Peter One brought a global understanding of country music to his Nashville second act

Listen to a profile of Peter One

Home is a theme that comes up a lot in folk and country music, but not usually in the clear-eyed, complex way that Peter One invokes it during “Birds Go Die Out of Sight (Don’t Go Home).”

“Don’t go home,” he implores, sounding reedy and slightly plaintive over a lazily swinging shuffle. “There’s nothing for you there.” It’s not at all that he lacks feeling for the place he’s singing about, his native, war-torn Côte d’Ivoire. He’s intimating that migration can be wrenching and arduous, but also vital.

The singer-songwriter born Pierre-Evrard Tra, started his career in the 1980s in his native Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), and he’s picked it back up here in Tennessee more than three decades later, bringing with him a wise accounting of his life and career so far and a collection of songs that capture the ingenuity it takes to dwell between worlds, cultures and sounds. 

When Peter One appeared on the Grand Ole Opry for the first time on a Friday night this past April, the show’s announcer spelled out exactly how far the artist was from his homeland: 5,420 miles. But his journey to introducing himself to an Opry audience wasn’t just a matter of covering a great geographical distance. As much as Nashville is held up as the capital of country music, he didn’t exactly make a beeline for Tennessee.

“When I started playing music,” One explained in his dressing room before the performance, “I had in mind to have my music go everywhere in the world. But I really never dreamed about being in Nashville.”

He measured out his words thoughtfully, undistracted by the noise of the Opry’s backstage tour guides leading packs of tourists by his dressing room door approximately every five minutes.

Growing up in a pineapple-farming town in Côte d’Ivoire, he was attuned to local styles and popular troubadours from neighboring nations like Eboa Lotin and G.G. Vickey, and also recognized a kinship between the rhythmic, melodic and harmonic innovations of his region and the music reaching him by radio and recordings from across the globe.

“The Ivory Coast is a French former colony,” he notes, “and it’s one of the most open countries in Africa, open to all kinds of cultures, open to all kinds of music. Among all this diversity of music, when I heard ‘The Boxer’ from Simon & Garfunkel the first time, it did touch me right there.” 

One patted his chest, as he remembered encountering the American duo’s pristine folk-pop harmonies as a teenager.

“Of course, I’ve been influenced,” he went on, “but there’s probably something deep inside myself, my own inner nature, that has a preference for this kind of stuff.”

One developed an immaculate, easeful sound by joining his voice with that of his early collaborator, Jess Sah Bi, onto which others began superimposing genre categories when the duo gained exposure through television, radio and touring in West Africa.

“We didn’t know that we were doing something that is close to country music,” One clarified. “We didn’t even know the name, ‘country music,’ ‘folk music.’ It’s later that people labeled our music ‘country music,’ and we decided to keep that name, you know, for marketing purposes, to make our way through the music market.”

The global scale of his perspective makes his the opposite of the familiar country origin story, in which artists’ work overtime to prove that they belong in the lineage and build their personas on their claims to being born and raised authentically country. 

Working with Sah Bi, One made it as far as regional stardom, but navigating their nation’s somewhat unregulated music industry was difficult. Despite One’s attempts to organize musicians unions in Ivory Coast, he couldn’t live off of his musical income, and traveled to the U.S. in search of business expertise and recording gear. But the worsening civil war back home made it too dangerous for him to return, so he started building a new life, and eventually settled in Nashville. 

Instead of choosing a low-pressure side hustle – say, working as a barista or bartender – he had his own logic for embarking on a full-blown second career in nursing.

“The nurse helped the musician a lot,” he chuckled. “I knew that [making it in] music’s going to take longer. I had to be able to make a living. So what career to choose that will allow me to have a job everywhere, allow me also to spend time on my music? Nursing allows me to work on the shift that I want, night shift, day shift. I love the job also. It allows me to help people, to feel more sympathy to people, to connect with people.”

Neither One’s patients nor his coworkers knew of his musical past, or for that matter, the fact that he was still quietly cultivating song ideas.

When a record collector stumbled onto the album that he and Sah Bi made long ago, Our Garden Needs Its Flowers, and reissued it on a tiny, archival label, One suddenly saw doors open to a solo career in the U.S.

“I would say I was lucky to find musicians who were open to new stuff,” he reflected warmly, “because they were from Nashville here, playing the same country music over and over. And here comes somebody from Africa with music that is a little bit different.”

Still, completing portions of his new album Come Back To Me required his gentle guidance of the studio band, particularly when it came to nailing the intricate interplay of polyrhythmic patterns in tracks like “Cherie Vico” and achieving the molten groove he envisioned for “Staring Into the Blues.”

“I wanted it to be a mix of blues, country and African,” One said of the latter arrangement, “but you could taste the African in there. And when we recorded, it was too pop, not African at all, not bluesy at all. So we had to redo it again.”

In his lyrics too, One moves easily, and deliberately, between languages that each offer him something different: English, which he chose in hopes of reaching global audiences; French, the official language of his country; and tribal Gouro. “I’m African, you know, I belong to a tribe,” he said. “I can’t get away from that. So I have to use everything.”

That’s an apt way to describe both the expansiveness and equanimity of One’s artistic approach.  Between the success of his 20s and the second chance he’s getting now in his 60s, he’s embraced an array of opportunities, and his Opry debut is just one of the moments that he’s moved through with calm focus.

“All I was longing for is to find people, the right people, the right place to do more music,” he said. “And I think I found it. I’m ready to go as far as my energy can allow me, as far as my music can take me.”