Nashville Cream: For those who don’t know the story, how was it that you came to donate money to Planned Parenthood in Sarah Palin’s name?
Gretchen Peters: It was the night Sarah Palin debated Joe Biden. I got a call late that night from my booking agent, and she said, “Did you see what’s happened?” And I had no idea what she was talking about, but apparently Sarah Palin walked out on the podium to my song, to “Independence Day,” as her rallying cry. It wasn’t the first use of the song, obviously — or misuse I should say — by the Republican party or the right wing or any political faction for that matter. Although I’d never heard of anybody on the other side doing that. But it was, I guess, the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. I started to realize that probably there were a lot of people that thought that that really was a song about politics or patriotism or something like that, and that really got under my skin, because, of course, that’s not what it’s about.
GP: I happened to be working with Tamara Saviano at the time on an album release, and I called her up, because she’s a publicist, and I said, “What do you think I can do about this? Can I make a statement? Can I issue a press release? Will anybody give a shit?” [Chuckles] And she had heard about this campaign, which was kind of under the radar at that point. Because there had been such a campaign against Planned Parenthood and women’s reproductive rights in general, and Sarah Palin was sort of at the forefront of that, there were people that were donating in her name. And she suggested that I might think about that. And I thought, “That’s a really positive way of making the statement that I want to make and also maybe helping out and encouraging other people to help out.” … I decided to donate the money from the campaign season, from that point until the election — the royalties from the song. And I was not ready in any way, shape or form for the amount of: A) ink that it got, and B) hate mail that I got. I had no idea it would cause that much of a stir. … But the good thing is it caught on and other people started donating. I didn’t invent the idea, but I think I did kind of bring it to the forefront. And they raised a million dollars in that period. And they needed it. It was sorely needed. So that was my dust-up with Sarah Palin.
NC: So the most upsetting part of your song being used in that way was the way it was being interpreted. They were just using the chorus, right?
GP: Yeah. They basically took the chorus and used it as a rallying cry. And if you take the chorus out of context — very similarly to “Born In the USA” — you get what sounds like it could be a political rally anthem kind of thing. But that’s obviously not what it’s about at all. That was deeply disturbing to me, because not only is it not about that, but it’s about a pretty dark situation. It’s certainly not something I’d be using to get people up and happy and pumped up. And here’s the thing about Sarah Palin in particular: This song is a description of a woman who’s being abused, it’s a description of domestic abuse. This is exactly the woman who needs support services, and support in general, that somebody like Sarah Palin would take away. She was talking right then and there during that campaign about women not being able to get abortions even in the case of rape. This woman in the song was the very woman who would’ve been hurt the most by her policies. And as a woman I just find that completely reprehensible.
NC: But they didn’t have to get your permission, as the songwriter, to use the song.
GP: Right. They didn’t. there is this thing called the Blanket License which, I’m sure you know, covers the use of a song like that in a public venue, which is where she was. So, you know, they can play it for the Fourth of July fireworks, they can play it for whatever they want to. And the thing is, I suppose that I could’ve made a public statement and said, “Take it back. Stop using it.” I just felt like something more positive would come out of this than just having a public argument.
NC: I’ve seen other performers or songwriters take that approach, release a statement saying, “I condemn this use of my song.”
GP: Not that that’s a bad thing. I mean, it will certainly let you know where they stand. But I thought, “Maybe we can turn this around into something that can be — some good can come of it. And there was certainly poetic justice in the fact that all the donations were in her name and Planned Parenthood told me that for every donation she received a thank you note. [Laughing] I really enjoyed that.
NC: Besides the hate mail, was there any official response from her camp?
GP: Never. No. I never heard a word. I guess they didn’t want to give it any more ink than it already got. I mean, it was on all the news services, it was on Reuters. I had no idea that that would happen, which fueled about two weeks of some really vicious emails, but also some really great, positive responses. And Planned Parenthood asked me to be on the advisory board, which I was thrilled to do. … I flew up to New York the day before election day and played the song at a party the day after election day, for the advisory board. That was great to do because it just felt like I got my song back.
NC: Was that a turning point for you in the way you look at being an artist in the public square and being vocal about political matters?
GP: Well, I always was somewhat vocal. I mean, I remember when I still had my Music Row record deal, I did an event at the Ryman for Al Gore. Basically — it was actually a [notable] story at the time — none of the artists in Nashville, except for me and Raul Malo and K.T. Oslin would even do this rally. So to some extent I wasn’t too afraid, I wasn’t too timid about that, maybe to my detriment. I don’t know. But yes, this changed my view about all of that. … Those of us that cut our teeth here were really told — in explicit ways and not-so-explicit ways — not to alienate anybody and to be safe. And I think that even though I rejected that for the most part, I think I tried, because I’m a performer, and we’re all people-pleasers down deep. … And at some point there just comes a time when you say, “What do I have to lose, really?” I was there. I was at that point. I thought, “The audiences that I’ve played for are going to appreciate the fact that I did this, and the people that are going to be offended, they’re not buying my records.” … I just didn’t feel good about myself not saying anything. I just felt like something had really kicked in, my outrage had kicked in, and I just didn’t really care what the reaction was. I felt like it was the right thing to do and I just frankly didn’t give a shit. [Laughing] And there’s a great freedom in that, not giving a shit.
NC: Are there challenges and complications — including some Planned Parenthood might share — that come with operating in the political climate of Tennessee?
GP: They have their work cut out for them, Planned Parenthood of Middle Tennessee, which is the Planned Parenthood chapter that we’re doing this benefit for. They definitely have their work cut out for them. There’s so much heat around them and around the issue of women’s reproductive rights. … I sent out the first newsletter with the announcement about this show, and I got one reply back: “Please take me off your mailing list. I don’t approve of Planned Parenthood.” I’m making it sound more polite than it was, but you know, that’s what it meant. And yeah, you’re certainly gonna run into that. But so what? I think the thing is a lot of people that are of the same sort of political persuasion as I am who live here and work in much more mainstream circles than I do, there’s sort of this sense of, “Well, do we stay and be the opposing voice, or do we just shut up and game over?” And there’s a lot of us. I mean, the Music Row Democrats group that I was a part of eight years ago.
NC: Chris Willman even talks about that in his book on politics and country music [Rednecks and Bluenecks].
GP: Yeah, I mean, the Belcourt was full. We filled it up. But I guess the thing is the place where I’m at in my career, I’m in a [much] better position than so many people to be vocal about it, because I have less to lose.
NC: Were there any career costs to your career that you could discern?
GP: You mean back in the day, doing the Al Gore thing?
NC: Then or with the donations in Palin’s name.
GP: You know, it’s really hard to say. I’m sure that there were, actually. But most people are polite enough to not go there. You just don’t get a call.
NC: And in that case, how would you know?
GP: Exactly. I’m sure that there were instances where that was true. You know, I was raised by a pot-stirrer. My father was [one]. We lived in a conservative suburb and he was writing about the Civil Rights movement, very, very liberal, and he was a pot-stirrer and he didn’t care. It certainly had big social implications for my mother and my family. I mean, we didn’t get invited to be members of the country club or this club or that. I think I came by it honest. … Even as a little kid, I admired the fact that he stood up for his principles. I couldn’t have really verbalized it that way, but there was something about the way he was in the world that I thought, “I want to be that way.”
NC: I would imagine it could be a little challenging for Planned Parenthood of Middle Tennessee to find acts willing to play a benefit show for them. What made this a good fit for Wine, Women and Song?
GP: Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee came to me right after the whole Sarah Palin thing, when I was appointed to the national advisory board, and they asked me would I do a fundraiser for them. I think the first one was, like, January of 2009. I said, “I would love to do that and I have to think of somebody that can draw some folks out there,” because, after all, it’s about raising money. And Janis Ian agreed to it immediately. She was my first choice. And I knew she would do it, if she could. … I guess I haven’t really had trouble finding artists every year to do this show with me, [chuckling] because I have those kinds of friends, I guess. … Matraca [Berg], Suzy [Bogguss] and I haven’t played a [Wine, Women and Song] show at all this year, because we’ve all got projects that we’re working furiously. We haven’t played together since we did our last UK tour in 2011. It just seemed like such a perfect time for us to get back together and sing together. I knew that they were supporters and they’d be a hundred percent on it, and of course they were. I may run out of friends at some point but [chuckles] so far … At some point, I would love to do this with a special guest who’s a man, because women’s health is an issue for all of us — not just women.