HOLIDAY Messages

Singer-songwriter Pierce Pettis has had his fingers in plenty of music-industry pies. Born in Alabama, he cut his teeth as a writer and session musician at the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studios before joining Nashville conglomerate Polygram/Universal as a staff songwriter in the ’70s. His songs were covered by myriad artists, from Garth Brooks to Art Garfunkel to Joan Baez, and eventually Pierce migrated north to New York City, where he fell in with the narrative-first firebrands of the 1980s Fast Folk movement.

As all good Southerners do, Pettis returned home in the ’90s and recommitted himself to incubating his own solo career, as a thoughtful tunesmith with an ear for uplifting melodies and a mind best expressed in wry, piercing prose. Pettis is a fan favorite and regular fixture on the First Coast; we chatted with him before his annual Christmas Tour stop at Mudville Music Room in St. Nicholas to talk about faith, politics and genuine cri de coeur.
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Folio Weekly: Give us an idea of what these Christmas Tour shows entail.
Pierce Pettis: I have quite a bit of Christmas-related material that I perform only between Thanksgiving and Christmas: My songs “Miriam” and “If It Wasn’t for the Night,” along with the Anglican hymn “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Generally, I’ll do a set of my regular material, mostly from my five Compass Records releases. Then I’ll take a short break and come back with a set of Christmas music. Many of the venues are quite special to me, such as Mudville Music Room and The Warehouse in Tallahassee, where the show’s become an annual tradition. In fact, the shows at Mudville grew out of an even longer history of annual Christmas shows at European Street Café. When I play in Northeast Florida, it’s like a homecoming for me.

So you’re comfortable exploring the holiday-specific interplay of faith, family and society?
I think so. Since Christmas is obviously a Christian holiday, there should be no shame or surprise in the mixing of faith and family in the presentation. But I also like to recognize that my audience is broader than merely Christian and that this season has special meaning to people of many faiths — or no faith. One of the reasons I wrote “Miriam” was to explore the Jewish roots of the Christmas story and make it more accessible to non-Christian (and especially Jewish) listeners.

You’re planning to work on new material in 2017. Has your writing process shifted significantly?
I’m less anxious now. I’ve never tried to force it, but I’m even more inclined to wait for the right line or the right music. There’s no formula other than just work. I tend to start a lot of ideas, let the inspiration run its course, and then get back to it later. I do this with both music and lyrics, together and separately, sometimes over a period of years. I have folders full of lines, themes, song starts, melodies, chord progressions, etc. That’s why I tell people my best songs seem to take either 10 minutes or 10 years. Sometimes it comes all at once; sometimes it takes a while. But I’m in no hurry.

What did you learn in your early songwriting days at Muscle Shoals and in Nashville?
I came to Muscle Shoals when I was 18 years old thinking I was hot stuff. The guys there, particularly Jimmy Johnson and Barry Beckett, were exactly what I needed: someone to burst that bubble and bring me down to reality. They made it clear I was not all that — but if I worked hard, I might have some potential. I learned that being a musician and a songwriter is a craft and that you should take your work seriously and yourself lightly, not the other way around. Much later in Nashville, I had a similar experience learning a lot from some of the best songwriters in the business. My first boss at Polygram, Doug Howard, encouraged me to write great songs and great artists would find them. That turned out to be true when folks like Garth Brooks and Art Garfunkel started covering my stuff.

Then you went off on your own. Do you approach live performance as a solo artist differently now than in the ’80s?
It’s more fun now. Not to brag, but I’m just much, much better. I have a lifetime of experience behind me and a huge catalogue of songs to choose from, as well as covers and other material I’ve picked up over the years. I’m so much more relaxed — nothing to prove. At my age, sometimes the voice can get a little thin and ragged. But I know so much more about how to use my voice, even on the more challenging nights. And on a good night, I’ve never sung better in my life. I also love the songs that I’ve been writing the last few years. I feel they have a maturity and depth that comes from doing this over a long period of time. Really, this feels like a golden time for me as a performer.

What kind of time is it to be a folk musician, especially given the current state of social and political affairs?
Though I’ve often been accused of being one, I really don’t see myself as a “folksinger.” I see myself as a performing songwriter, working primarily in an acoustic genre, largely due to the fact that I work almost entirely alone. When I was younger, I might have thought I was on a mission to save the world. As I got older, it occurred to me that not only was I not curing cancer, but I might well be causing it. I’ve known a lot of songwriters and musicians over the years, and they’re mostly wonderful people. But there are very few I would consider qualified to give political or personal advice. I feel I am equally unqualified, so I avoid inflicting that on my audience. The wise old hippie philosopher, Wavy Gravy, had a great quote about politics: “poly,” meaning “from the many” and “ticks,” those little blood-sucking vermin. That tends to sum up my view of politics in general.

So songwriting is more personal for you.
To me, it’s all about the song. When I become too focused on my politics, my opinions or my personal life, I lose sight of what really matters: the song. The end must always be the song. It’s not an advertisement for my ego, my pathos or my preconceived opinions. What I want to hear in a song is a genuine cri de coeur — a cry from the heart. That’s not the same thing as a cry for help.

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