Gretchen Peters has done her part to make country radio a tad less unbearable. She wrote George Strait’s “Chill Of An Early Fall” and Martina McBride’s “Independence Day”, two of those mainstream artists’ most respectable hits. And now that success has finally paid off with a chance for her sing her own songs in her own way, she hasn’t played it safe. Her debut is a gutsy concept album that dares to tackle big themes while daring to not sound like Brooks & Dunn.
The Secret Of Life asks a simple question: What’s the key to happiness? It begins with “Waiting For The Light To Turn Green”, an country-pop anthem that declares going through the motions ain’t going to cut it, and ends with “When You Are Old”, a quiet and finally content pledge of undying love. Along the way, we see women who are held back by society’s lines or who draw those lines themselves (the Patti Scialfa-like “Border Town”); who throw away happiness every chance they get (Steve Earle’s “I Ain’t Ever Satisfied”); who are afraid to trade the thrill of rebellion for something less flashy but more substantial (“Circus Girl”); and who finally learn to appreciate what they have (“Room With A View”) while never forgetting to take the risks that will get them what they want (the title track).
Listeners who equate spare arrangements and stripped-down production with authenticity will no doubt be put off by the disc’s cascading pianos and floating synths. More often than not, however, the over-the-top sound and Peters’ soaring, breathy vocals are just what her song’s big gestures require. Of course, being ambitious enough to reach for grand statements also means risking failure, and two songs here fall flat on their faces. “On a Bus To St. Cloud” (a Trisha Yearwood hit) is ruined by smarmy sax, and “Over Africa” sounds like Bruce Hornsby and Toto teamed up for a Lion King tribute.
But then, within the album’s context, even these missteps can seem charming. Like other talented country women whose unique styles have brought them limited success (Matraca Berg, Kim Richey, Kelly Willis, Iris DeMent), Peters knows that the secret of life, or one of them anyway, is just to have the guts to follow your instincts.