After a lifetime of crafting finely-wrought, heart-touching songs, singer-songwriter Pierce Pettis feels that he’s finally found his comfort zone. “The biggest change,” he says of this point in his career “has been getting over myself and realizing this is a job and a craft. And the purpose is not fame and fortune (whatever that is) but simply doing good work.”
“From the time I was very little, I always had the music going in my head,” Pettis explains. “Like my own personal soundtrack or something. I also come from a fairly musical family: my mother went to music school and was an excellent organist and pianist. And my sisters all played piano and other instruments. In school, I met other kids who wanted to be rock stars, just like me. From the time we were around ten or so up through high school, we put together various bands - all of them horrible.”
His “horrible” bands didn’t deter him though and even though he had a nagging feeling (“I thought I was supposed to be a doctor or something.”) he persevered, not only playing music but writing songs in a mix of rock, folk, country and R&B genres that landed him an unpaid position as a staff writer for Muscle Shoals Sounds Studios. While there, his track “Song at the End of the Movie” found its way to Joan Baez’s 1979 album Honest Lullaby.
Pettis hit the road and became a member of the “Fast Folk” movement in New York in the mid-1980s. He released one independent solo album, Moments (1984) before signing with High Street Records, a division of Windham Hill. There, he released three albums: While the Serpent Lies Sleeping (1989), Tinseltown (1991), and Chase the Buffalo (1993).
His relationship with Tinseltown producer Mark Heard transcended the album. After Heard’s untimely death in 1992, Pettis committed to including a song of Heard’s on every one of his own albums, a practice that continues to this day.
Pettis was a staff songwriter for PolyGram from 1993-2000 and when his High Street contract ended, Pettis signed to Compass Records where he has released Making Light of It (1996), Everything Matters (1998), State of Grace (2001), and Great Big World (2004). Pierce Pettis’ songs have been recorded by artists including Susan Ashton, Dar Williams, Garth Brooks and Art Garfunkel.
“When Pierce Pettis sings about the inescapable divinity of love, his music sends a fast splintering crack through the shell of cynicism encasing our 21st-century spirits. That Kind of Love speaks directly to the hearts of listeners and connects with unflinching
precision.” – Jason Killingsworth, Paste Magazine
“I think this album is more song-centered,” says Pierce Pettis about his ninth release, That Kind of Love (2009). “We were far more focused on making the album about the songs rather than the other way around. Each track feels quite unique to me and stands solidly on its own.”
That Kind of Love was four years in the making. Having the advantage of time on his side allowed Pettis’ songs the room to grow and mature while he played them live. “I think that sets this album apart from my previous ones,” he says. “I’m hoping the listeners will notice the difference.”
The timeframe also assisted Pettis with song selection. “The intervening four years pushed some songs to the surface over time, while others fell back . . . sort of a ‘survival of the fittest.’ So the songs that ended up on the album pretty much chose themselves,” he explains.
Pettis’ albums, like his live shows, are peppered with judiciously selected cover arrangements as well. And many of those cover tracks are given their trials out on the road, before making the cut or not. For instance, Pettis worked on the arrangement for Jesse Winchester’s “Talk Memphis” for over a year before even playing it live. “And then when I did start playing the song,” say Pettis, “it got smoother, more relaxed, more confident over time.” Both that track and “Nothing But The Wind,” written by the late Mark Heard, had strong associations for Pettis. “Both (Winchester and Heard) are heroes to me,” he admits. “Not just as songwriters, but as human beings.”
Two of the self-penned tracks that mean the most to Pettis are “I Am Nothing” and “Farewell.” The first, he explains, “was inspired by Don Dunaway - a superb singer/songwriter who has labored in obscurity at a small tourist bar in Florida for over 30 years. The second is the story of my great, great, great grandmother and is dedicated to my mother and my daughter.”
One additional track that Pettis is particularly happy to see on this record is “To Dance,” a song he co-wrote with an old college friend, Greta Larson. “This is a song I’d had for many years and always believed was very special. Yet, for the longest time, I couldn’t seem to convince anyone else of its worth. That’s probably because I hadn’t come up with an arrangement that could really get the song across. When I finally did, I tried it out live at the Bluebird in Nashville (sharing a writer’s night with Buddy Monlock, Darrell Scott, and Tim O’Brien - three of the best!) and it brought the house down. That’s when I knew it was time to record it.”
That Kind of Love features many guest artists who have appeared on Pettis’ past recordings: Stuart Duncan (fiddle, banjo), Andrea Zonn (background vocals, strings), Reese Wynans (Hammond B3), Phil Madeira (Hammond B3, accordion), Kenny Malone (drums, percussion), Byron House (bowed acoustic bass), and Garry West (electric bass) who also produced the album. West, co-owner of Compass Records, also brought in some artists who were new to Pettis’ music: local singer-songwriters Katie Herzig and
Jeremy Lister (backing vocals), Rob McNelley (lead and slide guitar), Todd Phillips (acoustic bass) and Russ Pahl (pedal steel, electric guitar).
Ultimately, Pettis’ focus is on crafting a song that everyone can identify with, something his legions of fans would say that he succeeds time and time again in doing. “I’ve come to believe that songwriting, for me at least, has to be totally about the song, and everything going into the process should serve that end. The song is not there to serve an end - like pushing a particular point of view, venting emotions, righting past wrongs, or advertising the writer’s ego. It is the end. And I think what makes a song universal is not
what people see of me in the song - but what they can see of themselves.”