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Keely Marie Scott Photography

Broken strings can be mended

Music | Singer-songwriter Pierce Pettis isn't fazed by setbacks

Issue: "The schools that Arne built," April 11, 2009

CHARLOTTE-One of a guitar player's worst fears was coming true on-stage for Pierce Pettis. He broke a string in the middle of a song-actually on the opening strum of a song near the end of a 90-minute set. Pettis, touring to support his new album That Kind Of Love, was on-stage Valentine's Day before a near sold-out crowd of couples on dates and others at The Evening Muse, a club in Charlotte, N.C., that has developed a national reputation among Americana and roots music performers and fans. Because Pettis uses a lot of alternate tunings, he had another guitar sitting nearby, and he reached for that guitar to finish the set. Then he stopped.

"You know what?" he told the crowd. "I really want to do this song. I just think it needs to go here tonight." And with that, he fished into his case, instantly grabbing the right string, and re-strung his guitar while telling a funny story about love and Valentine's Day and life on the road. About 90 seconds later, he strummed the opening chord again, perfectly in tune, and delivered the last line of his story to laughter and applause.

It was a stunt only a seasoned troubadour could have pulled off. It was also, in many ways, a 90-second look into the artistic process of Pierce Pettis, which can be described as taking life's setbacks and turning them into new artistry.

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Pettis has been doing that very thing since becoming a staff writer in 1979 for music giant PolyGram. His reputation as a songwriter should have gotten a boost that year when Joan Baez recorded his "Song at the End of the Movie" on her final album for CBS records, Honest Lullaby. But that album tanked. So Pettis took over, recording his own music.

His first album came out in 1984, when he was a part of the so-called "Fast Folk" movement that also included Lyle Lovett, David Wilcox, Suzanne Vega, and Suzy Bogguss. Pettis became known as a careful and poetic songwriter, and his tunes were covered not just by Baez, but by Garth Brooks, Dar Williams, as well as Christian market performers Sara Groves and Randy Stonehill.

But one of the most significant relationships of Pettis' professional career was with singer, songwriter, producer, and music industry entrepreneur Mark Heard-who, like Pettis himself, had something of a love-hate relationship with contemporary Christian music. Heard produced Pettis' 1991 album Tinseltown, and Pettis and Heard were together at the Cornerstone Festival in 1992 when Heard had a heart attack. As Heard was being taken to the hospital, he encouraged Pettis to finish the set. Heard died at the hospital, and in some ways that admonition to finish the set has stayed with Pettis. In fact, every album Pettis has put out since then has included a Mark Heard song.

That Kind Of Love, Pettis' first new album in five years, will go a long way toward keeping his own music alive, too. The album could be the best-received in his now nearly 30-year career. It shot up to No. 2 on roots music charts, will be featured in Paste magazine, and is the subject of a feature in American Songwriter magazine. The album is getting significant airplay on Sirius/XM and Americana/roots music stations.

Pettis, for his part, is nonplussed. "It's a pleasant surprise," he said. "But at this point, I'm not chasing the success. I'm just trying to do the best I can at the few things I'm good at. To leave a few songs that I can say are as good as I knew how to make them, and hope that in the end they add up to something."

In other words, despite broken strings, broken hearts, and all, Pierce Pettis is still just trying to finish the set.

Warren Cole Smith
Warren Cole Smith

Warren, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., is vice president of WORLD News Group and the host of the radio program Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

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