Silence, music, borders, tales of the land and people: each of those has a part in the landscape of the North American west. Those are touchstones of the songs. Gretchen Peters has chosen for her album One To The Heart, One To The Head.
North Platte, a piano based instrumental by Barry Walsh that evokes that landscape, and the quiet changes of the western lands, begins things. Mary McCaslin’s song Prairie in the Sky follows, with lyrics that create impressions and invite imagination, rather than set out direct images. Billy 4 finds Tom Russell joining Peters for Billy 4, a rattling story of the western outlaw Billy the Kid written by Bob Dylan.
Things take a more reflective turn with Ian Tyson’s atmospheric take on landscape and the feelings of love’s changes in Blue Mountains of Mexico, and Russell’s mystic western border journey, Guadalupe. Townes van Zandt western classic Snowing on Raton vividly pairs emotion and landscape, as well.
On her own or singing with Russell, Peters offers a thoughtful musical intelligence and a graceful soprano that strike straight to the heart of these varied and well chosen songs. Not that Peters couldn’t have written an album of western songs herself: Bryan Adams, Bonnie Raitt, Etta James, Shania Twain, Martina McBride, Patty Loveless, and George Strait have all been drawn to record songs Peters has written. Her friend Russell, also a fine songwriter whose work draws on the ideas and landscapes of west Texas, encouraged her to think about the west again. “I figured she should hearken up to her roots and turn to western themes,” he writes in the notes for the album.
Though she has been based in Nashville for some time, Peters spent seventeen years in Colorado. ”As Tom and I were sifting through the songs for this record, she writes, “I began to realize the extent to which growing up in the west shaped me, musically and otherwise. There is nothing so starkly beautiful and lonely as a prairie sunrise, or a mountain pass covered with new fallen snow, or the sound of chinook winds howling.”
Stories in the fourteen cuts range from Sweet and Shiny Eyes, which you very well may have heard and sung along with if you’ve ever been in a western bar after midnight, to If I Had a Gun, a dark tale from which the title emerges. What may be the centerpiece of this intricate collection of music and ideas is a song called Wolves. It is written by Montana native Stephanie Davis, and is filled with the grace, loneliness, and change of the contemporary American west, aspects which Peters well serves and illuminates in her take on it.
One To The Heart, One To The Head is not a western travel guide (although in some ways it could be) but it is a fine companion for traveling in, remembering, and dreaming of the American west.