‘I work the high wire in the centre ring
Defying gravity, that’s my thing
Guess I never wanted no regular life
I couldn’t stand to be nobody’s wife.’
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Gretchen Peters’ first UK tour, and she celebrated this week back over here for the first leg of a two-part farewell tour.
The Nashville-based, New York raised Queen of Country Noir was sharing stories and songs from her early touring days here, alongside favourites from her most recent repertoire, on the back of releasing The Show: Live from the UK, recorded on tour here in 2019 with her band – including long-time partner Barry Walsh, who she first worked with in 1990 and has toured with since 2001 – and an all-female Scottish string quartet.
Soon championed by the likes of BBC Radio 2 presenters Terry Wogan and Bob Harris, a few dates promoting debut LP The Secret of Life proved the foundation for what turned out to be an enduring relationship with fans on this side of the Atlantic, one renewed by regular returns down the years.
‘Some people tell me that I’m livin’ their dream
But things in the circus ain’t what they seem
Believe me darlin’ it’s a lonely world
It ain’t easy for a circus girl’
But just ahead of this latest visit, Gretchen revealed that this two-part UK tour would be her last. In an emotional announcement put out via social media, she wrote, ‘Music has been my church for as long as I can remember, and live performance has always been the thing that brings me closest to losing myself in the beauty and mystery of it all. Of all the aspects of my job, performing is the most ephemeral, the most of-the-moment. You can’t do it while you’re watching yourself. It’s a highwire act – and for a circus girl, that’s a nearly irresistible thing.
‘Nonetheless, after several years of soul searching, questioning, and yes, grieving – I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s time to say farewell to touring life. It has been an absolute joy to play on stages from Sydney to Aberdeen to Portland, Oregon. It has been a privilege to sing my songs for you. It has been my deepest pleasure and I will miss so many things about the road. But I am ready to stop.
‘Without a doubt, the thing I’ll miss the most is you. You’ve kept my spirits up and my wheels rolling for decades. You’ve been willing to follow me through some rough territory, song-wise, knowing that we would find beauty together in the darkness – literally and figuratively. You’ve shown your big hearts over and over again, whether donating to a cause when I asked, or sending your love and concern when I lost a friend or family member or a beloved dog.
“Seeing some of you become close to each other, even while separated by oceans, has given me so much pleasure – to have been the catalyst that brought you together is an amazing thing. Together we’ve celebrated and grieved births, deaths, marriages, divorces, heartbreaks – just like any family. What an unexpected joy.
‘Barry and I will stop touring in June 2023, but we will not stop making music, and when the opportunity presents itself we may play a live show here and there, or a livestream from home. But we are saying goodbye to the kind of touring we’ve been doing for over 20 years now. We’re ready for a new chapter, one that involves less doing and more being. We’re looking forward to less time on social media, more time at home. Less carbon footprint, more footprints on the hiking trail.
“While I’m on the subject of Barry Walsh, I need to say once again what I’ve said for over 30 years now: there’s no one on earth I’d rather make music with. Since the first recording session of mine he played on in 1990, since the first tour we did together in 2001, his sensitivity and intuition has been nothing short of inspiring. I still get a thrill waiting to hear what he’ll play next. It’s never the same, and it’s always just right.
‘The music business has become increasingly, relentlessly demanding of artists. The pressure to release new “content” (not a synonym for art), to churn out singles and albums and videos and reels and posts on a prescribed schedule, often utterly out of sync with the artist’s internal one, isn’t producing more or greater art. It’s just increasing the noise and exhausting the artists. As someone who has always needed to let the field lie fallow in between creative bursts, I understand the pressure on young artists – and I hope they will resist.
“We need better songs, not more of them. We need artists who want to make art that lasts, not content that’s digested in the time it takes to scroll through your Instagram feed. I’m so grateful to have found you, an audience who understands this and has given me the grace to create on my own clock. My deepest thanks and love to all of you who have been coming – for years, and even decades – to share that sacred space in the dark with a song.’
Inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2014, Gretchen has accumulated many awards and accolades en route, writing songs for artists as diverse as Etta James, Bonnie Raitt, The Neville Brothers, George Strait, Bryan Adams (receiving a Golden Globe for ‘Here I Am’), and Faith Hill.
Her song ‘Independence Day’, recorded by Martina McBride, won a CMA Song of the Year awardin 1995. also landing the first of her two Grammys, the other following a year later for Patty Loveless’ take on ‘You Don’t Even Know Who I Am’.
What’s more, 2015’s career-defining Blackbirds was an International Album of the Year and Song of the Year for the UK Americana Association. And that year The Telegraph named her as one of its 60 greatest female singer-songwriters of all time.
Blackbirds was followed by 2018’s similarly feted Dancing with the Beast, ahead of the pandemic, the international tour for her most recent studio album, The Night They Wrote the Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury, delayed accordingly, although the LP was still released in 2020, praised by Rolling Stone as ‘mesmerizing’, Gretchen offering her own spin on 12 numbers from the catalogue of a respected Texan songwriter (he died in 2002, aged 62) perhaps best known for ‘An American Trilogy’, as popularised by Elvis Presley, who along with Johnny Cash and Roger Miller was one of the first to rebel against the conventions of the Nashville music society, with John Prine also among his fans.
But now she’s finally back out on the road concentrating on her own song catalogue, Gretchen getting ready for that night’s opening UK show when I called, one of two at King’s Place in King’s Cross, London that bookended the first part of a two-legged tour (the second tonight, Friday, September 2nd) she is set to complete next year. Were there still nervous moments ahead of her tours, all these years on? Were Gretchen and her band excited?
“We are, especially because it’s essentially three years since we’ve been back, because of Covid. So it’s almost like it’s happening for the first time. There’s a combination of excitement and, ‘Oh, my gosh, how do we do this? Ha!”
I’m thinking the muscle memory should kick in on the first, second or third song though.
“I think you’re right.”
I make it nine dates this time, with another 10 starting next May. Have you been over a few days, acclimatising?
“Yes, in our old age we’ve learned a few things about doing this. We now give ourselves a couple of days to acclimate … because I don’t absorb the jetlag the way I used to. It takes a little longer to get over it.”
We first spoke in 2015, then again in 2018, and 2019. And I last got to see you live and meet you in May 2018 at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, on what proved a memorable night.
Who could have guessed what was coming next though, with the pandemic and so on?
“I know. I think at that time we had our 2020 UK tour already set. We were anticipating that and knew the dates. And then … but here we are, two years later.”
Am I right in thinking several of these dates were already pencilled in for the proposed UK tour promoting The Night They Wrote the Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury?
“Yes, we were planning a tour around the release of that album, and never got to do it. And since then, we’ve released another album. It was really difficult to put that album out in the middle of lockdown and everything. But I will say there was one sort of silver lining, that the album did really well, considering. I mean, fans bought it, and I think in some kind of way, people at that point – May or June 2020 – really needed music. It was a lifeline for people, and I really fought for keeping our release date because of that.
“(That lockdown) served all kinds of purposes – it was cathartic; and it meant there was some kind of connection with people outside your bubble … wherever your bubble was. I think music always helps people to feel, and we were all feeling an awful lot at that point.”
There was a lot of overthinking for lots of us as well, perhaps. But maybe part of being back on the road is about finally putting those worries about ‘how do I do this?’ aside.
“Yeah, I had plenty of time and did a lot of thinking about it. And there’s a certain thing I figured out, quite a few years ago. When you’re touring, there are nights when you’re really tired, or there are nights when you have something going on, personally, or whatever it might be. And I learned at some point that you bring whatever you have to the stage, and try to channel that into your performance, rather than tamping it down, pretending it’s not there.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen on this tour, or what’s going to happen tonight, but I have a feeling it’s going to be quite emotional, and I’m welcoming that with open arms, because I know I’m going to feel that way after all this time, seeing those people and hearing them …
“If there was one thing that really came home to me during the period when we weren’t able to tour, it was how important being in the same room with people is. Online concerts are great in lieu of nothing, but they’re not the same at all.”
Her reputation growing year by year, it must have taken some soul searching to decide to stop touring after this two-part tour. Was that down to having more time on her hands to think that over, or was she already thinking that way – pre-pandemic – with regard to announcing this final two-legged farewell tour?
“I’ll put it this way, I was definitely entertaining the questions, even before Covid happened. Even in 2018 and 2019, I was feeling the amount of work I was doing and the amount of touring we were doing was unsustainable in the long run, and I had to make some adjustments. And just dealing with the question of, ‘who am I if I’m not doing this?’ because I’ve been doing it for so long.
“But I definitely believe the pandemic put those questions in stark relief. It also gave me a lot of time to see what life looks like when you’re not constantly moving, and that was very educational. I think it certainly probably hastened my decision, or at least solidified it.”
I get that. That happened with so many of us, not least questioning what we were doing with our time, working out what was most important for our own wellbeing, ourselves and our loved ones.
“Well, so much of the time we operate on momentum – we just keep going, doing the same things we did. And I think one of the things that happened for a lot of people is that pause in life was the first time we looked around and said, ‘Okay, I do these things, but why do I do them?’
“That was really key for me to start thinking about what was burning me out and what was feeding me, and to try and turn towards the things that were feeding my creative self, my soul, and so forth. And away from the things that were in danger of burning me out, which was really too much work, without being intentional about it.”
In my case, like with many others, it was time to reappraise priorities in your life, taking stock.
“There was a lot of that going on, for a lot of people. I was no different. I was definitely going through the same sorts of things.”
‘It’s just that sometimes I get so tired
Of goin’ nowhere on that little wire
I’d like to plant my feet on solid ground
But God have mercy it’s a long way down’
I get the impression your decision to quit the international touring circuit was no spur of the moment judgement call, and this will be no Frank Sinatra-style retirement – you know, ‘Offer me enough dough, and I’ll be back.’
“Ha! Well, I did say, and I will stand by this, that we’re done doing the sort of touring we’ve been doing for 20 years or more, playing 10, 15 or 20 cities at a time. However, it doesn’t mean an end to us making music and, you know, we may pop back for a festival, a one-off show or even, I don’t know what, but it’s not going to look like the long tours covering the entire country, like we did before.
“That’s the thing for which we decided we’re done. And we’ve loved it. We’ve incredibly grateful to the people. I mean, for 25 years, people in the UK have been coming to see us, and I still see a lot of people on the front rows at shows that were at those little venues 25 years ago, so it’s with a lot of gratitude and a lot of warm feelings about all that. But we decided that for our own lives, sanity and health and everything else that was part of it, it wasn’t sustainable for us anymore.”
‘So I climb that ladder right on up to the sky
I don’t look down and I don’t ask why
And just for a moment I’m on top of the world
Just for a moment I’m a circus girl’
I guess there will still be travel opportunities though, because travel and meeting people is a key part of what makes you tick. I’m guessing the guitar will still be loaded in the back of the truck from time to time, given the chance.
“Possibly, yeah, but we don’t love carrying the guitar and accordion around, I have to tell you! But definitely, with Barry and I, travel is a big part of what we love. So that’s not going to stop, although I will say travel is not as much fun as it used to be. Maybe that will improve. It’s pretty horrible right now, but maybe we’ll find some kind of new equilibrium.”
So, it’s not necessarily time for the Queen of Country Noir to hang up her plectrum, so to speak?
“You just never know. What I’m really trying to do is make space for whatever’s next. That’s kind of what I’m focused on, but I wanted to share my decision with people, because for one thing I sort of selfishly want to have a chance to say goodbye.”
Your online announcement inspired me to look back at something you told me in 2019, when I asked about new songs and whether they came to you on the road, you responding that they were, ‘Just little glimmers – they’re little fireflies in a jar at this point. They’re not real songs. The thing I do on the road that I am able to do is catch ideas and write them down and squirrel them away. The thing I’m not able to do is flesh them out, finish and edit them. That’s really a kind of hammer and nails aspect of it, and that’s the thing that really requires that downtime.’ I’m guessing you’re looking forward to exploring that additional downtime come next summer.
“Yes, and I think the other thing about it is that the key is to have that downtime this time without expectation, because that’s already given me such a sense of freedom. I could write something other than music if I wanted to. I don’t know what I’ll do, but just to have that feeling that it’s wide open and there’s no schedule and no expectation … that’s something I haven’t felt for a really long time.”
With your lyrical qualities too, I can see a novel coming next.
“Well, you never know. And I really mean that – I’m not being coy, I have no idea what will come, but I have a feeling that with some downtime and time to think about and sort of process everything that’s happened, there’ll be some sort of an itch to write something!”
Clearly, your domestic, studio and touring soulmate Barry is key to all this, but it’s also good to see Kim Richey back on the road with you, having gone down well last time around in the UK, opening for you. You’re sisters out there on the road, aren’t you?
“We are, and we’re so happy to have her out with us again. I mean, she’s so much fun. Not to mention the fact that just having her sing with us elevates everything. She is one of the greatest singers I know. And everyone loves her. It’s such a … you know, it’s having three cherries on top instead of one, to have her out, so people can hear her songs, and for us to have her sing with us. We’re really looking forward to that. And she’s a lot of fun on the road.”
I gather this year marks the 25th anniversary of you first setting foot on a UK stage, plugging your first LP. Where was that first gig? And how was the turnout and crowd reaction?
“Oh, gosh, it was actually 26 years ago that my record came out (The Secret of Life). I think I did a couple of little gigs at that time, but it wasn’t really a tour. So technically, my first tour was 25 years ago. I want to say there were four shows, and one of them had to be London. I’m sure that that was true. I’m pretty sure we played Glasgow, and I know we played Sunderland as well.
“I’m not sure where the other one was, but I think the Sunderland show might have been the first. It was tiny. It was a bar. I had no expectations. It was my first tour, it was a very small venue, but it was a respectable turnout. There were probably, I don’t know, 50 or 60 people there. The sound was great, and it was fine with me.”
I’m pretty sure there will be people coming up to you before and after shows, letting you know exactly where those first shows were.
“Oh, they’ll have photos of their ticket stubs! I get corrected all the time, online, because my memory’s not very reliable when it comes to stuff like that. But I see those familiar faces, every show almost, and it’s so wonderful – we have a history together, and it’s great. They feel like part of the family to me.”
And you’ll be sharing a few stories between songs, stirring up some grey matter.
“It’s gonna be as much of a challenge for my memory as it is for everyone else. But yes, I hope to, especially as this tour we’re doing right now is about half with our band, then half with just Barry and me, and then Kim. Especially the ones that are sort of the unplugged shows, as I’m calling them. But I will have the time and the freedom to tell some stories and talk about our early years a little more, because I’ll have the flexibility to do that. So that’ll be fun.”
Finally, it’s nice not to have to talk so much about Old Man Trump in the White House. I know (worryingly), he hasn’t gone far away, but it’s great to be talking about more positive aspects of life … in America, at least.
“Yeah, we’re still locked in a death struggle over there, but I have reason to feel a little more optimistic these days. I hope that’s not misplaced. And honestly, at this point, I’m choosing to be optimistic, because I think that’s the right thing to do.”
But you’re over here now, and no doubt you could already see the parallels with our own broken system and Government.
“Oh, I’m paying attention, there’s no question, because, you know, we’ve gone on parallel paths, our two countries, and I think it’s not only that I’m just interested, but also I think it’s educational to watch what’s happening, because we have definitely followed those parallel paths. It’s informative. But here’s sending out a positive thought for both of us.”
Lyrics from ‘Circus Girl’ by Gretchen Peters © 1993 Sony/ATV Tunes LLC/Purple Crayon Music, found on The Secret of Life (1995).
Gretchen Peters’ latest UK tour dates, with Kim Richey as special guest, kicked off last week in London’s Kings Place and Wimborne’s Tivoli Theatre, and Leeds’ City Varieties, returning to Kings Place tonight (Friday, September 2). She then joins Beth Nielsen Chapman and Dan Navarro on an eight-day Danube cruise from Budapest in October, with a few US dates before she returns to the UK and Ireland next year, on that occasion visiting The Mac in Belfast (May 3), Lowther Pavilion, Lytham (May 4), The Sage, Gateshead (May 5), Liverpool Philharmonic Hall (May 6), followed by four dates in the Netherlands before a UK return to play Bury St Edmunds’ The Apex (May 17), Buxton Opera House (May 19), Birmingham Town Hall (May 20), Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion (May 21), Cardiff’s St David’s Hall (May 23), Swindon’s Wyvern Theatre (May 24), Exeter’s Corn Exchange (May 25), and finishing at London’s Cadogan Hall (May 26). For tickets head here, and more information on Gretchen Peters, the new live album, and her past releases head to her website. You can also keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.