It was a late-spring weeknight in Asheville, North Carolina, and all the seats were taken at the Isis Music Hall. I found my way upstairs, where numerous stragglers were on stools overlooking the house.
Moments earlier, Gretchen Peters had told me she’s thinking of quitting the road after her next tour, and then she took the stage and opened with “The Show,” from her 2018 album, Dancing with the Beast.
I don’t really know just where I am
Somewhere between Bend and Birmingham
Here with you in some borrowed zip code
Nothing on our minds but the show
Considering the thoughts she’d just shared, the tune landed in a whole new way. What had previously struck as a bittersweet tribute to the life of a touring musician now rang as somewhat of a Dear John letter to the road. An artist trying to reckon with whether or not she can keep this part of her life going much longer.
When, a few months later, she announced the release of a live album that she’d titled after this song (The Show: Live from the UK, out August 19 on Proper Records), then officially announced her retirement from touring, Peters acknowledged the prescience of “The Show” over email.
“I don’t think I knew,” she wrote, “but I think the song knew” that she would soon be leaving the touring life. “I’m not normally one for writing ‘meta’ songs about the road, the stage, etc., so this one was out of the norm for me. But yes, it sure hits me [that] way now—so much so that we’re opening our shows with it.”
In Nashville, a town known for its great songwriters and performers, Peters has long established herself as one of the best. She’s been inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame for her numerous hits and, perhaps more so, for the ones that stir audiences’ souls in deep, unforgetting ways. For this reason, as well, last year she was honored by the Academy of Country Music with its prestigious Poet’s Award.
Onstage, she plays seamlessly with her husband Barry Walsh—himself an exquisite, accomplished musician. A long-in-demand session player whose hands seem to have been grown out of a keyboard. Walsh, says Peters, had planned to be off the road for good by the time he was 70, which he will be next year. Though she was a little more hesitant to embrace the decision, she knew touring was not something she was interested in doing without her partner and collaborator.
That’s why, she admits, “Even before COVID, I was trying to figure out a way forward where I could reclaim more of my personal life. I think, had COVID not intervened, it would have been a much more drawn-out conversation with myself. But I was definitely feeling pretty burned-out. … I was trying to figure out where I could find a sense of balance.”
Indeed, Peters and Walsh have been touring heavily for the past two decades, during which the singer-songwriter has recorded the finest work of her career.
Hello Cruel World (2012) packed the stunning “The Matador” and “Idlewild.” The particularly dark Blackbirds (2015) included hits like “When All You’ve Got is a Hammer” and a bonus version of the Peters-penned song Trisha Yearwood popularized, “On a Bus to St. Cloud.” Dancing with the Beast included “The Show” as well as the haunting story-song “Wichita,” the emotionally arresting “Say Grace,” and the minor-key rocker “Disappearing Act.”
All of these appear in remarkable new renderings for devoted fans and newcomers alike, reprised with haunting string arrangements, on the live album. Where some live albums feel like a snapshot of a fleeting moment, The Show is a whole mood. Whether it’s the careful intuition of the string quartet or the supportive underpinnings of Walsh’s piano accompaniment—or the mindful silence of the audience during the songs—the disc feels just the way it feels to be in a room with Peters and her songs.
Of course, her music has always been emotionally intelligent with a faint strain of bleakness. The poet who can see clearly in the dark, making out the shapes so the rest of us don’t have to wallow in the fear. That kind of songwriting requires an enhanced level of sensitivity and awareness of the world, the kind that doesn’t necessarily turn on and off. It’s no wonder the experience of COVID lockdown froze her creativity for a while.
“I did a lot of self-evaluation during that time,” she says. “Unlike some of my contemporaries, I was not creatively productive. Thank God I had the self-empathy to not beat myself up about not being creative. … With the political climate and the pandemic and everything, I felt like a lot of people did, which was: I’m just here trying to survive.
“It also gave me a lot of time to think,” she adds. “Wait a minute. This is what it feels like to stop. This is what it feels like to have a bedtime, to go to bed at the same hour every night. It’s amazing. In the midst of the chaos that was the last three years, I achieved some kind of equilibrium, physically, from being home more. I realized that was something I really needed. … I was pondering who would I be, what would it look like—what would life look like—if I stopped? And the universe kind of said, Well, would you like a preview?”
Peters spent time in Florida and hung out with her husband and dog. She released an album where she paid tribute to the great songwriter Mickey Newbury. And, after she’d done everything she could to promote that release from her living room, with touring on pause, she started listening back to the live recordings she’d made during her last tour of the UK in 2019.
“By that point,” she says, “I had played a few livestreams. They were a wonderful way to connect but those little hearts on the screen are not the same thing as the energy in a physical space with people.
“To hear the sound of people coming back to me in the recordings that we were sifting through was just pretty emotional. Like, God, when are we going to get to do this again? Will we ever get to do this again? … The fact that we were all locked down and there was no live music, this project started to really mean a lot because of that. Because we were denied the pleasure of that for such a long time. For us, it was three years.”
Indeed, much has changed since the shows that comprise The Show. Touring has become more expensive for everyone. Flight schedules have become less reliable. The health of the band and crew is now a thing to protect with fierce maternalism, as a positive COVID test can derail a long-planned string of dates in a way that is not only stressful for those involved but can also be financially devastating.
All this in mind, Peters admits the logistics are another reason for her to move on. So is the fact that young artists, just starting out, could use a little more space to get their footing. “I had my time,” she says. “I had a good, long time of incredibly memorable years of gigs and experiences, and created something that I’m really proud of. The people I really feel for the most are the young artists who were maybe just getting their wheels under them in 2020. A lot of them had to quit. Who knows what music we’re not going to hear because of all this.”
Still, Peters is confident the young people will find a way to persist. She has taught many of them in her songwriting workshops through the years and has seen their determination and artistry up close. She will continue to see them when she performs the occasional festival or special event. And while she knows the touring circuit will be in good hands, and has made her decision, she will still carry a buffet of emotions with her when she returns to the UK this fall for the first time since recording The Show.
“I’m expecting to be a little overwhelmed,” she admits. “I think everybody’s pretty emotional. I think the audiences are and I think we will be. I’ve been going over it in my mind because I sort of feel like, God, do I even remember how to do this? But I think that’s the best way to approach it. Come into it sort of raw, which is how I feel, and bring that to the stage.
“The thing is,” she adds, “you end up taking the stage with whatever you’ve got anyway—whether it’s exhaustion or excitement or whatever you’re feeling. There’s no sense in trying to paper over it. Just take it there and hopefully that transforms into something that’s meaningful to everyone in the room.”
The Show: Live from the UK is available HERE.