Gretchen Peters. The Essential Gretchen Peters. Proper Records

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Gretchen Peters‘ career has been an interesting intersection of her song writing skills and her own performances. Initially she was successful as a writer, her songs providing hits and awards for country stars such as George Strait, Shania Twain, Trisha Yearwood and Patty Loveless. As a performer she found the going tougher, her early albums struggling to get recognition. Gritting her teeth she ploughed on and in part due to her frequent visits to these shores she gained momentum here, Bob Harris an early champion, and then in the States, eventually being inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame. Her last album Blackbirds (reviewed here) is the pinnacle of her career so far, lauded far and wide. Now, on the eve of yet another UK tour she releases this handpicked two-disc overview of her work so far, not a “best of” but an intriguing collection of familiar songs, rarities and demos.

Disc one contains a selection of songs from her albums going back to 1996’s The Secret Of Life. It opens with the tremendous murder ballad Blackbirds, a bold move but the twelve songs that follow aren’t shadowed by it, indeed they cast light on the excellence of her work throughout her career along with her versatility. There is one previously unheard song here, a collaboration with Bryan Adams on When You Love Someone, an achingly tender duet in classic boy/girl country style, pedal steel weeping away. Elsewhere there’s no doubting the majesty of songs like Hello Cruel World and Sunday Morning (Up And Down My Street), the simple truth of If Heaven and the hypnotic pull of The Matador.

A fine selection but for any avid Peters’ fan the lure here is the second disc, the demos and live songs, many of which are unveiled for the first time. Here one can hear her own versions of The Chill Of An Early Fall (a hit for George Strait) and Independence Day (Martina McBride) while an early recording of Blackbirds with vocals shared by the co-writer, Ben Glover, is stunning. There’s a live recording of The Stone’s Wild Horses from the Wine Women and Song set up (Peters, Suzy Bogguss and Matraca Berg) with heavenly harmonies while Peters also covers John Lennon’s Love (from his Plastic Ono Band album) and sings a dreamlike When You Wish Upon A Star, originally recorded for a charity album some years ago. Best of all is the stark The Cruel Mother, a song that was included as a bonus track on some versions of Blackbirds. It’s a song soaked in tradition, Celtic and Americana, lilting and mournful and just wonderful.

Ms. Peters will be appearing at Celtic Connections on the 30th and 31st January as part of an extensive UK tour. Dates here

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