Gretchen Peters, “The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury” (Scarlet Letter Records)
It took Gretchen Peters years to complete her album dedicated to Mickey Newbury’s rich catalog, a careful and sensible pace.
Newbury’s songs carry such depths of feeling — skewing mostly toward the dark side of life — that interpreting these 12 tunes in just a few sessions could have been as intense as it would have been unnecessary.
Even the only truly bouncy piece here, “Why Have You Been Gone So Long,” mentions a plan to “kill a fifth of Thunderbird and try to write a sad song.”
Peters and co-producer-keyboard player-husband Barry Walsh recorded the basic tracks with guitarist Will Kimbrough at Cinderella Sound, the same studio in the Nashville suburb of Madison where Newbury, who died in 2002, made some of his most memorable albums.
The arrangements put Peters’ distinct and precise voice front and center, with restrained enhancements that are all the more effective for it.
Whether it’s Dan Dugmore’s pedal steel on songs like “The Sailor,” the harmonica of Charlie McCoy — a frequent Newbury collaborator — on “San Francisco Mabel Joy,” Buddy Miller’s harmony vocals on “Frisco Depot,” or the string section on closer “Three Bells For Stephen,” everything sounds like it was meant to be there.
Newbury’s compositions were covered by everyone from Elvis Presley to Ray Charles. Peters has included a few of the hits, like “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye” and “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” but she sings them more like Newbury, who frequently re-recorded or performed considerably different versions of his songs.
Also of note are the title track, one of Newbury’s most nostalgic, and “Heaven Help the Child,” a trip through generations that Peters makes her own.
Just like Newbury did, Peters has braided a Nashville career as songwriter to the stars with her own series of excellent albums. Here, she gifts one of her heroes the best kind of tribute, where the quality of the performances reciprocates the quality of the songs.