The Story Behind “Independence Day”
Warner Bros. Records recently released Original Songwriter Demos Vols. I and II, featuring 20 of country music’s recent greatest hits as the singers originally heard them. One of the demos is Gretchen Peters’ version of “Independence Day,” later recorded by Martina McBride. Peter’s talked with The 9513 about the song and its impact.
The year 2010 was a busy one for Gretchen Peters. Along with writing songs for a new album, she embarked on several tours across the U.S. and Europe, playing solo shows as well as Wine, Women & Song (Peters and pals Suzy Bogguss and Matraca Berg).
The most memorable day of the year, though, would undoubtedly be October 2, when she and longtime love Barry Walsh got married in Nashville. And what an event it was–not many wedding receptions would merit being released as a live album, but this one would.
“Our preacher was Rodney Crowell, and he did a beautiful job officiating,” she says. “We told all of our friends who were musically inclined that we don’t want any presents from them, but we would appreciate a song or two. As a result, we had the most massive jam session at the end of the night.” Bryan Adams came to town to play “Heaven” as the couple’s first dance, and Bogguss and Berg, along with their husbands (Doug Crider and Jeff Hanna), Crowell, Tom Russell, Mary Gauthier, Tia Sellers and many others all contributed songs.
Fresh off her New Orleans honeymoon, Peters is back at her Nashville home, writing songs for an upcoming album.
“Which means that I’m cleaning the house furiously,” she says with a laugh. “That’s what you do when you try to put the pain off as long as possible. But I’m eight or nine songs in, so I’m getting close.”
Peters jokes that her status as a newlywed hasn’t really changed her songwriting style.
“What seems to be happening is I’m writing songs that still have the same dire lyrics, but they’re more uptempo. They sound happier, but they’re just as depressing.”
Peters has released several critically acclaimed albums, and many of her songs have been recorded by some of Nashville’s top singers. She’s composed hits for Pam Tillis (“Let That Pony Run”), Faith Hill (“The Secret of Life”), Patty Loveless (“You Don’t Even Know Who I Am”), and Martina McBride (“My Baby Loves Me”), yet the song that won her the CMA Song of the Year award and a Grammy award nomination in 1995 didn’t even crack the Top 10.
Peters was a fairly new songwriter working for Sony Music when the chorus for “Independence Day,” both words and music, came to her. Telling the rest of the story would take about 18 months to complete.
“Fairly early on, I came up with the first couple of verses, about the mother, father and the child, but I had real trouble figuring out how it would resolve,” she explains. She had an idea about how it would all end, but was afraid that the song would be too dark. As a staff songwriter, getting songs cut was a priority, and she thought most singers would shy away from anything that tackled the subjects of domestic abuse and murder.
“In the end I said, ‘This is the way this particular story wants to end, and anything else would feel false and preachy, and not like the truth.’”
The song’s ending was deliberately left open-ended. The fate of the abusive father and the child are known, but does the mother die in the fire she set, or does she get arrested for her crimes? Peters isn’t telling.
“I like ambiguity in songs, and I don’t like all the questions to be answered,” she explains. “I felt like that was one question that didn’t need to be answered, because the story was still the same, and the impact of what she’d done was the same.”
Various stories have “Independence Day” being pitched to and rejected by Reba McEntire or Faith Hill. Peters says that as far as she knows, the only singer who heard her demo was the one who recorded the song–Martina McBride. McBride’s producer, Paul Worley, had signed Peters to Sony Music, and he pitched McBride both that song and “The Way That I Am.” McBride was adamant that she record “Independence Day,” and both songs were eventually released as singles.
“I think it was a very brave move for her,” Peters points out. “She was an artist that we barely knew at the time, really hadn’t had a breakthrough hit (she’d had five singles at the time, only two of which had cracked the Billboard Top 10). She just really believed in it. Thank God for artists like that.”
Some radio stations refused to play the song because of its content, and “Independence Day” stalled at #12 on the charts, yet it’s still become one of McBride’s signature songs and brought widespread acclaim and awards for Peters. She says that the lesson she learned from that experience was that nobody remembers what song did or did not top the charts, but they will remember certain songs long after their release.
Since its release, “Independence Day” has turned up in many places, some welcome, some not so much. One of Carrie Underwood’s defining moments when she was competing on American Idol came when she sang it. Peters, who doesn’t watch television, says that she became aware of the show’s popularity only after that performance.
“A songwriter friend of mine called me when Carrie was competing, and he was really excited,” she remembers. “This is a guy who’s not a pop culture hound or a TV watcher, but he was really hooked on American Idol.” Once he explained to her just how many people watch the show, she says she realized the song had officially become part of pop culture.
The drawbacks have come when “Independence Day” gets used as a theme song for politicians and political movements. In recent years, Peters has spoken out against its use in a political format.
“The song has nothing to do with politics, or a political movement, or patriotism,” she says. “It really, really bothers me.
“I used to think that people who used it in a political forum just really hadn’t listened to it, but I’ve changed my mind about that,” Peters adds. “I actually think that people who use it in a political way don’t care what the song is about, and that makes me even madder. That’s just blatant disregard for the content of the song. I do take offense at having a song of mine completely taken out of context and misconstrued.”
Overall, Peters says that seeing the impact of “Independence Day” has been a humbling experience. Oftentimes, people will come up to her after shows, visibly moved, and she usually knows just what song affected them so. Early on, she says she was uncomfortable with that type of reaction, because the story was fictional, and she didn’t know how to comfort people.
“I realized at some point that some people just wanted to tell you that they got it, that you told their story, and you got it right,” she says. “They’re not looking for you to fix anything, they just want to share that with you.
It has been quite humbling and a privilege to see the reaction that the song’s gotten,” she adds. “I knew immediately that I’d never write a song like that. It just came out of me.”
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