A J. Robert Parks interview
with Pierce Pettis
Schuba's in Chicago, January 9,
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
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.
TOLLBOOTH: 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
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
That's nice to hear.
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.
That's kind of a question
I wanted to ask. I followed you
for about the last maybe seven or
I wondered who that was following
Were you like tailgating me?
So, that was you? (Laughter by both.)
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.
I'm still trying to get into
the music business.
(Laughter) I thought maybe
if you could just give a little
bit of history of how you got involved
and how you became...
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
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 Eberhardt,
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
Eberhardt 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.
What's the title?
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 High Street 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.
Why did you leave Windham
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.
How has your approach to songwriting
changed over the years?
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 tome 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.
On a similar subject, how
do you go about making an album,
and how has that changed?
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
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.
Well, I knew the guys in The
Choir because I had met them
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
So, I'm very grateful for their
support, but I'm just a run of
singer/songwriter. That's basically
it. I try to be honest, and I
to pull off a good song if I can.
I do believe in the way the
art as something that has beauty
and truth and goodness. I do
that, but that's as close as I get.
I think everybody has to operate
some idea of what they're doing,
and for me those things are
are real things. There really is
something in this world called
is something called the truth, and
it's not relative either.
something you can own, it owns you.
And goodness is something --
experienced it, and those are worthy
things. And you can touch on
and you can maybe learn something
worthwhile, other than just
own ego. I think it was C.
S. Lewis who wrote an essay
artists can be so obsessed with
vision, and yet be totally
*the* vision. Artists in the 19th
century never thought that way.
They were trying to connect to something
over them. But in this century,
think they're God and they don't
want anybody to plug into their
which is usually self-righteous,
self-centered, and often very
Along that line then, how
do you try to relate to your
and where they're at? At what level
is there that connection?
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
in between songs, but when I'm doing
a song, I take the music
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.
You mentioned Mark Heard
a couple of times, and I know
worked with him. Would you say a
few words as to what it was like
to work with Mark and what his legacy
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
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
love with a record. That's what
Mark's music does. There was no
agenda with Mark. He just wrote great
Personally, he was a very funny
man with a great, great sense of
He had lots and lots and lots of
energy. He was hard to keep up
sometimes. He'd be the first guy
there in the morning and the
to leave. He had an amazing ability
to be spontaneous no matter how
he was. He had great ideas all the
time, all the time. He could not
phoniness, he wouldn't tolerate
it. Anything pretentious
game as far as he was concerned.
I always liked that about him.
be dangerous to be around sometimes.
Because you sure couldn't put
him on. He was way too smart for
that. The kind of guy to keep you
What are some of your other
musical or lyrical influences?
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.
What books have you been reading
My wife has me reading Wallace
Stegner. I love Mark Helprin.
read all of his novels except the
newest one now. Going to start
pretty soon. That's about it recently.
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
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
that very same stuff and just loved
You mentioned in your telephone
message that there's a sense of relief
when you finish a concert.
Why is that?
You've been up there all these
Well, I love playing, but there's
just a lot of stress connected
that. You're always going somewhere
you haven't been before,
something you haven't done. Just
a million little things.
have to take care of a lot of little
things before your show can
and sometimes there are idiosyncratic
things that people don't
like why you need water with no
ice in it. Then when you getup 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.
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.
One last question. Does it
really feel you're making
Yes. In fact, I think most musicians
feel that way. You feel like you're
getting away with something.
Because you've been conditioned
to believe it's not a real
though you might work harder than
anybody else, every time you
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
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,
sleaze bag who leaves his wife and
kids at home. So, you do feel
outlaw when you play music.
J. Robert Parks ( The Phantom
Tollbooth, January 9, 1998 )
Copyright © 1998 by J. Robert Parks
for The Phantom Tollbooth
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Pierce Pettis' latest album,
State of Grace, is available