Since moving to Nashville in the late '80s, Gretchen Peters has become one of the most respected songwriters in country and Americana for her unflinching and often devastating stories of the desperate and heartbroken. Her song "Independence Day" rocked country radio and became a signature song for Martina McBride. She's written songs recorded by Patty Loveless ("You Don't Even Know Who I Am"), George Strait ("Chill of an Early Fall"), Faith Hill ("The Secret of Life") and many more.
Peters says her forthcoming album Dancing With the Beast was born out of a turbulent and painful year that included the loss of her mother and two close friends.
"There were a lot of things that happened that changed my peaceful and meditative year off into something quite different," Peters tells Wide Open Country. "I really had no intention of writing all these songs and making an album, but once I turned the spigot on they just poured out."
The full album is released on May 18, but you can hear the gorgeous and haunting "Wichita" exclusively on Wide Open Country today.
Like "Independence Day" and Peters' 2015 song "Blackbirds," "Wichita" is a gut punch of a song about a young woman backed against a wall who fights back to protect her loved one.
Listen to "Wichita" below.
Peters, who wrote the song with Ben Glover, says the song started with fragments of a larger story.
"Ben and I seem to have this proclivity for these murder ballads, these kind of dark narratives," Peters says. "We had little bits and pieces and it was almost like we had to find clues. A lot of the beginning part of writing the song was sitting down and asking 'Who is this girl? What happened to her? What would motivate her to do something like that? What's her family like?' and just hashing it out and living for a while with this character until we felt like she was real and we had a story that came together."
Peters is certainly no stranger to telling stories about women going through real-life turmoil and Dancing With the Beast is no exception. Peters said the Women's March and the #MeToo movement brought female characters to the forefront while she was writing.
"I think one of the things that songwriters and writers in general -- and artists in general -- do is pick up sort of intuitively on the undercurrent that is happening," Peters says. "It wasn't as though I sat down and said 'This is a time to write about women and girls because of all this other stuff that's happening.' It was more just an intuitive -- picking up what was really bubbling under in our culture right now, in our world right now and in my subconscious right now."
The output from country radio is a far cry from the days when songs like "Independence Day" ruled the charts. Songs that represent women as real people rather than sexualized accessories have never been more absent from mainstream country radio. Peters calls the state of country radio "a damn shame."
"I look back at that era when I was having my own success on country radio on the charts and I look at the quality of the songs and just the realness of the songs. They were beloved and popular--not just my songs, but songs by Mary Chapin Carpenter and Matraca Berg. They were beloved because they were real," Peters says. "The more offensive thing to me happening right now are the songs about women. They've reduced them to a series of body parts basically."
Read More: From the Kitchen to the Tailgate: Country Music's Struggle to Define Women
The sexism female country artists face is something Peters knows all too well. She experienced it firsthand while on a radio tour for her debut album, The Secret of Life.
"I did the whole thing and I know from experience that they were, back then, radio DJs were telling me when I did my tour, 'We only play one female an hour and we won't play two females back to back.' They had all these crazy, stupid rules," Peters says. "We were fighting that back then and here we are 22 years later and, if anything, I think it's worse."
Songs like "Wichita" are a stark reminder that darkness should be brought to light. And that means letting more stories --and voices-- be heard.
Gretchen Peters will perform a Songwriter Session at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on May 12.
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