Rewire Interviews Songwriter Gretchen Peters

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Rewire Interviews Songwriter Gretchen Peters

Scott Swenson

Country music star Gretchen Peters talks to Rewire about the power of real people's stories, empowering young people in this election, and donating royalties from her hit "Independence Day" to Planned Parenthood.

Rewire interviewed singer/songwriter
Gretchen Peters

about her decision to donate
her song "Independence Day," made popular by Martina McBride, to
Planned Parenthood in Sarah Palin’s name. Like many other American
icons, country music has been, to an extent, co-opted by conservatives and
misunderstood by liberals, who may dismiss the genre, not recognizing its
close kinship to folk music.  It is the amazing stories of country
music that resonate with people, stories of real life — the pain and
sorrow, the joy and triumph, that connect us one to the other. 
During an election when so many Americans are making extra effort to
understand differences of opinion and culture, to look at race and gender
in new ways, to get past the issues that divide us, we talked with Gretchen Peters by phone this morning as the nation’s focus turns to Nashville tonight for the next presidential debate. We’re pleased to present this interview about an iconic American song, a powerful
story-telling genre, with the woman who has touched millions with her lyrics, Gretchen Peters. 

What is the story behind the song
"Independence Day?"

Gretchen Peters: It’s
a story about a woman who is being abused, told from the point of view
of her eight-year-old daughter, and she can’t see any other way out
than burning the house down with her husband inside it.  It’s
up to the listener to determine if the mother is in the house or not
when it burns. It’s about violence against women told through this
one particular woman’s story. 

Country music tells real people’s stories, with lyrics that
touch us and memorable tunes; it connects in ways that other music
often doesn’t. It is seen as the music of the famous
"Joe and Jane Six-pack." Can you talk about country music’s unique
ability to capture these stories?

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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Country music has a really long history of telling everyman’s story,
and like its close cousin folk music, at least up until the last ten to twenty
years, there were several points of view in country music.  What
ties country and folk music together is the narrative element – more
so than in any other genre that is commercially successful. Loretta
Lynn, Merle Haggard and many others told stories and sang songs that
could be considered controversial. Songs like "The Pill" and "One’s
On The Way." These are the songs that made millions of people love Loretta,
made people feel a certain connection to her music and the music of
others like her, because they sang stories about real life. 

Do you think country music has a political party?

Not inherently, no. It’s sort of a chicken and egg question – people
who don’t know much about country music have ascribed it to conservative
causes and people because of geography, or because they don’t take
the time to understand the long history of story-telling, or because
they think it sounds dumb and the people who like it talk funny,
or are ignorant.  Some people have an impression that we’re all
of the same mindset. That mostly comes from people who are ignorant
about country music.  There is no doubt that the political landscape
in the South and Midwest has changed and the machine that makes country
music — Music Row in Nashville — they know their audience and they know
a bread and butter line when they see one. Music Row has pandered a
lot to those people who want to claim country music for one cause or party.
The truth is that there are plenty of songwriters that are not interested
in being involved in politics. Most creative people would rather write
their stories and let the people find them, and it rankles that these
assumptions are being made about us or our politics. That’s why more
of us are speaking out.  

Do you find it ironic that it is conservatives
– famous for economic policies that don’t really favor Mr. and Mrs.
Six-pack – that most use country music to connect with voters?

One of the biggest mysteries to me about the political climate of the
past eight years — and there are many — but I don’t understand
how blue collar, working class people who have families and don’t
have much else, can feel that these policies support them. I understand
that conservatives have taken advantage of the religious angle, pushes that on
people, but I’m hopeful that more people see through it now.  Ralph
Stanley, the father of Blue Grass, just endorsed Obama, and he’s speaking
out to coal miners, and folks living hardworking lives. That speaks
volumes about the need for change, so I do feel hopeful. 

Why have you decided to donate royalties for
"Independence Day" to Planned Parenthood in the name of Sarah Palin?

I’ve received a lot of email and it’s been overwhelmingly positive.
But it wasn’t my idea, I can’t take credit for it. Tamara Saviano,
my publicist, was on that email some women started suggesting making
small contributions to Planned Parenthood in Palin’s name and copying the
McCain campaign to let them know it’s the issues, not just the gender,
that matters. They have the legal right to play the song at rallies, but this is
a worthy idea and cause and a way to make a statement. I’d been feeling
like I was losing my song. 

Many people who love this song are pro-life and that is why they
like Sarah Palin.  What would you say to them about the real women’s
stories you sing about, real women’s lives and choices about reproductive
health that might give them more insight into why you write and sing
these powerful stories?

This song is a story about one woman. It’s not a diatribe against
or for anything. The most powerful way to say anything is to tell one
story about one specific person. We’re not all going to adhere to
the same political point of view.  I received an incredible letter
from a guy who is pro-life, and it was a letter of support for my decision
because he is able to hold two opposing thoughts in his head at the
same time, and he got it, he got what I was doing and was supportive,
and that’s the power of a story that connects with people.  My
aim and intent is to tell the story in a way so that listeners feel compassion
for her and her daughter. I’m not prescribing any action, not suggesting
women go burn their houses down. It’s a story that unfortunately happens
too much though.  What put me over the edge — I mean, I knew the song
has been played for political reasons for a long time — but I felt like I
was losing my song. I’ve heard from people who only heard it on Sean
Hannity and thought it was a "rah-rah" political statement. They
don’t even know what the song is about. That’s what started it for me, so I made some effort
to get my song back.  

Issues of abuse against women, and especially rape are mostly about
power and domination over women. Do you think
"Independence Day" is so popular because it is a story too many women
can relate to?

One of the very few negative messages that I received was that I was
co-opting my own song and that Planned Parenthood has nothing to do
with the issues of abuse addressed in the song. I couldn’t disagree
more. All these issues are related, issues of power and sex and rape.
The abuse of power within the family unit is a huge issue.  I used
to go to Planned Parenthood when I was a teenager; I know what they
do and I know that these issues are related so it is an absolutely appropriate
donation.  I can also tell you that the song has had an effect
on people that have not had any experience with domestic violence. But
for the women, and men, family members, the police officers and others
who work on domestic abuse cases, they are all so moved by it because
it is all too real. Women come up to me and say the song helped them
"realize they could do something" about their own situation. 
Sometimes I feel bad even taking credit for writing it when I hear from
these people, the song came from nowhere, it came through me. 
It’s amazing when you write something that actually changes people’s
lives. It shows how small actions can have big impacts. 

"Independence Day" is about strength through adversity, a story many
women can relate to.  America is facing a time of great adversity
again, what are the strengths that you see as you look around now that
give you reason to hope we’ll make it through this tough time?

Across the board I find my hope in people under 30, my daughter is 24
and the man I’m seeing, his son is 21.  They won’t have the
world that we had, they are going to have it tougher, but they are so
clear eyed.  The generations that followed the Baby-Boomers are
much more clear eyed, they are not as polarized as Boomers and older
generations. That is the only way to go forward.  As much good
as the Boomers tried to do there was always one foot planted in the
past and one foot planted in the future — that was certainly the sense
in the 1960’s.  The real point of hope in this election — even
though it is getting uglier by the minute — is to empower these young
people and let them lead the way. They just aren’t interested in the
same old fights that have divided us for too long. 

Here is Gretchen Peters performing Sunday Morning (Up and Down My Street):

And Martina McBride performing Independence Day: