What I learned at the Fabulous Gretchen Peters Concert

If you’ve ever listened to the Sean Hannity radio show (don’t ask, I don’t exactly know when I have, osmosis of some sort), you may have heard the stirring Martina McBride country anthem, “Independence Day.” He uses it to open the show.

Here’s the refrain:

Let freedom ring, let the white dove sing
Let the whole world know that today is a day of reckoning
Let the weak be strong, let the right be wrong
Roll the stone away, let the guilty pay it’s Independence Day

It’s all very Sean Hannity, or so it seems.

In truth, our hero’s theme song is an angrily ironic and beautifully-written portrait of what today we’d call the “war on women.” I learned this about Independence Day when the woman who actually wrote it, Gretchen Peters, played it at Tony’s Studio B in downtown Lakeland last Tuesday night during an intimate private concert hosted by Among Friends Music. (More on that in a moment.)

Here’s how Independence Day opens, told from the point-of-view of a daughter in a violent marriage:

Well she seemed all right by dawns early light
Though she looked a little worried and weak
She tried to pretend he wasn’t drinkin’ again
But daddy left the proof on her cheek

And I was only eight years old that summer
And I always seemed to be in the way
So I took myself down to the fair in town
On Independence Day

Well word gets around in a small, small town
They said he was a dangerous man
But mama was proud and she stood her ground
She knew she was on the losin’ end
Some folks whispered and some folks talked
But everybody looked the other way
And when time ran out there was no one about
On Independence Day

Let’s just say it doesn’t end well for anybody. And it seems an odd choice for Hannity, who continually calls himself a “Reagan Conservative,” to launch his show with this every day. But maybe not. His listeners only hear the refrain. And Ronald Reagan himself tried mightily to co-opt Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, a similarly angry song with an ironically epic chorus. In my experience, political conservatives tend not to read the words, and they don’t do irony.

But big media shows do pay royalties on the music they use. You don’t hear any judgement from me. If Fox News ever wants to use excerpts of my indie book or anything else I write and pay me for it, I’ll happily pocket the cash and use it against them however I can in the future. And I’m not even sure Peters has full control of her music if it was recorded by someone else. The mechanics of the music industry are foreign to me.

Peters hinted at all this obliquely before she played the song, noting that she’d written it 20 years ago. Over the years, she’d had to learn to “reframe” it. She didn’t mention Hannity, but I recognized the song, or at least the refrain. And when I asked her about it after the show, she smiled and said, “You should go Google me and Sarah Palin.”

The point of this story is the interaction — and the quality of Peters’ musical writing and performance and its availability in downtown Lakeland at an exquisite bar space on a random Tuesday night.

I’ve not spent a more richly rewarded $20 in this town than I did at Gretchen Peters’ show. If you like elite alt-country/Americana songwriting and singing — think James McMurtry, the Civil Wars, Iris Demint, Jason Isbell, John Prine, and maybe even a little Neko Case, you missed out. Peters’ writing dwells at that level. You should download and or buy her most recent album, “Hello Cruel World.” The title suggests her sensibility. As does the Langston Hughes quote she has on the inside cover. “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” That’s from his poem “Mother to Son.” I’ve always loved that poem and its evocation of “reachin’ landin’s” and “turnin’ corners” on the treacherous staircase of existence. I had a copy on my desk in college.

In no particular order, here are some other observations and learnings from an evening with Gretchen Peters:

1) She played with her long-time musical partner and more recent husband Barry Walsh, who has led Waylon Jennings’ band and smoked weed with Willie Nelson (not sure the latter makes him much different than most people, but it’s still pretty cool). They played a totally stripped down show — just the two of them, a guitar, a piano, and a “blinged-up” accordion. I chatted Barry up briefly at the bar after the show. And he obliged without a hint of impatience.

2) The scene was something out of a movie’s vision of a cabaret bar. Look at the picture above. Of all the cool wine bars our fair burg has added in the last few years, and through which I try my best to rotate, I think Studio B has loveliest space. I’d pay just to sit there. And the upper deck/loft above the stage is really cool. I love balconies.

3) I think my two favorite Peters’ songs, both of which she played, are now:

Woman on the Wheel — in which she plays the title role of the spinning damsel at the amusement park at whom the blindfolded guy fires knives.

Idlewild — named for the New York airport renamed for JFK. Peters grew up in the area, daughter of a civil rights movement reporter who was often gone. It’s a really beautiful and sad song about family and conviction and American upheaval. It ends like this:

We shoot our rockets, we shoot our presidents
We shoot the commies and the niggers and the Vietcong
Everything changes, everything stays the same
And the moon hangs over idlewild as the planes touch down…

Unlikely to hear that on the Sean Hannity show.

4) Finally, this wonderful show didn’t just happen. Becky Abel, and her intrepid Among Friends Music house concert service, brought her here. Many props to Becky for her cultural entrepreneurism. And we should all take greater advantage of what she’s put together. Go check out her site. I’m grateful for Becky and AFM even when I don’t attend shows, which is too often.

The economic models for music — and all art really – are exploding. And yet art keeps coming. When institutions collapse, loss follows. But so does opportunity. It’s a consumer’s paradise right now for good music. You can hear awfully good stuff easily for $20 and a few beers. And you can quite often kibbitz with the artist. Even right here in Lakeland, Florida.

3 thoughts on “What I learned at the Fabulous Gretchen Peters Concert

  1. Oooooo. I appreciate your kind words and in-depth look at Gretchen Peters from beyond the perspective of a mere review of the concert. At least half of what you personally got out of it was obviously what you put in to it. :) Glad you came.

  2. So sorry I missed this! Great article, and kudos to Becky for supporting the arts with her incredible support and effort. Lakeland is fortunate to have her!

  3. Billy,

    We saw Gretchen the night before at the Jaeb in Tampa. Check out the Jaeb for other great artists.

    Becky always has great musicians at her house as well.

    T.

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