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Tuneful truths

Interview | Acclaimed musician Pierce Pettis on modest sales, honest lyrics, and reminding people of "things we already know"

Issue: "Terrorism: Unmasked men," Oct. 16, 2004

Pierce Pettis has spent 25 years crafting songs full of insight, imagination, and emotion, often drawing on the imagery and landscape of his boyhood in the American South. His new, eighth album, Great Big World, is receiving reviews like this one from British critic Neil Pearson, who called it "one of the best singer/ songwriter albums of the past few years" and said, "few writers draw you into a song like Pierce Pettis."

Such critical praise is not new to Mr. Pettis, whose previous work critic Alanna Nash called "songs of beauty and passion that arrive at a listener's head and heart at precisely the same time." His albums, though, have never had large sales, and in a recent e-mail interview he discussed his faith and his attitude toward anticipating a small audience for Great Big World.

WORLD: As you look over your collection of songs, do you see a pattern, or certain themes emerging?

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Pettis: I guess if I had to look for recurring themes, it would be the same old alienation and grace. It's not anything conscious on my part, but I always seem to come back to that. As I look at them, many of these lyrics seem quite hopeful and positive-but in the midst of the strangeness of it all.

WORLD: Your songs often have strong spiritual/biblical motifs. How intentional is that on your part? How has the Bible or, more broadly, Christianity as a whole, shaped the way you think about writing songs?

Pettis: As to my personal beliefs, I'm a Christian and a Catholic and there's no doubt that has impact on the way I think about everything. If you believe in the sacred, then the secular world doesn't exist. But as to my intentions, my intention has always been just to write a good song.

I think an audience appreciates it if you're being honest with them and will allow you to sing on just about any subject you want-so long as you don't violate that trust with pontification or preaching.

WORLD: Your songs, even those with more overt biblical content, are never preachy. Why do you avoid that?

Pettis: My goal is to remind the audience and myself of things we already know rather than try to tell them anything. There's a saying where I'm from, "I don't know nothing . . . but I suspect a lot."

WORLD: While many of your songs highlight spiritual themes, many simply tell good stories. How does your spirituality come into play writing songs where the "spiritual" content is less overt?

Pettis: I guess my spirituality just wants me to tell the truth. And maybe with a little compassion and humor. It's not so much a spiritual thing-just a desire to be true to my work, true to my audience, and true to myself. I want to write songs that listeners can see themselves in instead of just seeing me.

WORLD: What role does honesty play in the songwriter's craft?

Pettis: Oh, I think honesty can play a very important role in a songwriter's craft. An honest writer won't try to manipulate the audience, isn't heavy-handed, doesn't want to sell them anything, or talk down to them.

And I think if a writer is willing to be vulnerable in his work, his audience will likely be more vulnerable to it and allow themselves to be touched emotionally.

WORLD: You've been doing this a lot of years, but your work doesn't attract a lot of media coverage. Why do you think your name may not be as familiar to people as those of some other artists who make music in the same vein as yours?

Pettis: To be honest, they probably work harder. And some of them just might be a little better than me-though I don't like to make comparisons.

Also the fact that I'm on a relatively small label without the resources to hire publicity agents, media consultants, etc. to massage the press may well be a factor.

I'm honored that anyone would spend their time and money listening to my music-and feel lucky to be able to do this for a living. I really don't worry or even think about it that much anymore. Just try to do my job, trusting that God looks after children and fools-and I'm a bit of both.

-Dean Abbott is a freelance journalist in Massachussetts

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