Making Light of It

A Conversation With Pierce Pettis

By Stuart C. Hancock

Copyright © 1997 Mars Hill Review 7 Winter/Spring 1997 · Issue 7: pgs 111-118.

We are crammed into the gothic basement of St. Paul's Chapel on the campus of Columbia University in New York City. There are about eighty others in the tiny, shoebox-shaped room, and it is hot. I am drinking a Rolling Rock-not out of choice, but because it is the only beer available-and I am worried that my friends, Gina and Matt, will not like the concert. We have already endured two mediocre singer-songwriters, it is going on ten o'clock, and the crowd is getting restless.

A lanky man, dressed in a black t-shirt and jeans, strolls up on stage. He seems bemused by the absence of a microphone, but after a somewhat sheepish "hello" to the audience, he finger-picks the opening notes of "Nod Over Coffee," by Mark Heard. As his rich baritone fills the room, I glance over at my friends and and know that my fears were unjustified. They-and the rest of the audience-are already caught up in the passion and intensity that Pierce Pettis is bringing into this small, crowded basement.

I first heard Pierce Pettis in 1990 on a Windham Hill folk compilation, Legacy, on which he performed the title track, a meditation on racial discrimination in the South:

Sundays we congregate
Praise Jesus, pass the plate
Sitting in our Sunday best
Singing hymns and mopping sweat
We learned the golden rule in separate Sunday schools
In a house long divided against itself
And it is a legacy passed down to you and me
What we choose to believe
We dare not question these things
It is a legacy, a wild and bitter seed
Scattered on these fertile fields
Where the roots run deep

I was taken with the rightness of the lyrics and his powerful, but spare delivery. Soon after, I heard Tinseltown, and was struck by the integrity and unswerving pursuit of truth-in all its beauty and tragedy-that was manifest in the songs. One example is found in the last verse of "Grandmother's Song":

Now my grandmother lies in a crumpled bed
And at night she hears voices in her head
And the family worries in the whispering dark
If she's got her religion right
It's a hardening of the arteries
It's a softening of the mind
And I mean to go and see her, but I
Cannot ever seem to find the time

I recently spoke with Mr. Pettis by telephone from New York. He lives near Atlanta, but was in Nashville at the time, where he is a staff songwriter for Polygram Records. His current album, released in late 1996, is Making Light of It, distributed by Compass Records.

Mars Hill Review: What goes through your mind as you get up on stage? What do you want to give your audience?

Pierce Pettis: Well, lately my emphasis has changed more to wanting to focus on them rather than myself. In the past I would think, "What can I do to win them over?" Now I wonder, "What can I give them; how can I share this with them?" I don't crave attention like I used to, and it frees me to enjoy my work. If I have a slow night, it no longer kills me. Now, I find that my audience's reaction is a lot better, because what I'm doing is to place myself out in the audience-to relate to it as if I was relating to an individual. I try to have a conversational approach in my rapport with the audience. In so doing, I am able to get deeply into the songs, because I love the songs, and I love playing them.

MHR: You have said that you began playing the guitar when you were ten years old. What led you to the guitar, first of all?

PP: The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Who. I was growing up in the sixties, that was what was on the radio, and I wanted to play it. I wanted to be like them. But also, from the moment I first picked up the guitar, I started writing songs. There was always this thing inside of me, this desire to express something, and I think that songwriting gave it an escape valve. From the time I was a little kid, I was creative, but I didn't have an outlet for it.

MHR: Do you remember your first song?

PP: It was pretty bad.

MHR: Would you care to sing it?

PP: Um, no. I don't remember it like I could play it, I remember the title, maybe. It was really terrible...

MHR: Okay, we'll skip it. Which musicians and songwriters influenced you?

PP: At that time, there were two tracks going through my head, corresponding with my two older sisters. One was in high school and the other in college, and I grew up on their discarded records. The sister who was in college was leaving all sorts of folk things to me-Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, Tom Paxton, and so on. My other sister was listening more to rock and roll, and I was getting her records, too. On the one hand, I'd hear a terrific folk album, and on the other hand, I'd hear Van Morrison's "Brown-Eyed Girl." The folk and the rock has been sort of mixed together in my head, and I feel like I can move pretty easily between the two. They're all roots, anyway. I can put on Pearl Jam one minute, and Norman Blake the next, and see where they're interconnected. Norman Blake is more obviously Appalachian folk, but when you put on Pearl Jam you can hear traces of what they were listening to when they were growing up.

MHR: You know, Bruce Cockburn's last couple of albums have sounded a lot like what you're doing. Do you think you've had a big influence on him?

PP: [Laughs] I doubt it, but I'll tell you what, I think Mark Heard had a big influence on both of us. I would consider it the greatest achievement of my life if I had any influence at all on Bruce Cockburn. He's one of those people that I admire beyond words.

MHR: Is there a particular song you wish you'd written?

PP: There are a million songs I wish I'd written. I wish I'd written "Raven in the Storm," by John Gorka and Jeff Hartley. I wish I'd written "Achy Breaky Heart," because I could really use the cash.

MHR: Can you describe the artistic vision with which you write songs? Hilaire Belloc discusses the songwriter's vision and purpose in his essay, "On Songs." Have you seen it?

PP: No, but I know he was a friend of G.K. Chesterton's, a very interesting guy. I've read about him, but never actually read his work. He's bound up with my interest in Chesterton. Lewis, if I recall, had some tremendous things to say about the artist's so-called vision, in a little essay he wrote in the twenties or thirties. He was more of a traditionalist; one of the things I really loved was his idea that, in the Twentieth Century, as we abandoned any unifying principle outside of ourselves, people quit talking about having the vision, and it became my vision. It suddenly became very selfish, whereas his point was that artists of a previous generation would have wanted to tap into the great beauty, truth and goodness- to tap into God, in a sense. They wanted to connect with something outside of themselves. Twentieth Century artists, according to the essay, have been completely self-absorbed and obsessed with their own personal vision. It gets boring and self-serving, and I think he's right.

MHR: In The Abolition of Man, he makes the distinction between the "sublime" and the "pretty." In other words, there is no difference between the sublime, that beauty could be a category which could be universally held, and that which is personally, sensually pleasing to one person.

PP: Or at least something that could be universally "humbling."

MHR: Yes, that's a good distinction. For you, besides making a living, and the fact that you're good at it, what would you say is the purpose of songwriting apart from the obvious, "songs are art and art is inherently valid?"

PP: Sometimes it is like a groaning. A song is a good groan-in the process of writing, you get something out of yourself. It is a vehicle for emotions, for conceptualizing something for which mere facts and conventional language is inadequate-it has to be in lyric form. I feel that I can convey mystery through song, in the same way that a good fairy tale can contain more truth than the straight facts. I don't know if there's any one purpose for song. The greatest purpose of all-this is going to sound corny, like Miss America's acceptance speech-is to gladden the heart. It sheds light and heat.

MHR: This seems off the subject, but trust me, it is going somewhere: Have you read The Habit of Being, by Flannery O'Connor?

PP: Yes I have. I have a friend who's in that book, a fellow in Atlanta named Bill Sessions, a wonderful man.

MHR: There's a fine anecdote in there about her friends, the Deans from St. Augustine, who tell her, "We've got this friend in Mississippi who's a writer; his name's Bill Faulkner. Is he any good?" And Flannery replies, "yessir, I reckon he's right good."

PP: I remember that her opinions of other writers were pretty up front. I remember she had something to say about Graham Greene. It seemed to her that through his fiction he apologized for his faith, and she found that offensive.

MHR: One of the things O'Connor talks about in the book-one of my preoccupations-is the difference between art and propaganda.

PP: To me, the difference is, propaganda is manipulative. Art should never be manipulative. Art should make an impact, but it is not outcome-based. It is not, "You put it in one end and it is always going to come out the same way every time on the other end." Art is very much into the individual and how he receives it as an individual. It comes from an individual to other individuals, but is never directed to a homogeneous mass.

I am really suspicious, frankly, of criticism-literary criticism, film criticism, whatever-because it implies there is only one way to interpret anything, and any other way is wrong. I know there are some basic rules by which one judges good and bad work, but it becomes reductionist, too simplistic, removing the prerogative of the individual to filter a work through his own experiences and what has meaning to him. Propaganda treats us all as robots, and assumes that we will just march in lockstep. It is also trying to persuade us-art can be very persuasive, no doubt, but that's not its purpose, that's its byproduct. Propaganda has only one purpose, and that is to change us in some way. It may be a good way, of course. The word comes from the Church, and means "propagation of the faith." Most definitely, the Church wants to change people, and my opinion, we're all the better for it. But it is not the purpose of art. When propaganda tries to disguise itself as art, it gets confusing, at best, and dishonest, at worst.

MHR: I think of this dichotomy when I think of some of your songs. The three that come to mind are "Legacy," "Mickey Leland," and "Stickman." They are, in fact, persuasive, and have "messages," so to speak. But I think of these songs as art, the reason being, that I could try to sum up "Stickman" in a few words-"it is about a man who is dying of AIDS"-but it is much more than that. It can only exist on its own, can only say what it is saying through the medium of the song itself. With propaganda, I think, you can describe the message in a paragraph, and not even need the thing itself to convey the message.

PP: To me, it is the manipulative nature of propaganda that I resent, as well as its condescension. Some propaganda can be so clever that you'd swear it was art, but to me, it all comes down to the purpose. It takes time to sort it all out. A few years ago, when you were wrapped up in politics of one kind or another, you may have heard a protest song and thought that it was the most brilliant song ever written. However, when you go back four or five years later and listen to the very same song, it is boring. Wait a few years-It is a good way to find out what is art and what is propaganda.

There are fine topical songs that have stood the test of time. For example, there's a wonderful Australian song, written during World War I, that makes one want to pick up arms and join the nearest skirmish. But this song is a song first, and that song still lives, is just as powerful, just as poignant today as when it was written, because it rises above mere propaganda. Think of all the English folk songs that were practically news reports; that was their purpose then. The minstrels would go around and sing about the battle in France or the latest intrigue in the royal court. But the songs were so beautifully done and stood so well on their own that they rose above the pedestrian subject matter, and we still listen to them.

MHR: I keep coming back to "Stickman," because it is one of my favorite of your songs-it is one song that I can scarcely listen to without crying. What does it feel like to know there is a power in the songs to move another so deeply?

PP: Whatever that power is, it doesn't come from me. I would never assume that I have any kind of power. When I'm handling a song like that, I feel like I'm handling dynamite and have to be very, very careful. "Stickman" is a song that I haven't done that much lately; maybe I've gotten a little lazy. It is a bit of a chore-in the one sense, it is good to sing the song well, and to play it, to hit home with it. At the same time, it is draining, because the emotions are just too raw and naked. It is a song that I want to be careful with-I don't want to be frivolous with it.

There's a song on my new album, "Hold On to that Heart," that is really naked. In a song like that, you can't hide your own emotions, and you can't withdraw into a cynical distance. You have to be there in the song itself.

MHR: I think the new album, Making Light of It, overall, is more unguarded than what you've written before.

PP: From my perspective, it seems a lot happier. There are more love songs, there is a lot more joy on this record, which is the direction I want to pursue.

MHR: I have the album lyrics in front of me. Let's see, "This Ain't Love," that wouldn't be one of the lighter ones.

PP: Actually, in a way, it is a funny song. I would like a lot of people in divorce recovery to hear it. The guy is kicking himself all through the song: "I know this isn't happening, I know this isn't love." "I could be your fool/given half the chance." It's just a lighthearted song.

MHR: You know, it didn't strike me that way.

PP: Well, there's a frustration in it. If I try to describe it, I'll mess it up. To me, it is not a sad song. A line like, "her hair was tossed/like Spanish moss," has an allure to it, a kind of hopefulness. Maybe she ain't the one, but the idea that you could still feel something feels pretty good all by itself.

MHR: How about, "My Life of Crime"?

PP: That one's fun, I love doing that song. It says a lot of things about being a musician that I always wanted to say. When you travel by yourself as a musician around the country in a sea of men carrying attaché cases, you stand out-you do tend to feel like a criminal. On the one hand, you feel like you're getting away with something-you've been missing on the payroll for years. On the other hand, whether it is real or perceived, you get the sense that maybe you're being treated just a little bit different from other folks, that you're just slightly above the criminal element. I've talked to a lot of musicians that feel that way. They feel like the airlines handle their guitars a lot more roughly than they would golf clubs. One of the questions I hate the most when I'm at a party among people who don't know me is, "What do you do?" I hate having to explain it in a minute. There's no way that it could sound good. "I'm a songwriter," which in their minds means, "I'm an unemployed spearmaker."

MHR: All I can say is, you are hanging out at the wrong parties.

PP: But, real or perceived, it feels like that. A long time ago I got tired of trying to explain to people what I do for a living. Very often the follow-up question is, "Yeah, but what do you do for a living?" They assume that I do this as a hobby.

MHR: Just tell them, "I'm in plastics." You know, one song that came to my mind when I heard "My Life of Crime" was T-Bone Burnett's "Criminal Under My Own Hat." For Burnett, criminality isn't just the result of what I've done, but is inextricably bound up in who I am. He has one of my favorite scraps of advice for Christian writers: "You can either write about the light, or you can write about what you see by the light."

PP: That's so true. And what you see by the light, to me, has more of a ring of maturity than constantly studying the light. Once you become a believer, you are expected to shoulder your pack and go do something. The Bible says, "Go out into the world and make disciples." A disciple is an active person, an agent of influence. For me, being an agent of influence is describing what I see by the light through the particular facets of experience I have been given. It isn't just saying the same thing over and over, repeating the basics of the Gospel in every song.

MHR: Speaking of biblical themes, I think the song, "Absalom, Absalom" is a masterful exegesis. Where did it come from?

PP: Obviously, it is the story of Absalom and David. When David says, "My son, my son, if only it had been me and not you," it has some of the most heartbreaking lines in all of literature. The idea that this is a true story, and these lines were spoken about a man 3,000 years ago is stunning. It is incredible drama, and more so, because it is true. Who cannot relate to that story who has children?

MHR: I think the final verse, where David sees himself as the source of Absalom's evil is a keen observation.

PP: It starts out with the hyssop in Psalm 51, "smear this blood on me, so that I will be clean," which seems like a contradiction. David can only become clean by owning up to what he has done. I don't know if he had Absalom in mind when he wrote the psalm. Absalom would have been a young man in his father's court observing how David dealt with Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite. I think I wrote the song partly as an attempt to express my feelings for my own sons.

MHR: Another of my favorite songs of yours is "Swimming."

PP: It is a very Catholic song.

MHR: Yes, but it is really very hard to pigeonhole. "Swimming" is about a priest, but it is also about a kind of transcendent spirituality that anyone who knows God can understand. It is about the desperate struggle of faith-"Swimming toward the light/deep down in this darkness we are fighting for our lives."

PP: It is a struggle-everything is required of you. Christianity is not an excuse to coast the rest of your life. You had better start swimming like you've never done before, now that you know what the stakes really are. It may not be necessary for you to swim for your life, but who knows? You just might have to.

Pierce Pettis Discography

Moments (Independent), 1984. Out of print.

While the Serpent Lies Sleeping (Windham Hill), 1989.
Mr. Pettis' first commercial album is uneven, but has several very fine tracks which remain among his most accomplished songs, including "Legacy," "The Longing," and "Come Home."

Tinseltown (Windham Hill/High Street), 1991.
This is his finest album to date. Produced by the late Mark Heard, it captures some of Mr. Heard's genius for understated instrumentation. Tinseltown is suffused with an urgency that is missing from his latest effort. Tracks include "Moments," "Swimming," and "Grandmother's Song."

Chase the Buffalo (Windham Hill/High Street), 1993.
Another fine effort, nearly on a par with Tinseltown. Includes Mr. Heard's signature song, "Nod Over Coffee," as well as Mr. Pettis' "Stickman," "Family," and "Trying to Stand in a Fallen World."

Making Light of It (Compass), 1996.
Mr. Pettis changed record labels in 1996 after BMG took over Windham Hill and fired many of the artists. High points here include "Miriam," an ode to Mary, and "Absalom, Absalom." Mr. Pettis collaborates on a number of tracks here, with spotty results. The songs are, in many instances, more clever than on his other albums, but seem less heartfelt and inventive.