Pierce Pettis is one of today’s most celebrated American songwriters. His songs, tinged with his Appalachian upbringing, have been called “profound,” “beautifully delivered,” “wry,” “sensitive,” and “an integral part of any singer/songwriter’s collection.”
The Curator‘s Tom Wilkinson has followed Pettis’s career for years, and he recently discussed songwriting, storytelling, and how to have a lengthy career in the music business with the musician.
You’re often referred to as one of America’s great songwriters, so I have to ask – what do you think makes a good song? When you teach songwriting, what do you say?
There are so many great songwriters who are much better than me. But in my opinion, a good song is one that makes you think – not of the writer and his world, but of your own life. It’s that quality that makes a song universal.
I teach songwriting workshops occasionally. If it’s a short afternoon session, I just run through the nuts and bolts basics: making a strong chorus, tips to improve melody, lyrics that say less and mean more, and so on. But when I have several days for a workshop, I like to spend the first session on a “philosophy of songwriting.” I like to challenge the class to consider their real motive in songwriting, and the point of songwriting, in general.
You’ve been doing essentially the same thing for the last twenty years: writing songs, putting out albums, and touring the country. How do you build a steady, perhaps modest, life out of music when you’re not a “rock star”? How can musicians build longevity into their careers?
It’s pretty hard to do, but I’ve also been blessed with a small following of people who allow me to actually squeeze a living out of writing, recording, and touring. Without their support I couldn’t do it – nor would I want to.
I’m probably the worst person in the world to give advice to musicians, but I would say be true to yourself, ignore trends, learn from other artists, and trust your own voice. Play what you know is good, and work to make it better.
Your most recent album, That Kind of Love, is your fifth with Compass Records. How does it build on your previous recordings, and how does it break with what you’ve done before?
My first album for Compass Records, Making Light of It, was recorded in Nashville, but I had David Miner, a producer I’d worked with before, come from California to produce with a mostly-Californian crew. The next album, Everything Matters, was my first entirely Nashville-based project.
Though these two projects were great, I think I really began to find my own identity on the next album, State of Grace. This was the first of three albums with Garry West. Garry owns and runs Compass Records with his wife, Alison Brown, so I was surprised and flattered when he asked to produce the record.
I had just experienced a string of professional misfortunes, and I was out of a job, out of money, and on the verge of losing my house. I had expected Garry to drop me – not produce me. I discovered in Garry an amazingly gifted and supportive producer. I hadn’t realized that Garry and Alison were actually fans – that they really liked what I was about as a writer and artist.
So, I was allowed to draw more on my own Appalachian upbringing. The songs were all about home, family, and nostalgia. Recorded live, the sound was more rootsy and warm, and the cover art was a painting by Howard Finster, who grew up in my home of DeKalb County, Alabama, rather than the usual photo portrait. The players on the album were not only top-notch, but they really wanted to be on the project.
The next album, Great Big World, continued what State of Grace started. We added more wonderful players, the sessions were done live, and the sound was, if anything, more rootsy than before. Some of the songs were co-writes with David Wilcox and continued in the family/home/faith vein. The cover art was by Chattanooga-based (and Howard Finster-inspired) artist, Terry Cannon.
The new album builds on the previous two recordings with the return of many I’ve worked with before, creating a musical zone I’m familiar and comfortable with. I think it differs in that Garry and I tried to make the album entirely song-centered – it stands or falls on the strength of each individual song, instead of a theme. The production is quite a bit more intimate and sparse. And the songs themselves are pieces I’ve performed live and lived with much longer than on earlier albums.
There are four years between Great Big World and That Kind of Love. Four years must have resulted in a lot of additional material. Not to sound greedy, but any chance we’ll see some of those songs from the cutting room floor on a B-side album or EP later this year?
Well, there have always been those cutting room floor songs. Though it was written in the 90s, I don’t think I was really up to performing “To Dance” the way it should be done until now. And “Veracruz” was a re-write from an earlier version started 10 years earlier. Both songs were discarded from previous projects – their time just hadn’t come yet. Needless to say, there are a number of other songs in various states of development and repair. And I have some newer songs just finished. No plans, however, for B-sides or EPs this year.
One of my favorite aspects of seeing live shows is that you sometimes get to hear the stories behind the songs. What can you tell us about the songs in this collection?
Here’s a story I like: “I Am Nothing” was inspired by a friend of mine and outstanding songwriter named Don Dunaway. Though Don once worked with people like Steve Goodwin and Michael Smith, for the last thirty years he has labored in obscurity at a tourist bar in St. Augustine, Florida. Every afternoon, Don performs his own very original songs for a drive-by audience ranging from indifferent to openly hostile. This is a distressing spectacle to those of us who admire Don and his work. However, as I tell my audiences, it occurred to me one day that this was not at all a tragedy, but a magnificent, life-long act of defiance.
This is your third album that uses folk art (from Howard Finster and Terry Cannon). How did you find them, and what attracts you to their work?
Terry and I discovered each other at a show in Chattanooga a few years ago. I was doing a concert in a space that was also an exhibition of Terry’s work, which I was loudly admiring, not realizing the artist was standing right next to me. Terry was also a fan of my work, so it became a sort of mutual admiration society. I’d been familiar with Howard’s work for some time. I’m drawn to their work for its innocent, whimsical quality. Both artists convey something that is at once childlike and very wise.
Lastly: what have you been listening to recently?
There’s an old out-of-print, early 90s album by some friends of mine from Florida called “The New Arkadelphians.” The main writer, Jack Cheshire, is some kind of genius.
Other than that, I’m listening to everything: Coldplay, Hank Williams, Robert Johnson, Louis Armstrong, Joni Mitchell, Al Green, The Who, Elvis Costello, and Beethoven.