After the release of the sublime Blackbirds in 2015, Gretchen Peters left us in no doubt why she was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame a year earlier. For the last two decades, she has never failed to prove her mettle as a songwriter and performer. To coincide with her latest tour, Proper Records have released The Essential Gretchen Peters; a two-disc compilation of beautiful tracks, acoustic versions, rarities and B-sides. The tracks are hand picked offering some of the best from her career and showcase her transition from songwriter to a performer and artist in her own right.
The darkly vengeful Blackbirds opens this sterling double album and also appears again as a bookend to the album as a sinister acoustic version performed as a duet with co-writer Ben Glover. The poetic favorite, On A Bus To St. Cloud and uplifting The Secret Of Life from Peters' debut album sit alongside a perfect cover version of The Rolling Stones Wild Horses and the conflicted love song, The Matador. An acoustic duet of When You Love Someone with Bryan Adams brims with romantic splendor as does the demo version of The Way You Move Me, whilst the full band version of Woman On The Wheel brings a raw live energy to the album.
At times her work is melancholic and unsettling, confronting subjects like death (When You Are Old) and murder (The Cruel Mother) but they are always delivered in the thoughtful and narrative way that many of the best county/folk songs are. As with the work of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and stablemates Mary Chapin Carpenter and Beth Nielsen-Chapman, her introspective lyrics are always met with a heartfelt melody which gives gravitas and weight to the tracks.
The variety of songs and different arrangements on the album, including early work tapes for The Answer and Five Minutes will be an interesting listen for diehards and musicians keen to hear how Peters' work has developed and evolved.
No matter if the songs have a paired down or full arrangement, what stands out is the standard of the writing and the universal sentiments that come out of her work. Her songs are lyrical masterpieces that have the power to break your heart, make you laugh, cut you deeply and stay with you long after the final chord has died out. It's a treasure of a collection for any country roots aficionado and an essential introduction to the immense talent of Gretchen Peters.