July 17, 2013 9:46:08 AM
When your finely-wrought songs have been recorded by the likes of Joan Baez, Art Garfunkel and Garth Brooks, it's a fair bet you're doing something right. Pierce Pettis has been doing it right for decades. Admired for masterful lyrics and rich vocals, Pettis is widely regarded as one of the preeminent songwriters of the time. His musical commentary on the human experience -- especially the Southern experience -- is sometimes heart-rending, sometimes humorous, but always genuine.
The Columbus Arts Council presents an intimate evening with Pettis Saturday, July 20 in the Rosenzweig Arts Center's Omnova Theater in downtown Columbus at 7 p.m.
The Fort Payne, Ala., troubadour has appeared nine times on American Public Radio's "Mountain Stage" and been featured on programs such as NPR's "World Cafe," "E-Town" and "Morning Edition," CBS News, VH-1 and the Nashville Network.
From early days as a staff writer for Muscle Shoals Sound Studios and later PolyGram, to a recording career with High Street Records (a division of Windham Hill) and Compass Records, he's found his comfort zone -- and won the New Folk Songwriting Competition at the revered Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas and an ASCAP Country Music Award along the way.
"Pierce's music is eloquent, clever, poignant and poetic, and his voice is mesmerizing," said Beverly Norris, Columbus Arts Council program manager and a longtime fan. "We're so happy to be able to have him in the Golden Triangle, performing here for the first time."
Sense of place
"I never set out to be a 'Southern writer'; I just write what I know about," said Pettis in a July 11 phone interview. "You draw from wherever you're from, and the South is such a story and has such a legacy. People have a romanticized idea of it -- people who live here and people who don't."
Steve Ellis, station manager of Starkville-based WMSV 91.1 radio, has followed the performer's career for more than 20 years.
"Pierce is one of the finest songwriter-singers in my collection. I put songwriter first because his writing is exceptional," he said. "A son of the South, so many of his songs speak to this part of the country."
Pettis urged other writers to delve into their own regions and families, to explore whatever it is that makes them unique.
"You can start pretty much from wherever you are," he encouraged.
With five albums in current release on the Compass label out of Nashville, Pettis will meld songs from each in Columbus Saturday.
"But lately I've also been going back into my earlier catalog when I was on Windham Hill and pulled a few of those old songs out just for fun," he shared. "Some go back to the 1980s, and some go back two weeks."
The performer's open tunings and finger-picking on his hand-crafted instruments are of particular interest to guitarists.
"He can make his guitars sing," Ellis commented.
"I also play harmonica," Pettis said. " ... I found out a long time ago a solo act is kind of like being a stand-up comic," he laughed wryly. "I cut my teeth doing this years ago in some pretty nasty bars; I learned how to be a target."
Pettis is rather famously regarded these days as the patriarch of a rising musical clan. He's the father of Grace Pettis, who shares the distinction of having won the New Folk Award at Kerrville, as her dad did. His sons, Rayvon and George, are each enjoying their own levels of success in the industry. Rayvon, though, is also preparing for a repeat deployment to Afghanistan with the Army National Guard.
Pettis has recently been in collaboration with fellow songwriters Kate Campbell and Tom Kimmel. The folk super group known as the New Agrarians will soon release an album, which was recorded largely at Delta State University's DMI Recording Studio in Cleveland. The experience brought home to Pettis just how powerful that area's isolation might have been in fueling its legendary music.
"I don't know whether it was boredom or incubation that caused the blues to happen, but something really, really special about the music came out of the Delta. It's like nowhere else in the world," he said.
His own best songs, he thinks, are the ones that took either 30 minutes or 10 years to write.
"It's funny ... sometimes it takes years and sometimes it drops whole cloth," he mused.
However they come, critics and fans will take them, as they have the songs on nine previous albums, not to mention compilations.
"Pettis doesn't write songs -- he writes literature," Sing Out! magazine has written about Pierce Pettis.
"He's a rare talent," concurred Ellis. "This is a concert audiences should embrace."
How to go
Tickets to the July 20 7 p.m. performance are $10 in advance, $12 at the door, if available. Contact the Columbus Arts Council at 662-328-2787 for tickets or information.
Event sponsors include the Clark Beverage Group, Mitchell Distributing, The Wingate Inn and WMSV Radio 91.1.
Learn more about Pettis at piercepettis.com. Find video clips at youtube.com and sonicbids.com
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.