“Speaking Freely” show recorded Aug. 1, 2000, in New York.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about the First Amendment, the arts, and American culture. I’m Ken Paulson, the executive director of the First Amendment Center. Joining us today is a singer/songwriter who wrote one of the single most controversial songs in contemporary country music. Gretchen Peters is also a performer, a writer, who speaks her mind and cares deeply about freedom of expression. Welcome, Gretchen.
Gretchen Peters: Thank you.
Paulson: We hope we haven’t oversold or undersold the song by describing “Independence Day” as one of the most controversial songs in country music history. It really did create quite a stir, didn’t it?
Peters: It did. It was … it was not played on quite a few radio stations. And the ones it was played on, it did cause quite a reaction.
Paulson: Country music is not known for censored music or banned music. It’s an industry that by and large plays it somewhat safe. Is that a fair assessment?
Peters: It … it is. I think people perceive it that way mostly because of the way country music has been, say, in the last 20 years. I mean, it hasn’t always been so safe. But in recent history, it has been and that’s, I think, part of the reason why “Independence Day” was such a shocker.
Paulson: Now “Independence Day” was a shocker for its theme, for its content, and yet was a huge, huge hit for Martina McBride. And for those few people who have not heard it or may not be familiar with it, can you tell us a little bit about the storyline of the song?
Peters: Well, it’s told from the point of view of an eight-year-old girl whose mother is being abused by her father, and at some point the … it reaches critical mass. And the little girl escapes and goes away to the county fair and during that time the mother sets fire to the house and presumably — obviously killing her husband but presumably … you don’t really know in the end whether the mother is in the house or not. But it’s sort of a big cataclysmic ending and it’s told as a memory of the child who’s in this position.
Voice over:Through many dangers, toils and snares/We have already come/’Twas grace that brought me safe this far/And grace will lead me home.
Voice over: Well, she seemed all right by dawn’s 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/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 losing end/Some folks whispered, some folks talked/But everybody looked the other way/And when time ran out, there was no one about on Independence Day/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/Well, she lit up the sky that Fourth of July by the time that the firemen come/They just put out the flames, and took down some names and sent me to the county home/Now I ain’t sayin’ it’s right or it’s wrong but maybe it’s the only way/Talk about your revolution, it’s Independence Day/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/Roll the stone away/It’s Independence Day!
Paulson: A lot of people have heard the record and probably as many people have seen the video, which is really a pretty compelling piece of work.
Paulson: And doesn’t shed any more light on the mystery of whether the mother is in the home or not, but you’ve assured me you know.
Peters: Well, I know in my heart, you know. I mean, oftentimes I sort of make a choice, a … you know, a creative choice as to whether to be explicit or not in a song. But I think I always know what the real story in any song is, in my heart. It’s just a … it’s just a matter of … I like a little ambiguity and I think people find that intriguing in songs.
Paulson: Well, we were eager to talk to you because the song has such a strong point of view. It’s a strong story, in a genre that often relies on sort of romantic ideals and … in fact, country music’s moved away from the old drinkin’ and divorce songs …
Paulson: … that George Jones made famous and Hank Williams before him. It is a different industry now, and when this record hit the airwaves, everyone didn’t embrace it initially. It was not an overnight hit.
Peters: No, no. In fact, it struggled early on with, you know, with radio not accepting it or (inaudible) afraid of it or … I mean, I heard comments from music directors at radio stations that, “Oh, our audience doesn’t want to know about this or doesn’t want to hear about this. They’re driving to work or they’re, you know, they’re coming home from work or whatever, and this is not something they want to hear.” In the middle of the song’s life on radio, the whole O.J. Simpson thing happened and for whatever reason, which is still kind of mysterious to me, the topic became open … open season. And it became all right. Still, some radio stations to the bitter end didn’t play it, but a whole lot of the ones that had formerly said they wouldn’t all of a sudden did. And it sort of brought the whole topic to light, I think.
Paulson: You can … I’m sure you write as an act of expression, as an act of art, but also to make money and did it occur to you that no one’s gonna buy this song when you wrote it? I mean, you … you produced it. Did you take it to your publisher? Did you have …
Paulson: … some concern that no one would ever record it?
Peters: I was sure no one would record it. I was positive. I wrote it because my approach to writing is, write whatever comes out, you know. I didn’t feel like I had much control over … over that, anyway. And when I was done with it, I thought, you know, this is a good song and I’m proud of it and no, it won’t be recorded. But I’m gonna play it for my publisher and I’m gonna go in the studio and make a demo of this song because I believe in it, and for no other reason than that. And luckily, for me, Martina McBride’s producer, Paul Worley, was at my publishing company and therefore heard it immediately and played it for Martina. And she was the first and only artist to hear it, and she believed in it. And she really had a … just a very, very strong feeling that she wanted to say this, which was very gutsy for a new artist that didn’t have a lot of clout, really. It was a pretty bold move for her to do it. But she was absolutely sure about it and that’s how it got recorded.
Paulson: Of course, “Independence Day” gave her the clout she didn’t have before. It became …
Paulson: … a signature tune for her. I saw you play not long ago at the Bluebird Café and you did a song that night called “Water into Wine.”
Peters: Hm …
Paulson: And commented that that was not censored by radio. In fact, the lyrics got changed early on in the process before it reached the public. Is that right?
Peters: Well, right. What happened was the record company omitted lyrics, which … the part … I mean, I’m very protective of my work. I feel like the writer, that’s his or her job, is to protect the work. And at some point it gets out there in the world and in the public and there’s nothing more you can do. But at the point when you’re able to protect your work, I think you should. And the record label, in the case of “Like Water into Wine,” didn’t like the last verse. They felt that it was probably controversial and it took what was a love song to another level, a sort of metaphysical kind of a level. It mentioned the word “Jesus.” It … not in purely religious terms, but it took the song to a higher level. And they didn’t … it took what was basically a love song to another level that they didn’t want to go to. And so they omitted the last verse. And I felt that was at the point when that version would be the only version that the whole world would hear. And I felt it was my right and my preference to not release the song because it wasn’t as I had written it.
Paulson: And to be clear, this was to be recorded by someone else?
Peters: Right, right. Patty Loveless was recording the song. Ultimately, we came to a compromise in that I asked them to please make sure that the entire lyric with omitted verse was included in the album package, which they did, I think probably reluctantly, but they did. And I recorded the song myself on my new album, partly … mostly because I loved the song but partly because I just felt, you know, that … I wanted that version to be out there in the world. I wanted people to know what the whole story was.
Paulson: And while we’re on the topic, that new album’s available in Europe. It’s called Gretchen Peters.
Peters: Yeah, it’s out in Europe and will be out in the U.S. very soon.
Paulson: We look forward to that. You know, you came to Nashville, as … as you point out, at a time when it was a different time. Steve Earle, I have to believe, was just kind of emerging. Rodney Crowell.
Peters: There were some great singer-songwriters with, you know, with major label record deals – Nanci Griffith, K.T. Oslin, Steve. Rodney Crowell was at, I think, the height of his commercial success. And it was just a wonderful time for singer-songwriters with a point of view.
Paulson: And you came to town to do exactly that, to be an artist?
Peters: Uh, yeah. I had grown up on singer-songwriters and never actually thought, you know, that … you know … never thought to separate songwriting from … from performing from recording. It was all part of the same thing that I did. And those were the people I sort of modeled myself after. And as it turns out, it was a kind of a golden era, which ended fairly quickly after that. But I … it allowed me to get my foot in the door as a songwriter, at least.
Paulson: Much of this program is about the First Amendment, and the First Amendment is about protecting people, the people in the United States, from government intervention. And typically in the area of music, there’s no government censorship. There’s relatively little, except in the past, for example, radio stations have been concerned about, oh, drug lyrics and losing their license because of the FCC, but things have loosened up some since then, and the marketplace of ideas and the marketplace itself are sort of intertwined now. And I’m curious, as somebody who set out to play music because your heart was in it and wanted to write music that had a meaning, where are you on this … in this marketplace now? I mean, is there a temptation not to write music with meaning and instead simply try to write something that someone will record and you’ll make a half million dollars with?
Peters: There isn’t for me, but I’ve been very lucky in that I somehow managed to say what I wanted and have it also be commercially successful. I mean, not every time but I’ve been very lucky in quite a few instances in that case. I think, though, about the new writer, you know, the person that’s just moved to Nashville. I think about myself, you know, 10 years ago. If that person were to be moving to Nashville, and I would be … it would be a completely different story. A lot of the songs I’ve written wouldn’t be recorded, I really believe. I don’t think “Independence Day” would be recorded. And for that person, it’s very difficult. I mean, that question, that moral question of do I censor myself or do I cater to whatever the marketplace wants would be a lot harder, and it would be hard for me to fault, you know, to fault them for doing that. I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve been more wildly successful as a writer than I ever expected to be, and anything else from this point on is … is great. But I’m not gonna sacrifice my desire to say what I want in my songs. And the other thing about it, I think, is that I’m always surprised what becomes a hit and what … I write something and I think, Whoa, that’s, you know, that’s pretty out there and no one will record that. And then something like “Independence Day” happens. So I … I also have to believe in the … in happenstance and one artist getting a hold of one piece of material that they really, really believe in, that can be very powerful.
Paulson: What have been some of the more pleasant surprises for you, where you wrote a song and you said, “I’m really proud of that, I’m not sure anyone will record it,” and then you end up seeing it being a substantial hit for you?
Peters: Um, well, “The Secret of Life” was … was a big surprise to me. That was a very quirky song. It had a kind of, you know, it had a kind of a message about not looking for happiness in a package or in a self-help book or anything like that. And it was … it was not your standard “I love you, you love me” fare for country radio. And Faith Hill recorded it, loved it and recorded it, and I … I believed strongly in the song, but I never really believed it would be like a commercial success to the extent that it was. And I was so glad because that was … I feel about my songs sort of like they’re children, you know. And that one I knew was going … had the potential to go far.
Paulson: I’m curious as to whether there are any topics you just go, “Can’t be written about. I cannot write a song about this subject. Too sensitive, too political.”
Peters: No, actually, to me that’s an open invitation. The most fun and challenging thing as a writer is to find a … a subject that you supposedly can’t write about and find a way to get at it. The danger, I think, is … is preaching. I mean, you can’t … I really believe you can’t do that. I wrote a song on my new album about a woman who leaves her husband after falling in love with another woman, you know, which … you know, it’s not that it hasn’t been dealt with before in song, but it’s not exactly your top on the top-five list of song subjects. But I don’t think there’s anything you can’t write about. There … as I said, the trick is to report and not to preach, and if you have a political agenda, I think you’re sort of on a slippery slope there.
Paulson: You talked about coming to Nashville at a time when people were writing songs with meaning, with edge, with an edge to it. Going a little bit further back, what are people who as a child you listened to, you said, “That’s what I want to do, that’s the kind of music I want to make”? Who were early heroes for you?
Peters: Early heroes were Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon especially. See, he was so literate and yet, you know, I mean, the key for me is emotional … no matter how literate and poetic and beautiful the lyrics are, and lyrics are really important to me, there has to be an emotional center to a song. Leonard Cohen, later on, oh, I think is just probably our best, you know, poet-songwriter. And then also Bruce Springsteen. All singer-songwriters and all people that were basically putting forth their own point of view, generally speaking doing their own music.
Paulson: Did you follow the controversy involving Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin?”
Peters: To some extent, I did, yeah.
Paulson: Involving a song about the shooting of Amadou Diallo in New York.
Paulson: And it’s a song that led the police union in New York to say … to call for a boycotting of the concert, literally to ask officers not to work it as private security.
Paulson: Which is not a major death blow to 10 sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden, but how do you feel about people like Springsteen who actually have kind of a following, a significant following of people who will perhaps not follow him anywhere but … but, you know, there’s credibility in what Bruce Springsteen says. Is that something he should be doing, using … using the avenue of song to make a political point?
Peters: Well, I think it’s just as wrong to tell someone who’s in a position like that due to his talent and his … and his appeal, whatever that is, that they can’t say what they think. I mean, a songwriter’s, and a writer for that matter’s job is to get what’s inside out and be truthful whether you’re being truthful to an emotional truth or a … or a factual, historical truth. That’s his job. And I think it would be just as wrong to say, you know, “You’re famous now so you can’t … you can’t say what you think. You need to be purely an entertainment figure.” Because that’s not what he’s ever been.
Paulson: And you’ve had some firsthand experience with censorship with “Independence Day.” And … and I’m sure you’ve read recently about the Dixie Chicks’ adventure with “Goodbye, Earl.”
Paulson: A song, for those who are not familiar with it, about a woman who’s abused by her husband. She ends up going through the court process, gets a restraining order, and this … this husband’s not to bother her again. And as the lyrics put it, he walked right through that restraining order and put her in the hospital. And yet the song is done by the Dixie Chicks almost as a … a ditty. I mean, it’s … it’s joyous-sounding and it’s called “Goodbye, Earl.” And a lot of radio stations refused to play it, saying in some cases that it glorified violence. This from what is probably the hottest country act in the … in the country …
Paulson: … today. What does that tell you about the time in between “Independence Day” and “Goodbye, Earl?” Have things not changed at all?
Peters: Well, I think that the radio is … is just as careful and conservative as it’s … maybe even more so. And I think the light-hearted, sort of laughing tone of … of “Goodbye, Earl” probably didn’t … didn’t sit well with … I mean … I mean, after all, after “Independence Day” had come out and was done, it was sort of lauded as a … you know, statement against domestic abuse, serious statement. Which it was, a serious song. And the fact that this new song was so light-hearted was a little bit hard for people to take. But in any form, it’s the same message. It’s basically the same message and I don’t … I think they’re just very, very careful because … radio’s job at this point is not to inform … I mean, commercial radio is looking, I think, not to scare anybody off, not to make anybody change the dial. And in order to do that, they just try not to offend rather than to, you know, to present great music or music that’s compelling to some people but might offend others. They just try not to make anybody change to another radio station.
Paulson: Are there people out there that we should be watching for who are sort of emerging talents that you would recommend, people who recognize the value of music with a message?
Peters: Oh, I … you know, I … my biggest heroes right now in Nashville, and there are many great songwriters that most people have never heard of, are people that aren’t writing particularly commercial music. It … there’s a singer-songwriter by the name of Buddy Mondlock who I think is a great, great songwriter. Should be widely known. Jeff Black is another one. He’s had a hit or two but hasn’t had his own solo album out and … there are people that are making the kind of music that I … basically the same thing that I listened to when I was in high school, story songs in … character-based stuff, intelligent, thoughtful songs. And those people are still making music in Nashville, but I think the doors have closed somewhat, at least temporarily for now, towards a lot of those songs getting on the radio and … and being heard by a wide group of people.
Paulson: Thank you for joining us.
Paulson: I’m Ken Paulson, back next week with another conversation about the First Amendment, the arts, and American culture. I hope you can join us then for “Speaking Freely.”
Peters: (Sings) Well, she seemed all right by dawn’s 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/Now word gets around in a small, small town/They said he was a dangerous man/And Mama was proud and she stood her ground/But she knew she was on the losing end/Some folks whispered, some just talked/But everybody looked the other way/And when time ran out, there was no one about on Independence Day/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/Well, she lit up the sky that Fourth of July by the time that the firemen come/They just put out the flames, took down some names and sent me to the county home/Now I ain’t sayin’ it’s right or it’s wrong but maybe it’s the only way/Talk about your revolution, it’s Independence Day/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/Roll the stone away/It’s Independence Day!
Peters: Thank you.
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