Pierce Pettis: His Life of Crime

The "Fast Folk" movement grew out of New York City in the 1980s and 1990s, producing a new wave of acoustic singer-songwriters. The more famous among them included Shawn Colvin, Lyle Lovett, and Suzanne Vega, as well as lesser-known artists such as John Gorka and Lucy Kaplansky. Many of them were songwriters whose work would be recorded by more prominent artists, but whose own recordings were to be found only in the collections of true aficionados.

 

I have been an outlaw
All my grownup life
Just ask my former in-laws
Just ask my former wife
Living from a suitcase
Standing in the rain
You can keep the house, baby
I will keep the change
There have been some changes
I will testify
Still it’s just another chapter
In my life of crime . . .
 

The "Fast Folk" movement grew
out of New York City in the 1980s and 1990s, producing a new wave of acoustic singer-songwriters. The more famous among them included Shawn Colvin, Lyle Lovett, and Suzanne Vega, as well as lesser-known artists such as John Gorka and Lucy Kaplansky. Many of them were songwriters whose work would be recorded by more prominent artists, but whose own recordings were to be found only in the collections of true aficionados.
 
Pierce Pettis was a staff writer for PolyGram in Nashville in 1979, when his work "Song at the End of the Movie" was recorded by Joan Baez on her Honest Lullaby album. This was his ticket to the rebirth of the New York folk scene. It was followed by three albums on Windham Hill’s High Street Records label: While the Serpent Lies Sleeping (1989), Tinseltown (1991), and Chase the Buffalo (1993).
 
During this period, Pettis was in search of that balance between the edginess of the "folk-rock" sound and the inner muse central to his lyrics. There are always the pitfalls of over-orchestration and over-production, often in the interests of making an album more marketable. The quest for equilibrium depends both on the integrity of the artist — that is, a refusal to "sell out" — and the guiding hand of a good producer. Pettis had found that guide in the person of Mark Heard, himself also a singer-songwriter. With the unexpected passing of Heard in 1992, Pettis decided to include one of Heard’s songs in every album from then on.
 
After Pettis’s contract with High Street ended, he signed on with Compass Records, with whom he released Making Light of It (1996), Everything Matters (1998), State of Grace (2001), Great Big World (2004). By then he was already established as a "songwriter’s songwriter."
 

It is clear from his work
that Pettis is a man of faith, but it doesn’t stop there. In the course of getting their message across, a good many so-called "Christian" artists wear that faith on their sleeve. Pettis keeps his in his back pocket (Deo gratias), only pulling it out when the audience isn’t looking. Perhaps this is neither to be shy or clever so much as a result of simply living the way he chooses, and leaving the conclusions to others.
 
Even without following the usual social-political whims of politically correct folksingers, Pettis has done respectably in that venue, having performed at Kerrville Folk Festival; APR’s Mountain Stage; NPR’s E-town, Morning Edition, and World Café; not to mention VH-1, CBS News, and the former Nashville Network. Pettis’s work has also been recorded by such mainstream artists as Garth Brooks ("You Move Me" on Sevens) and Dar Williams ("Family" on Mortal City).
 
Pettis’s songs possess a dry wit and an enduring faith despite everything, including a broken marriage around the time he switched labels. Making Light of It features his son from that union, both on the album cover and as part of a tribute to the virtue of hope titled "Hold On To That Heart," co-written with J. L. Wallace:
 
I saw you being born
You’ll probably see me die
And in between those two points
Is so little time . . .
 
Hold on to that heart
Hold on to the love you know
Hold on to that heart
Child don’t let go.
 
His next two albums, Everything Matters and State of Grace, showed how Pettis’s life has a way of moving on, without losing an awareness of its pitfalls. Of particular interest is the title work of the latter:
 
Oh I wash my hands
And I take my place
Bow my head
And clean my plate
I think and act
And I talk this way
For I was raised
In a state of grace . . .
 
In a documentary video clip on YouTube, Pettis describes the inspiration for the work:
 
The state in question is the state of Alabama, which is where I was raised, and I guess I’ve probably spent most of my life trying to get away from, only to find myself moving back there just a few years ago. It’s kind of interesting, you know. For me, a state of grace, as I’ve discovered, is not necessarily a state of piety. It’s just a state where you’re not fooling anybody. And there’s nothing like going back to your old home to experience that, but also to find out who you were all along . . . . So I guess what I’m saying is maybe the opposite of what Thomas Wolfe was saying; that is, not only can you go back home again, but you might just find you never left the place.
 
Pettis’s most recent work, Great Big World, demonstrates the maturity of his craft. In a tribute to his home state, "Alabama 1959," he waxes nostalgically for a simpler time, if one with a dark side:
 
Men wore hats and called you "son"
Children said, "yessir, yes ma’am"
Ladies called you "hon"
And the days just blew away like dandelions
In Alabama 1959
 
Don’t use that word, my mother said
It isn’t Christian
Call them colored folks, instead
And so I learned to be polite . . .
 
Perhaps his most poignant work is one he wrote himself for his wife Michele. Titled "Song of Songs," it’s clearly inspired by the biblical canticle of the same name:
 
When your fruit is heavy
On the vine
I will take a long, long
Drink of wine
‘til my captured heart
Cries out your name
Flutters like a songbird
In a cage
And you are mine
Safe where you belong
I will sing to you
My song of songs
 
Pettis is discriminating in the use of background instruments, though this latest work makes more use of the banjo. His guitar work is more than mere accompaniment, and in a live solo performance, Pettis is more than a great songwriter; as a guitarist, he stands out on his own. The tenderness inherent both in his voice and the themes of his works belies a giant of a man, with strong hands that attack his instrument as much as caress it. He makes full use of the fingerboard, as his right thumb pounds out the running bass lines with percussive skill. He commands the stage, even as he lacks any pretension, sharing the stories behind the songs.
 
He is already at work on his next album, due out by the end of the summer. Those who listen to his work can hear a longing for the heart’s true home — a heart that is, to quote Augustine, "restless, until it rests in Thee."
 


David Lawrence Alexander writes from Arlington, Virginia, and is the author of the blog, man with black hat.

By

Joanna Bogle is a writer, biographer, and historian. She relishes the new translation of the Mass, the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, her own excellent local Catholic parish, traditional hymns (especially, perhaps, Anglican ones) rain, good literature, sleep, the English coast, Autumn, buttered toast, and a number of other things too precious and important to list here. Visit her blog.

Join the conversation in our Telegram Chat! You can also find us on Facebook, MeWe, Twitter, and Gab.

MENU