In Search of Pierce Pettis

By

Last Sunday I was a visitor hiding on the back pew of a church in Houston.  It was an inconspicuous little place filled with quietly ordinary people and a sensible lack of grandeur.  After the sermon and the closing hymn and the benediction, the pastor held up his hand and told us one last announcement had slipped his mind.  He was hosting a Pierce Pettis concert in his home the following weekend and we were invited.

I shot upright in my chair and looked at the man sitting next to me.

“Did he just say Pierce Pettis?”

The man next to me nodded and shrugged as if to say, ‘Yeah, whoever that is.’

pierce-pettisMy first reaction was to grab the man by the hair and pound his head against my knee until I was sure he knew exactly who Pierce Pettis was.  After years of training however, I have generally learned to ignore my first reactions.  Instead, I asked him if he wanted to come to the concert with me.  He didn’t.

After church, lunch ensued (a glorious concoction of bread, cheese, basil pesto, and who really cares what else) and I shuffled the matter of buying concert tickets to the back of my mind.  When I got home, though, I visited the website the pastor had directed us to for tickets and found that, while pleasant to look at, it was rather confusing and didn’t seem to be offering up any information about concerts or shows or the genius of Pierce Pettis.  Bah, I thought, I’ll figure this out later.

So the week went by and I procrastinated like the champ I am until Friday afternoon.  I called the church only to find that no one would answer, so I left messages telling of the urgency with which I intended to purchase tickets, and of course I blamed my failure to buy them sooner on the confusing website and it’s lack of information.  No one called me back.

This was getting serious.

So I go back to the website in search of clues and–ah hah! A phone number.  I dialed the number and a pleasant gentleman answered and offered to help.  Pierce Pettis, I told him.  I must have a Pierce Pettis ticket, forthwith.

“Do you have the password?” he asked.

This was not the response I was hoping for.

Password?  Since when do concerts have passwords?  My first reaction was to tell him, “I don’t want to steal his Facebook page, you twit!”  My training intervened.

“It is a private show, sir.  You must have the password.”

So I patiently explained to him that I’d been invited by the pastor and had met with all manner of obstacle and distress in my quest.  Bless the man, he had mercy and told me the password.

So, rejoicing, I proceeded to the confusing website and entered the secret password and was in short time the owner of a shiny new Pierce Pettis ticket.

Saturday night I plugged the address of the pastor’s house into my trusty iPhone and I was off.  Thirty minutes later I pulled up to the house and realized that I had failed to account for one troublesome matter.  I didn’t know any of these people.  I’m very uncomfortable around groups of people I don’t know and generally avoid such situations at all costs.  Sitting in a room full of strangers and trying to be civil makes me sweat buckets and spew the stupidest things in attempt to be social.  Things like: “Hello, you have a lovely home, I’d rather be anywhere than here right now!” or “Why no, I’m not married, how old is your daughter?”  Statements like these, you must understand, leap out of my mouth without the slightest intent or forethought and typically are the source of the sweating and awkwardness I feel for the rest of the night.  I need more training to subdue those first reactions, I suppose.

So I walk up to the door in a state of complete dread and nearly turn back two or three times.  I have to reassure myself that once the show starts, people will stop talking to me and I will stop saying preposterous things and everything will be fine and it’ll all be about Pierce Pettis and his particular genius.

“Welcome!” says the doorman.  I try to convince myself he’s sincere, his smile suggests he is, but to me his greeting sounds like the rasped invitation of a vampire into his looming castle filled with shadows and lurking menace.  Gulp.

I step inside and there are charming people everywhere.

It’s worse than I thought.

I can already feel some horribly mispoken “Hello, so nice to meet you and, wow, you’ve got huge hands” gathering at the back of my throat and threatening to jump out at the first unfortunate person to greet me.

I spot an empty chair in the back corner of the room and navigate myself toward it.  I dodge a cackling blond lady who might be tempted to turn and say hello.  Then I slyly evade a tall gentlemen in a Rockets t-shirt and achieve my seat without incident.  Out comes the iPhone and I’m safely checking my email, Facebook, and Twitter pages until the show starts.  Whew, made it.

Finally, I can relax unaccosted by hand-shakers and how-do-you-doers and wait for the music to begin.  An emcee dressed like a barista steps to the microphone beside the fireplace and gathers everyone’s attention.

“We’re going to start the show in about fifteen minutes just to give folks time to get some coffee and get to know each other.”

When he’s done he walks right past me with no idea of how narrowly he’s avoided my violent first reaction to this announcement.  I’m tempted to leave.  Fifteen minutes in a stranger’s house filled with people being pleasant to each other is an eternity to a man of my particular oddities.  Maybe I’ll get some coffee.

I get up and angle my way toward the coffee pots in the next room but I don’t get far.  A short man wearing glasses and a button-up a shirt that looks like it’s part candy-cane makes eye contact and won’t let go.  He pounces and the next thing I know I’m shaking his hand and telling him my name and lying about how happy I am to be staring at his shirt.

When he’s done with me I try to get my coffee but the line is filled with people chatting and threatening to greet me.  Don’t they know how lines are supposed to work?  The whole purpose of a line is to stand, facing forward, quietly, eyes ahead, shuffling in silence until you reach the front, acquire your coffee and exit the line in the most efficient manner possible.  Nowhere in the ‘Coffee Line Handbook’ is there mention of chatting happily, turning to shake hands, or speaking before first being spoken to.

Screw it.  The line is a disaster.  I go back to my seat.  Phone out.  Facebook.  Twitter.  Email.  Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.  Finally the barista guy is back at the mic and introducing Pierce Pettis.  Home stretch.

But wait.  An Asian guy with a rat-tail and red Chuck Taylors taps my shoulder and asks if he can sit next to me.  I answer yes—by which I mean no—and he sits.  At least he doesn’t try to talk to me.

At long last, people are clapping and the great Pierce Pettis is standing at the mic.  He tunes his guitar and plays a Mark Heard song called Nothing But the Wind and finally I can relax and enjoy myself.

If you’ve stuck with this little tale for this long, you’re probably wondering why I felt the need to tell you all this.  Here’s why.  I suffered—suffered, I tell you—to go to this concert.  And why?  That’s easy.  Because it was worth it.

Pierce Pettis is an elemental force of a songwriter.  He spends his words with thrift and sets them down precisely where they belong so they illuminate everything around them.  He places words like stones in a wall, each supporting the other, until the entire edifice would crumble if even one was out of place.  He writes songs that twist and whirl and move things inside me and they’re better each time I hear them.

But Pierce is a paradox.  I’ve found his music is difficult to pass on because it’s the kind of treasure you’ve got to work for.  It’s not bright and shiny, or radio friendly, or always particularly catchy but it’s got depth and luster and is cut with so many facets that it’s something new from every angle.

It’s great not because his records are easy to listen to or easy to hum along with. They’re not.  And it’s not because his live shows are the best you’ve ever seen. They aren’t.  No, his music is great because the best things in life are often the ones you have to work the hardest for.  It’s great because it’s a hidden thing you have to seek out, and suffer for, and take a chance on.  It’s magical because it’s the age-old and dying art of the songwright working long and hard in the heat of the forge.

A Pierce Pettis song is a fine gem on display, cut by a master that’s gone into hidden places to delve and polish and bring something glimmering and sharp out of the chaos of language.

With Pierce’s songs, the first reaction isn’t always the best but diligent training will show them for what they are.  They are worth the phone calls and the passwords and the confusing website purchases and it’s worth the handshakes and the sweating and all the awkward hellos to go and sit for a spell at the feet of a master and see him spinning gold.

If you don’t know Pierce’s songs, go out and find them.  Train yourself not to trust your first reaction.  Let them work on you.  Allow those gold-spun words to settle down inside you and reveal the treasures they hold.  They are worth the effort.

———————–

Here’s a song from his 1998 album Everything Matters, “Love Will Always Find its Way”.

[audio:LoveWillAlwaysFindItsWay.mp3]

LOVE WILL ALWAYS FIND IT’S WAY
(PIERCE PETTIS & FRED KOLLER)

CAN’T STOP A RIVER
DON’T EVEN TRY
IT’LL CARRY YOU AWAY
CAUGHT IN THE CURRENT
SWEEPING YOU ALONG
RUNNING DEEPER EVERY DAY

OH, MY LOVE, LOOK AT YOU
I LOVE YOU MORE THAN I CAN SAY
NOW I KNOW THAT IT’S TRUE
LOVE WILL ALWAYS FIND ITS WAY

HELLO AND GOODBYE
DIVIDED BY A LINE
DOWN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD
BUT THE SAME ROAD THAT TAKES YOU
SO FAR AWAY
IT CAN BRING YOU BACK HOME

OH, MY LOVE, IF I GO
IT WILL NEVER BE TO STAY
I WILL COME BACK I KNOW
LOVE WILL ALWAYS FIND ITS WAY

I CANNOT ESCAPE
THE FACT THAT I HAVE MADE
SOME TROUBLE FOR MYSELF
TROUBLE SO DEEP
BUT THE WATER WAS SWEET
BY THE RIVER WHERE I KNELT

OH, MY LOVE, WASH ME CLEAN
LIKE A SIDEWALK IN THE RAIN
TAKE MY ARM, WALK WITH ME
AND LOVE WILL ALWAYS FIND ITS WAY

–TO MY BRIDE MICHELE

Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he’s the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.


33 Comments

  1. Peter B

    One of these days I will take the first step of this particular musical journey.

    In the meantime, Pete, I must say I would relish the chance to hang out with you and hear how similar our apostle-Peter-type verbal blunders would be. It must be something about the name, and being an older brother who just isn’t quite sure of himself.

    Now I’m going to scoop up a dish of ice-creamy, chocolaty holiday dessert and devote some brain cycles to picturing the unholy offspring of cloth and peppermint.

  2. Hayley

    My parents share a similar feverish devotion to Pierce Pettis – reading this brought back plenty of memories, and made me feel all happy inside. : )

  3. rachel

    “why no, i’m not married, how old is your daughter?” classic. and the emcee dressed like a barista … well, myself BEING a barista, that mental image contains untold humor. but really, la piece de resistance would be the asian dude with a rat tail and red chucks. really?! i mean, please let me know when you’re finally doing stand up. i’ll be perusing all manner of websites and password-ridden phone lines to get tickets to that.

    but now, on to the content: as my cursor pounced to play, i have to admit that your detailed disclaimer set my musical expectations a bit low …. but no, i am pleasantly surprised (now on the second listen) that his voice is comforting like neil diamond on the record player and beer bread in the oven (just me? what a childhood…) and a melody that hugs the well-placed lyrics, only enhancing their touch, never stepping on their toes.

    in my book, that equals perfection. a new fan is born …

  4. Mark

    to add to the general happiness, i think you’ll all be glad to know there’s a pierce pettis pandora radio station. go check it out. some good quality tuneage

  5. Dieta

    Pete, I have NEVER heard someone describe so eloquently the discomfort with which I live most of my life. I would not wish it on anyoine, and I’m sorry you suffer from it. To be a lover of any form of art means you have to get out there and that can be so hard. That being said, I would leave my house crawling on rocks with a thousand strangers to hear Pierce. The things that he has to say and the way that he says them are a teasure I would live a gazillion discomforts for-so I totally see why you found yourself in this particular situation. The only other person who has music similar to Pierce’s in the way it inspires and mioves me shares your parentage. APs message moves me to such heights also. At the end, I’m just jealous Pierce came so close to you-I’ve been waiting for an opportunity for months now since the latest came out. Happy trails, D

  6. PaulH

    Pete,
    I honestly can say, that the more I read from you and hear legendary stories about you, the more I truly like who you are! I can read your writing anyday of the week; It is very entertaining. (I also have the foot-to-mouth disease)

    If it wasn’t for the good, intelligent, and talented folks here, I would have never encountered Pierce Pettis. This past year I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know some of his music. Seeing him live would be a treat.

  7. Hunter

    Pete,

    If I were to get into Pierce Pettis for the first time, where would you suggest I start? Which albums should I pick up first?

  8. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Hunter, I didn’t start with an album. I just picked songs off of iTunes that I liked and grew from there. Here are some of my favorites:

    Song of Songs
    Little River Canyon
    State of Grace
    A Mountaineer is Always Free
    Kingdom Come

  9. evie

    I laughed at LEAST eleven times while reading this. Maybe even twelve. Holy geez.

    “I answer yes — by which I mean no” — priceless. I could imagine my maniacal self, equally sweaty-palmed, in each moment. Good stuff.

  10. Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    Hunter, Great Big World is the first album I bought of Pierce’s music, and it is still my favorite. I don’t know that I’ve heard a love song I like more than “Rodeo Around the World.”

  11. Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Pete – my brother. Not only a great concert review, but a wonderfully awkward examination of a particular peculiarity of our humanity.

    Hunter – I love Pete’s list of songs, but will add that “State Of Grace” is in my estimation a great starter record. It’s a love letter to the south and is full of sweet nostalgia – even if you’re not a southerner. In terms of accessible songs, I think “Everything Matters” is full of songs that are almost immediately like-able.

    But if you’re going for a song list, I’d add these to Pete’s:

    Alabama 1959
    God Believe In You
    Miriam
    Georgia Moon
    Crying Ground
    Moontown
    You Move Me (his “hit” that was recorded by Garth Brooks – but don’t let that scare you 😉

  12. Aaron Roughton

    Pete, I have given Pierce a passing glance, but I’m going to take your advice and give him a longer look. We missed a house concert that he did in Austin last year. Not sure when he’ll be back, but I’ll be working on my rat-tail in the meantime. Thanks for the post and very funny review.

  13. Ben Rauscher

    Pete, that was a great review, and I didn’t even have to work to enjoy it…or does that mean it wasn’t very good? 🙂 I did the exact same thing a few months ago, went to one of Pierce’s concerts by myself here in Raleigh, since I couldn’t find anyone else to go. Wonder how many others were there doing the same thing.
    Hunter, you’ve got to hear “Lion’s Eye” also, if you’ve read the Chronicles of Narnia books.

  14. Adam Bennett

    Pierce Pettis… truly one of the best! In fact, I’m quite surprised he hasn’t been mentioned here yet. Seems like a great candidate for Song of the Day.

    So many (many) greats songs. I’d have throw “Absolom, Absolom!” from “Making Light of It” into the ring as well.

    Thanks Pete! Great post.

  15. Ron Davis

    I started with “State of Grace” on a recommendation from a friend a few years back. It makes me want to visit Alabama (and I’m not usually overly fond of Alabama).

  16. Janna@RainbowDull

    Thanks for taking us there with you, Pete. Your assessment of Pierce’s lyrics is spot on. And for those who have still not listened, the man has one of the most unique voices out there and really knows how to use that instrument. Watching him play in the BTLOG concert a few years ago was fascinating. I never suspected that the kindly, Mr. Rogers looking man, wearing a cardigan sweater and professor glasses, on stage was he. And when we talked with Pierce after the show, we found him even nicer in person.

  17. davo w

    Oh Gosh Pete- You tell it SO good. Your story is great as is your review. My personality is opposite of yours but I do relate closely with you on the devotion to Pierce Pettis and his music. It is so good hearing from others who share this enthusiasm. It was sixteen years ago when I first heard “Lions of the Colosseum,” “Trying To Stand In A Fallen World” and the other great tunes from “Chase The Buffalo.” I was totally hooked- an artist, writer, storyteller who speaks of truth and life in non-religious jargon in a way that penetrates the heart. I am happy to have just today arranged for Pierce Pettis to do a house concert in my home this summer!

  18. John Barber

    Pete, what I love best about this is how it reminds me of my own most uncomfortable concert experience. In college, we drove 4 hours to see my hero, Bill Mallonee (along with the Vigilantes of Love) play in Dallas. Coincidentally, that was the first time ever I laid eyes on Eric Peters (as half of Ridgely). Before the concert, we saw Bill in the parking lot getting something out of his van. And I froze. Completely. I quite literally was unable to move my legs. My hero was 20 feet from me and I could do absolutely nothing about it. My girlfriend at the time (who has since become my wife) took matters into her own hands, walked across the parking lot, told Bill that her boyfriend would very much like to meet him, and walked him back over to where I was. I stammered through a hello and some platitudes about how much I enjoyed the music. He was humble and kind to a babbling 19 year old. Bill and I have since become friends, and I’m sure he doesn’t remember that encounter in a church parking lot in Dallas, but I sure do. We suffer for art, Pete. Especially dudes like me that can’t do it ourselves and have to rely on the loveliness of others.

  19. Jonathan Rogers

    Well-told, Pete. I’m picturing a whole series of reviews in which you put the experience of art in the context of the outward circumstances in which you experience it. Maybe a review of an exhibit at the Frist Center that starts with standing in line at the McDonalds on 12th and Broadway…something to think about, Pete.

  20. Christie

    Just added Pierce Pettis to my Pandora Radio Stations at work…best station ever…thanks for the suggestion Mark! GREAT STUFF! And thanks Pete – love reading your stuff!

  21. Christopher Dilworth

    Unbefreakinlievable…Dude you remind me of the blond guy in the movie “Bench Warmers!” Afraid to come out of the closet and blundering along while making every effort to be not seen and enjoy the throes of life at the same time even if through the eyes of another…crack me up! I on the other hand am that strange guy that tries to be hidden sitting in the front row of a concert Staring strangely, hoping the lead singer will notice me and make everyone in the joint know that I am there and hand over the microphone so I can bless everyone with my verbal stupidity that is wrapped around my self-absorbedness reciting blurbs that should have been written down and edited out to the point of silence! And yet, I must agree on a finer level in the unbelievable talent I watched at this little music hall in Tennessee a couple Christmas’ ago, as Mr. Pettis sang a song written by some other Peterson guy which left me clawing at the cd in hopes that he sang it there too…which he didn’t. Seems the writer himself evidently thought he was the worthy one to record it and did… he did an okay job of it. There is just something Pettis adds to a song that makes you want him to notice you in the crowd and smile right at you. The Brilliant writer of the show seemed to know him enough to invite him back again and again. So, each Christmas season, I make efforts to head to Tennesee again to see the likes of Pierce Pettis and hope he was invited again…to sing…cause he’s so dang good at it.(aw, crap I talk too much)

  22. euphrony

    Okay, just to get this straight – you were at Pierce’s concert for Storeyville/IJM in Houston? I WAS THERE! I drug my wife (like you said, his music takes an investment on your part, and my wife doesn’t like to do that with music) and we sat on the back row of folding chairs, along the center aisle left-hand side of the room. I also agree that getting the tickets was a bit of a process, but so cool about Storeyville giving all their revenue for the month of May to IJM.

    Oh, my – it was the first time I’ve been able to see him live, and I’ve been trying for about four years since I first discovered his music. I absolutely love, love, love his writing and his songs. Wonderful!! It was an amazing concert – I enjoyed every minute and wished he could have played more.

  23. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    That’s hilarious. I think I was sitting right next to you guys. I was in the middle of the back row of folding chairs on the left-hand side.

    You weren’t the guy in the candy-cane shirt were you?

  24. euphrony

    I’d have to ask my wife what I was wearing – I’m a portly blond guy, and most people remember me on sight – I don’t blend very well. We moved after the break so my wife could sit in a more comfortable chair; those folding chairs were murder! I remember seeing you alone, checking your phone, and thinking “if I hadn’t managed to get my wife to come I’d be doing the exact same thing, hoping people would leave me alone”. I’m not good in crowds of strangers, and small groups of strangers are even worse!

    Even more awkward is the fact that I don’t like coffee, at all, and here I am at a private concert sponsored by a coffee company. The things I do to see great artists.

  25. Aaron Roughton

    I think this requires an invention: an iPhone app that lets you know when other RR’ers are in your vicinity. It’s either that or hire Olan Mills to come out and do a pictorial directory.

  26. Jenni

    Hilarious – I might be more awkward than you in social settings. I am grieving that I missed this concert! Please alert me to such things if you’re back in Houston, OK? Thanks for including the beautiful song ~ an old favorite.

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