A unique songwriter in the round tour featuring three terrific singer-songwriters, Three Women and the Truth comes to the Beachland Ballroom
on Wednesday, Jan. 9.
The tour features Gretchen Peters, Eliza Gilkyson [pictured] and Mary Gauthier. Peters has penned hits for many performers, including Martina McBride, Shania Twain and Etta James, Gilkyson has had her songs recorded by the likes of Joan Baez, Tom Rush and Roseanne Cash and Gauthier has been touring in support of her latest release, the critically acclaimed Rifles & Rosary Beads
, which was recently nominated as the Americana Music Association’s Album of the Year.
In separate phone interviews, they each spoke about their careers and about the tour.
Talk about your background a bit.
I grew up not in a family of musicians but in a family of music lovers. My father was into jazz, and I had older siblings that brought rock ’n’ roll and folk music into the house. I discovered country on my own. In my teens, I came at it through the back door. I was living in Boulder and the hippie country bands were just emerging and that was a hotbed for that. I had been a folkie when I picked up the guitar at age 7. When I heard this country-rock hippie thing, I knew that was what I wanted to do. I always felt that country music and folk music were cousins. I was attracted to the same things in country music that I was attracted to in folk music — storytelling and simplicity.
It certainly got me hooked to living outside the lines. I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, and it was quite unusual to have a dad in the music business and musicians hanging around the house at the odd hours that they kept. It was fun and spontaneous and musical. It was mostly really good for me.
Did you have a moment when you knew you wanted to become a songwriter?
I spent all of my childhood and teenage years learning other people’s songs. In retrospect, that was great. It was a great education into learning the DNA of a good song. I didn’t realize I was doing it at the time, but I was absorbing what makes a song great. I used a lot of that once I really got serious about writing my own songs. It wasn’t an emphasis for me. I didn’t come to Nashville thinking I would be a hit songwriter. That never crossed my mind. I didn’t separate the songwriting from the playing and performing because everyone I loved and emulated as a kid was a singer-songwriter.
Absolutely. I remember at age 4 my dad was giving a performance at a guest ranch we were staying at. It was at night and there was a fireplace that all the guests were gathered around, and my dad was singing. He was so captivating. I stood next to him and looked out at everyone staring at him and I caught what was happening. It was one of my first memories. It was this magic zone. I didn’t think I was going to want do it someday, but I tapped into it.
Talk about your latest record. Did you want to take things in a specific direction?
I think it’s more like the specific direction wanted me to go there. You’re pulled in a certain direction. I think that’s the right way. I don’t think you can force a direction on an album and have it be an artistic success. What happened with me is that I was writing the songs in the aftermath of the election of 2016 and everything that was going on. It’s no surprise that the voices of the characters that emerged were all women and girls. The songs are informed by that, but it has to come from an intuitive place. I can’t superimpose a theme on myself. On the surface, a lot of the people in the songs are characters. You could say that isn’t personal, but what I find is that I’m constantly trying to get closer to the bone and tell the scariest truths I can. I think those are the ones that penetrate with people. It’s always a fraught situation when you try to answer what a song is about because it operates on so many different levels. The character is “Truck Stop Angel” isn’t me, but there’s a part of her in me. I write stories and on some level those are fictitious characters, but it all feels very personal to me.
These are these spiritual songs I had been writing over the last few records. I would sneak one or two onto each record. But I wanted to come out as someone asking these questions about mortality and the existence of a greater power and how does that play out in our lives. I wanted to make a spiritual record that wasn’t religious. That was important to me. I wanted to step outside of the bounds of religion and write about these things. How can you express your gratitude and sense of wonder and the feelings you have for this great mystery without falling into religious ideology. It was important for me to not mention God or our belief system on the entire record. We see today that the time is over for the idea of a male god. We’re all digging deep in ourselves to see how the male as god paradigm has affected our culture for so many years and how we see ourselves in the world. We knew these things intellectually, but we’re really deconstructing them now in a way that’s really healthy.
I’m working with members of the military, a lot of them wounded with PTSD. I’m listening to their stories and turning their stories into songs through a nonprofit called Songwriting with Soldiers. One of the beautiful things about this project is that it’s not about me. My blessed gift right now is that I get to use what I’ve learned as a songwriter over the last nine records and 25 years to be of service to those who’ve served. That’s my big focus. What I believe about songs is that they can have transformative powers to help people who have been traumatized if we are willing to apply the emotional truth. The theme of the record, if there were to be a theme, is that telling a truth in a song can literally be lifesaving. I think I kind of fell in love with the veterans and their stories and their plights. I believe their songs are very, very good. I think people care about them, but they just don’t know what to do. We don’t know how to talk to people who serve. There’s a civilian/military gap, and it’s the size of the Grand Canyon. As a songwriter, I’ve tried to build a little bridge to close that gap, at least to the best of my ability.
Talk about how this tour came together.
We’re all good friends. We love and admire each other’s works. Mary and I had done some touring together, and Eliza and I had done some dates together. We shared a booking agent, and when we started talking about it, we said we wanted to team up with the three of us. We enjoyed the format of it. People seem to love it. We had to come up with a title for it. We did that based on the old Harlan Howard quote about country music being three chords and the truth.
I think all three of us really decided to be more out in the world with our careers late in life. We were all over 50 when we made that decision. I didn’t start touring until then. That’s very unusual. That’s when women are supposed to not be seen or heard. We felt the calling to be out there. We confirm it in each other in a really respectful way. We’re all really respectful of each other’s artistry. One of the things we see again and again is that once you have become famous you can break the rules about your place in society. But for every famous woman, there are thousands of not-famous women being told that they can’t do this. Most people deal with a lot of prejudice.
What will the setlist be like?
We try to collaborate as much as possible. It makes it more fun. That’s one of the great joys of collaboration. It’s singing harmonies and playing on someone else’s songs. I find that to be one of the most fun things about touring. I bore myself if it’s just me. I love to collaborate.
We never write a setlist unless we’re in a situation where we can each only do one or two songs. We play around a lot. I never do the same songs every night. I like to keep myself on edge. It brings some energy to the show.
One of the beautiful things is that these story songs, while they’re written with and about members of the military, their experiences are universal. They transcend the particulars of the war trauma and reach out to people who have not served and help us to understand what it must be like to be in the position that so many of our veterans and their families are in. Their experiences are very similar to ours but it’s just a different specific. If you’ve been in a hard trauma and get stuck, you can understand these stories. Playing them in Cleveland with Gretchen and Eliza is such a powerful thing. They can add harmonies and add their magic to the story. One of the most important parts of the process is to get a simple melody that sounds like what the veterans feel. You pair the melody to the emotion being expressed and that helps the listener understand and experience empathy. Eliza and Gretchen’s songs operate in the same realm. They’re not working with members of the military but they’re up to the same thing as songwriters. This is where we have a similar mission statement.
I love the title of the tour, Three Women and the Truth.
It works, and it works more and more each day in this time of non-truth.
Three Women and the Truth, 8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 9, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $25, beachlandballroom.com