Pierce Pettis
Schuba's in Chicago
January 9, 1998
By J. Robert Parks

The first time I saw Pierce Pettis was in 1990 in a little club in Cambridge, Mass. I had never heard of him, but a friend at a radio station called me and offered free tickets, saying, "You're going to like this guy." Sure enough--with just an acoustic guitar and a gorgeous baritone voice singing about the South, faith, and life, Pierce had me hooked. Unfortunately, his recorded material didn't grab me the same way that his concerts did, that is until Chase the Buffalo came out a few years ago. With David Miner's brilliant production and some of the best songwriting of that year, Chase the Buffalo ranks as one of my favorite albums of the '90s. And while Pettis's latest, Making Light of It, doesn't quite measure up to that high standard, I was still more than excited to see Pierce as he rolled through town on a very cold Chicago night.

After another wonderful, intimate performance, this time with his new wife on background vocals, Pierce was gracious enough to sit down and chat as we ate a late dinner.

Pierce - First thing I want to say is that folks have been really nice to us tonight, which is a good thing. Clubs are not always the best places in the world, but these guys have been exceptional.

Tollbooth - That's nice to hear.

Pierce - Yeah. It's a relief really. It gets a little scary. You drive into a city and especially... I grew up in a small town, so even though I lived in Atlanta like ten years and I've spent most of my life working in large cities, I still get a little apprehensive when I go into New York or Chicago, or wherever. It's such a relief when you go there and people are nice to you. It makes all the difference.

Tollbooth - That's kind of a question I wanted to ask. I followed you for about the last maybe seven or eight years...

Pierce - I wondered who that was following me.

Tollbooth - (Laughter)

Pierce - Were you like tailgating me? So, that was you? (Laughter by both.)

Tollbooth - But I realized as I was sitting down to think about this interview that I don't know hardly any of your history--how you came to be a singer/songwriter and how you got into the music business.

Pierce - I'm still trying to get into the music business. 

Tollbooth - (Laughter) I thought maybe if you could just give a little bit of history of how you got involved and how you became...

Pierce - Well, it's really kind of a long, sordid history. I don't know if you'd want it all, but basically, I didn't plan to be a musician. I planned to do what my parents wanted me to do, which was become a doctor or a lawyer or something. But I discovered music when I was about ten years old and began writing songs almost immediately, almost as soon as I started playing the guitar. And it was at a certain point, like maybe my junior year in high school, I just decided there wasn't anything I really wanted to do. I didn't have any enthusiasm for the sciences or for anything. So I studied music for a couple of years at Florida State and then dropped out. I went up to a recording studio that used to be sort of famous in those days. They signed me as a songwriter. I was sort of under development, if you know what that means.

And I did get some things cut. I had a song cut by Joan Baez and another one recorded by Alec Taylor, who is James Taylor's brother. But it wasn't really going anywhere, so I eventually went back to school and got my undergraduate degree, not in music, but in communications, oddly enough. And then I took off for England, where I was for a year, well not quite a year. I actually followed a girl over there who I later married.  That was my first wife. I was with her for thirteen years during which I spent a lot of time on the road--long, long, long periods of time on the road. 

In the early '80s, I made the acquaintance of a bunch of people in New York who were playing acoustic music, which at that time nobody was doing. You could get arrested doing that. But these people I met were all involved in a little organization called Fast Folk, which is sort of a cooperative--it's a co-op for music. Nobody made any money, but it didn't cost anybody anything either. It was a way to have your stuff heard, and some of the people that recorded for Fast Folk, before they recorded for anybody else, were Lyle Lovett, Nancy Griffith, Tracy Chapman, Shawn Colvin. Who else? Suzanne Vega, Cliff Everheart, Christine Lavin, John Gorka. I could just go on and on and on. That's who these people were.  And Shawn played in the Cottonwood Cafe for $20 or something, and Cliff Everheart was playing all around town with bands and stuff. Christine was like a ringleader. She would put on these shows where she would invite everybody, about 30 people. And it was just fun, and it was really cool. That's where I met John Gorka, who is still a friend of mine, and a lot of other people who I have a lot of respect for.  That was a very, very lucky break for me. I just literally fell into that, and not too long after that I did my first album, which is not available anywhere, fortunately.

Tollbooth - What's the title?

Pierce - It's called Moments. It's on vinyl, and nobody can get it. Then I signed with Windham Hill and I did three albums, two of which were under the Highstreet label. And they did very well critically. In fact, the third one, Chase a Buffalo, just ended up winning all kinds of awards, but nobody bought it, which kind of sucks. So I made these records and kept playing these little gigs, and that's pretty much what I've done. In '93, maybe it was '94, I signed with Polygram as a writer, not as an artist, and I've been writing for them ever since. I'm beginning to have some success with that. That's out of Nashville. It's a little hard for me because I'm not really a country writer, but I have a lot of material that will work for country artists because what they really want is good songs. And I've had the pleasure of working with people like Gordon Kennedy, who won a Grammy last year for "Change the World."

I left Windham Hill after those three albums and signed with Compass, which is a small label in Nashville. I had my first album with them last year, which didn't sell a ton of records; but it sold as many as my last one did, so I'm pretty proud of that because we don't have any money. And again, we got great reviews. That's always nice.

Tollbooth - Why did you leave Windham Hill?

Pierce - Well, it's not like I left. It's more like Windham Hill left itself. Windham Hill was bought up by BMG, and they basically turned it all upside down and moved everything down to L.A. They dropped pretty much their entire roster. I was on my way out of Windham Hill anyway when that happened. I think I was kind of lucky. I wasn't in the middle of a project or something, which would have been horrible. 

But, moving forward, I'm working on a new album now for Compass, which will be out this summer, and that one will be with Gordon. In fact, Gordon Kennedy's producing, so that should be interesting.

Tollbooth - How has your approach to songwriting changed over the years?

Pierce - Well, I think I focus more on the song and less on me. I don't feel like everything has to be a confessional. In fact, the point of a confessional is not that you were confessing; it's that you can talk to people on a very intimate level. It doesn't have to be your confession. It can be somebody else. It could be...Randy Newman is so good at writing songs, and you'd swear he's gone to Birmingham, Alabama, or South Africa. He's so convincing because he has humanity in it, but they're not just songs about Randy Newman. And to me that's a good lesson for songwriters--to focus on the song, not just on yourself. So, I'd say that's one way I've tried to change. 

Also, I've paid a little more attention to the fact that every song doesn't have to be depressing, every song doesn't have to change the world, every song doesn't have to make some statement. I don't feel like there's anything I can teach anybody. All I can do is say things that I and  everybody else already know. That's when a song, I think, is talking to me personally. Don't you hate pretentious stuff? Like standing on an ivory tower trying to tell you how to live your life or do anything else. I believe there are certain things that are true and everybody just kind of knows it. I try to plug into that. I think that makes a song universal. 

Tollbooth - On a similar subject, how do you go about making an album, and how has that changed?

Pierce - Well, I was talking to a friend the other day in Nashville who's been with some pretty successful groups and always had a good budget, and had weeks and weeks and weeks and months and months to work on records. I told him how my last record was made in eight days. We did the backing vocals right as we were mixing the thing. In other words, I had like one chance to get the harmonies or they weren't going to be there. I've always made records on a shoestring, always with three guns to my head. If I ever actually had a budget to make a decent record, I don't know if I'd even know what to do with it. It's literally true, and I'm not complaining. Frankly, I feel fortunate that I can make records. I think there are a lot of very talented people who don't even get that chance. But making albums for me is mighty hard work, and I'm really proud of the fact that some of them turned out alright. The first track on my last album was a Mark Heard song, "Satellite Sky." That album started with me and three other musicians sitting in a studio waiting for a phone call telling us the money had gone through to pay everybody that day. We got the phone call and were exhilarated, and then we did that song. As you can kind of tell, there's a great sense of relief in that song. But, that's what it's like, and that's what it's been like. 

Tollbooth - When you were first with Windham Hill, which was when I first became aware of you, back in 1990, there was... I don't know how to phrase this. It was clear to me what perspective you were coming from, yet you had no connection at all with the "Christian Music Industry." But, over the last few years you've worked more with people who at least have that connection.  People like Derri Daugherty, Steve Hindalong, Gordon Kennedy, Jan Krist. I'm curious how that's come about.

Pierce - Well, I knew the guys in The Choir because I had met them years before when I met Mark Heard. They were good friends with Mark. Also, they were good friends with David Miner, who produced my last two albums. David wanted to have them on this record, and I was really glad he did because they're excellent musicians. And Gordon Kennedy is as good a guitar player as there is alive, as far as I'm concerned. But it's really not a conscious effort to move into that world, though frankly they've been pretty good to me. Susan Ashton covered "You Moved Me" before Garth Brooks did, and it's because of that that Garth Brooks cut it, because he's a Susan Ashton fan.

So, I'm very grateful for their support, but I'm just a run of the mill singer/songwriter. That's basically it. I try to be honest, and I try to pull off a good song if I can. I do believe in the way the Greeks define art as something that has beauty and truth and goodness. I do believe in that, but that's as close as I get. I think everybody has to operate under some idea of what they're doing, and for me those things are true. Those are real things. There really is something in this world called beauty. There is something called the truth, and it's not relative either. It's not something you can own, it owns you. And goodness is something--we've all experienced it, and those are worthy things. And you can touch on those things and you can maybe learn something worthwhile, other than just amplifying your own ego.  I think it was C. S. Lewis who wrote an essay lamenting how artists can be so obsessed with vision, and yet be totally disconnected from *the* vision. Artists in the 19th century never thought that way.  They were trying to connect to something over them. But in this century, artists think they're God and they don't want anybody to plug into their vision, which is usually self-righteous, self-centered, and often very ugly. 

Tollbooth - Along that line then, how do you try to relate to your audience and where they're at? At what level is there that connection?

Pierce - I try putting myself in the audience. I don't want to be the center of attention. I want the song to be. As far as the audience, I just want to respect them, but not pander to them and play something just because they might like it. What I do is try to give it to them as best as I can. I don't fake emotions, I don't give a prayer. I try to be funny in between songs, but when I'm doing a song, I take the music seriously, and I try to take myself seriously. You know, I don't want to get in the way of...I feel I owe them  the best interpretation of a song.

Tollbooth - You mentioned Mark Heard a couple of times, and I know you worked with him. Would you say a few words as to what it was like to work with Mark and what his legacy will be?

Pierce - I sat down the other night with the drummer for a band that has sold maybe 20 or 30 million records. This is somebody you would definitely have heard of, and this guy was over at my house—wonderful guy-- and he was talking about how he was so burned out and that music has gotten so processed and predictable. I said, "Let me turn you on to Mark Heard," and I put on Satellite Sky; and I have never seen a person fall in love with a record. That's what Mark's music does. There was no agenda with Mark. He just wrote great music. 

Personally, he was a very funny man with a great, great sense of humor. He had lots and lots and lots of energy. He was hard to keep up with sometimes. He'd be the first guy there in the morning and the last one to leave. He had an amazing ability to be spontaneous no matter how tired he was. He had great ideas all the time, all the time. He could not stand phoniness, he wouldn't tolerate it.  Anything pretentious was fair game as far as he was concerned. I always liked that about him. That can be dangerous to be around sometimes.

Tollbooth - How so?

Pierce - Because you sure couldn't put him on. He was way too smart for that. The kind of guy to keep you honest.

Tollbooth - What are some of your other musical or lyrical influences?

Pierce - Obviously, a lot of Bruce Cockburn. I have a lot of respect for him. I love Bob Dylan and his lyrics and his attitude. I think the best American songwriter alive would have to be Randy Newman, without a doubt, if you're talking about just the best. I don't know if he's actually my favorite, but I can look at his work and go, "This can't be improved on." I was influenced by Joni Mitchell, I think, both musically and lyrically. I love the way her stuff is so literate without being pretentious. She isn't suffering from that "I've been to college" thing that so many pseudo folk artists seem to have these days. 

Tollbooth - What books have you been reading lately?

Pierce - My wife has me reading Wallace Stigner. I love Mark Helter. I've read all of his novels except the newest one now. Going to start that one pretty soon. That's about it recently.

Tollbooth - Do you have any favorite authors from growing up?

Pierce - Well, I didn't read enough growing up, to be honest. I just bought comic books and looked at the pictures. I did read a little, but I read stuff like Robin Hood and Robinson Caruso. I read Mark Twain. I really love Mark Twain. I don't think I started reading until I was in high school, and I was reading stuff that I thought was so cool then, and now it's just silly. Robert Heinlein, you know, that stupid science fiction stuff. I don't mean to be insulting.  I remember being forced to read things like Flannery O'Connor and hating it. You know, crazy old lady. I don't want to read this stuff. And then about ten years later I rediscovered that very same stuff and just loved it.  

Tollbooth - You mentioned in your telephone message that there's a sense of relief when you finish a concert. 

Pierce - Absolutely.

Tollbooth - Why is that?

Pierce - It's stressful.

Tollbooth - You've been up there all these years...

Pierce - Well, I love playing, but there's just a lot of stress connected with that. You're always going somewhere you haven't been before, dealing with something you haven't done. Just a million little things.  You always have to take care of a lot of little things before your show can happen, and sometimes there are idiosyncratic things that people don't understand, like why you need water with no ice in it. Then when you get up there, you have to be just as relaxed as you can possibly be, while at the same time, be on top of it. And in my case, to try to be honest. I don't fall back on a persona. I just try to get more into myself, I mean into the person I actually am, and maybe a slightly amplified version. And nobody can force that. You have to relax to do that. 

Tollbooth - One last question. Does it really feel you're making out like a bandit?

Pierce - Yes. In fact, I think most musicians feel that way. You feel like you're getting away with something. 

Tollbooth - Why so?

Pierce - Because you've been conditioned to believe it's not a real job. Even though you might work harder than anybody else, every time you tell people you're a musician, they go, "Well great. What's your real job?" Also, you travel, and people just don't understand. I mean, if you were in the Army and you were gone half the year, everybody would think you're a hero. But if you're a musician and you're gone half the year, you're this sleaze bag who leaves his wife and kids at home. So, you do feel like an outlaw when you play music.