No matter the artist on either side of the equation, covering songs is some tricky arithmetic. Everyone and their cousin stepping into (and on) John Prine songs for the past month in an attempt to honor him prove that point. If you can’t do it better or, at the very least, different, maybe just don’t do it.
That being said, for Gretchen Peters to take on an album of Mickey Newbury songs is an admirable feat. For one, she’s a fantastic songwriter, in her own right, so these tunes have a pretty high bar to clear, which they do. For two, she’s less of an interpreter, here, than she is an introducer, since it’s not hard to imagine that far too many have never heard Newbury’s work. Anyone that knowsher work, knows that Peters knows her way around a sad sack of songs, so this collection isn’t a huge departure, emotionally. Minor is most definitely her favorite key.
In what may be an unintentional wink toward her own song, “The Matador,” this project opens with a captivating, unhurried take on “The Sailor.” Starting there and continuing on, track after track, Peters and company take their time to let these compositions breathe deeply and fully. But just because the performances are intentionally languid doesn’t mean they’re at all lazy. Quite the opposite, actually. Take Peters’ approach to a single recurring line in “Wish I Was” — “a grain of sand is all I ever wanted to be” — she infuses it with all she has; she just does so gently, but no less potently.
As much as should be made of the vocal performances, equal acclaim should go to Barry Walsh and Will Kimbrough for providing the core soundscape above which Peters floats. Without those trusted musical companions, she might’ve felt less free to pour herself so fully into the images and emotions that Mickey Newbury sketched in the most indelible of inks.