International Album of the Year in the United Kingdom, where 20 years of touring has earned Peters a loyal and admiring fan base.
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In the Cat’s Cradle’s Back Room on Saturday, Peters will join fellow artists Eliza Gilkyson and Mary Gauthier for “Three Women and the Truth,” an evening of songs and lighthearted repartee.
Peters, 58, took time from her vacation in Florida to talk about her career, her songwriting, aging and the upcoming show.
Q: “Three Women and the Truth” is a play on the late Harlan Howard’s characterization of country music as “three chords and the truth.” How did this tour collaboration come about?
A: We’re old friends, and Eliza and I share a booking agent. What we found out is that we had this great combination of songs and camaraderie on stage. It was a magic combination. When you do these kinds of shows, essentially in the round, everybody has to bring their best songs. But you also want to have something going on onstage between the three of you – chemistry and humor. It just seemed to click.
Q: Many of the songs you three write have dark themes, such as murder and abuse. How do your audiences respond?
A: I think all of us are aware that the songs – not to be apologetic – tend to uncover the darker layers of what it means to be human. We understand that people want to find their humanity in the songs but also don’t want to leave depressed. I think the three of us are pretty funny women. Eliza is hysterically funny in between her songs of the end-times.
Q: Your success as a songwriter came before the dawn of digitized music and the internet. How has the digital age affected your career?
A: (It) has been a huge blessing to me because the playing field has been leveled to a huge degree by the internet. That part of it has been nothing but good. The idea you can make a living with music is certainly being threatened now. It’s certainly not true that you can make a living the way I used to make a living, by having other people record my songs. That’s pretty much gone.
Q: Why is that?
A: It’s the fact that nobody sells records any more. It’s streaming It’s wrong-headed decisions by the Department of Justice recently regarding how songwriters get paid. The monsters – Google and Apple - have written a ticket for themselves that involves very low pay for songwriters. So it’s just not possible to make a sustainable living writing songs. What is still possible and what is irreplaceable is the experience of going to see and hear a singer-songwriter play live. They haven’t figured out a way to replace that.
Q: Where do you get ideas for your songs?
A: I get a lot of juice from what I take in, which is primarily books and movies. I read constantly, but I’m also a huge film fan. I get a lot of ideas from films. Not really specific story ideas, but more about areas of life I’d like to dive into in songwriting. And on a deeper layer, I get the thrust of what I want to write about from whatever I happen to be going through in my own life. In 2015, my “Blackbirds” album was really moved forward by what happens to all of us in midlife – the pain of losses in our life.
Q: You also write about the process of aging, which is an emotional issue for all of us, but especially for women.
A: I’ve always considered myself to be a writer who writes for my own age group. I’m not interested in writing songs that don’t speak to things I’m going through right now. I’d say our audiences basically look like us. They’re in their 50s, probably. As a woman, talking about aging seems so taboo. I thought, ‘That’s where I want to go.’ I mean, if you tell me there’s something I’m not supposed to talk about, that’s where I’m gonna go. It’s very rewarding to me to write those songs because I felt I was hitting a vein of truth that is hard to write about but is so important to write about. I see people react to those songs, like ‘I’ve had that thought at 4 in the morning but I never shared it with anybody.’
Q: You developed your reputation as a songwriter, but your albums and concerts elicit critical raves. How is your life different now as a performer as well as songsmith?
A: I’ve always considered myself a singer-songwriter, even when I was making my primary living writing songs. I feel lucky because I can throw a guitar and CDs in a van and go play a gig. That’s something that can’t be digitally reproduced. One of the things about this show with Eliza and Mary and me is that the audiences seem to be really hungry for that experience. It’s one thing to download music and even to buy a CD. But to sit in a dark room and hear stories and feel you’re a part of something — that is still pretty rare. I think that’s why this show works, and I think that is why people like us are still working.
What: “Three Women and the Truth: Mary Gauthier, Eliza Gilkyson and Gretchen Peters”
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Cat’s Cradle, 300 E. Main St., Carrboro