Although it’s only recently that Gretchen Peters has begun to enjoy substantial commercial success, she’s been releasing critically acclaimed albums for some 20 years, albeit until recently more appreciated in the UK than back home in America where she’s been more recognised as a writer than a performer in her own right. Indeed, 2014 saw her inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
She’s currently enjoying her highest profile and biggest success in the wake of last year’s Blackbirds album (a featured album of the month on Folk Radio UK – read the album review here), the southern gothic incest/murder ballad title track of which, a co-write with Ben Glover, which is nominated for International Song of the Year in the inaugural UK Americana awards. Not surprisingly then, that’s the first cut on this collection of some of the finest moments from five of her seven solo studio recordings to date (there’s nothing off the Northern Lights Christmas album or her eponymous sophomore release).
[pullquote]It’s rare that a compilation warrants an album of the year tag, but this most certainly does.[/pullquote]She’s released a best of before, 2009’s Circus Girl, and six of the tracks are repeated among the 13 here, among them The Aviator’s Song (written for her father who was shot down over Germany in WWII) and If Heaven from Halcyon, Sunday Morning (Up And Down Our Street) from Burnt Toast & Offerings, and, from her 1996 debut, The Secret Of Life, both the title track and When You Are Old. Inevitably the same album also yields early classic On A Bus To St Cloud, although not in the original version, but rather a new longer recording without the sax to reflect the way she plays it today.
Elsewhere, her 2012 breakthrough release, Hello Cruel World, provides three numbers, live favourite Five Minutes, The Matador (a song she described as her personal favourite) and the title track, while Blackbirds is also represented by When All You Got Is A Hammer, a powerful number about the experiences of soldiers trying to resettle after returning from war.
Guadalupe comes from her 2009 collaborative western-themed album with Tom Russell, One To The Heart, One To The Head, while the remaining track is another previously unreleased recording, an Everlys-styled duet with co-writer Bryan Adams on When You Love Someone, which he originally sang over the end credits of 1998 Sandra Bullock film Hope Floats.
It’s a solid representation of her career to date, but it’s arguably the second disc in the release that is the stronger, a collection of rare recordings that includes demos and work versions. It kicks off with a demo of The Way You Move Me, a “less weird” version of the track on Burnt Toast that was intended to hook a Nashville cover, but never did. Recorded in 2014 for a tribute to Montana singer-songwriter/doctor Ben Bullington that never materialize, featuring what sounds like glockenspiel her version of his gorgeously romantic ballad Ring Around The Moon has been thankfully rescued from the shelf.
Two tribute albums that did see the light of day are also represented with a piano cover of Lennon’s Love from And We All Shine On and from Bandaged Together, a 2009 Children In Need project, the Disney classic When You Wish Upon A Star, Peters’ voice soaring over glockenspiel, lap steel and bass.
Pretty Things is just the radio edit of the track from Blackbirds, but for those who didn’t get her cello-embellished pre-order bonus recording of the traditional folk tune The Cruel Mother, all six-and-a-half minutes worth are included here. Her eponymous album is represented on this disc, although again by a bonus cut, the slow padding ballad I Saw Your Light, which featured on the re-release
There’s two live numbers, a cover of the Stones’ Wild Horses, from the 2008 Wine, Women & Song sessions with regular tour-mates Suzy Boggus and Matraca Berg, and Women On The Wheel from the Halycon release party bash in Nashville. The remaining tracks are definitely real collectors’ items. Written in 1990, The Chill Of An Early Fall gave her her first hit (and Grammy nomination) courtesy of George Strait’s #1 version, but it’s never been never recorded (or sung live) by Peters herself other than on this 2004 piano demo. Originally released by Martina McBride in 1994, Peters’ own take on Independence Day, a powerful song about domestic abuse, finally appeared on the 2001 re-issue of her debut album and is reprised here in a slower, acoustic piano version where the lyrics hit home even harder.
The final three tracks are all work tape versions, first up being Lori McKenna co-write The Answer, which, as far as I can tell, has yet to surface on any album while the last is Five Minutes, laid down with acoustic guitar on the same afternoon she wrote it. Sandwiched between is something to send fans ecstatic, a piano-accompanied rework of Blackbirds recorded as a duet with Glover that ratchets up the song’s creepy under and overtones to the max. It’s rare that a compilation warrants an album of the year tag, but this most certainly does.
Review by: Mike Davies
Gretchen’s UK Tour kicks off at Celtic Connections on 30 January, she is also performing at the UK Americana Awards on 3 Feb in London. Click here for details of all her UK shows.