Acclaimed Nashville singer-songwriter Gretchen Peters spent 2011 spinning lyrical gold out of the chaotic harvest of straw that turned her life upside down the preceding year. Now, she is out touring behind the fruit of those labors, the intensely personal, head-turningly melodic new album, "Hello Cruel World."
To hear her tell it, 2010 was a year of challenges both internal and external for the 54-year-old musician. On the plus side, she married her longtime accompanist, Barry Walsh, and forged a new and richer relationship with her transgendered son. On the other hand, her hometown of Nashville suffered catastrophic flooding, a second home in Florida was menaced by the BP oil spill and a close friend committed suicide.
Talk about grist for a songwriter's mill.
"That never leaves your mind," Peters said by phone from the road. "The truth of it is, that kind of year can be an incredible gift to you as a writer, because the little crap disappears and it clarifies everything in a big way. It was like, OK, these are the subjects I need to be dealing with. It was a double-edged sword."
Peters had early success as a writer before her own debut, 1996's "The Secret of Life." Her songs have been hits for Trisha Yearwood ("On a Bus to St. Cloud"), Martina McBride ("Independence Day"), Bonnie Raitt ("Rock Steady") and George Strait ("Chill of an Early Fall") among others. But "Hello Cruel World" seems so insular and intimate that it's impossible to imagine the songs rendered by anyone other than their creator.
Like Peters' "double-edged sword," the songs on this tour-de-force album cut both ways: The title song reveals a narrator who is "damaged goods," but remains stubbornly resolved; "Some folks go the easy route/Numb the pain and put the lights out — me, I'm gonna stick around."
The lush and beautiful "The Matador" rides a razor's edge of life and death, while "Woman On the Wheel" uses a carnival knife thrower as a metaphor for life's caprices. "Idlewild" is a memoir of a childhood tinged with sorrow and a country slipping away.
The most corrosive line on the album might be in the midst of the deceptively jazzy "Camille," where Peters chronicles the detritus of a one-night stand: "Ten minutes later, he's driving away/While you're putting your pantyhose on."
"I fought for that line," Peters said. "In the beginning of my career I was more concerned with beauty and the second half of my writing career I'm looking harder for truth. That ‘pantyhose' line is beautiful because it's true."
If the theme of the album could be summed up in one line, it might be a trope from the song "Dark Angel," wherein Peters sings, "life is still a beautiful disaster."
"If I have a credo, that's it," she agreed. "Life is chaotic, it's probably random and it's certainly disastrous at times. But it's also deeply, deeply beautiful. I think the element of optimism is in there.
"After all, the album's not called ‘Goodbye Cruel World.' "