Call him Paradox Pierce Pettis. So close to stardom his diehard corps of fans can taste it, Pettis himself still says, "I'm about as obscure as you can get and still be doing this." The comment might be borne of humility, but it's also the plain truth.
One need only rifle through the names -- Madonna, Michael Jackson, Nirvana -- to confirm that artistic success and commercial success rarely have anything to do with one another. Despite some indicators, the star-maker machinery hasn't yet geared up and kicked in for Pierce Pettis. The fact is he'd be just as happy if it never did.
Pettis, who headlines the South Florida Folk Festival this week, is another poet with a guitar and a voice that can wring tears from songs about the legacy of racial separatism in the South, the lost opportunity of a gifted grandmother, or the tragic flight of a man on a mercy mission to Ethiopia. "I don't think of myself as a protest singer," Pettis says. "I've been labeled that, because I wrote a couple of songs that were sort of political ["Tinseltown," "Mickey Leland"]. But I see myself as an emotional writer. I'm emotional about a lot of things other than politics."
Even so the politics is inescapable. The title track of his latest CD, Tinseltown, comes with this chorus: "America, America you've trickled down on me/And crowned thy good with Hollywood/From sea to shining sea." That was spawned by his concern about the "Los Angelesization" of America. By tuning in to the attitude adjusters, the television and movie producers who tell everyone how to feel, individualism is lost, pulverized into one mass, synthetic blob. The tune goes on to note, "No one back in Tinseltown gives a damn about you." (When he and some friends made a video for the tune, Pettis blatantly and obviously lip-synched his song, just to drive the point home once more.)
So what's Pettis doing right this minute? Well, he has to jet back to, yes, L.A. (to finish up his third album for Windham Hill subsidiary label High Street). Contradiction? "I know, I know," Pettis says with a laugh. "I have no right to point the finger. Criticizing the mass media is like criticizing fire, or the automobile."
The articulate Southerner from Fort Payne, Alabama (home of country superstars Alabama), quickly dropped country for rock and roll. Some of those early rock influences still pop up in his bouncier tunes, such as "You Need a Love," also recorded by Dion. After a few years studying music at Florida State University, Pettis followed his future wife to London, where he paid his rent by playing underground -- literally, in the "tube" (subway) stations before moving up to the pub circuit. He returned to Tallahassee to earn his degree in mass communications, still picking and singing in coffeehouses and bars. He never forgot the lessons he learned off campus as "the guy who was booed in the Steak and Ale for not playing Billy Joel songs."
"I started out in high school playing in rock and roll bands," Pettis, now 38, says. "I can front a band no problem. But then I spent about ten years playing solo, and I really was able to develop my own style. So because I've played rock and roll, I approach acoustic music or folk music or whatever you want to call it with a little more energy than some people do. One thing I want people to never be is bored." They rarely are. Ken Crawford, a southpaw guitar picker and producer of the NewFolk Concert Series at the Lyric Theatre in Stuart, recalls Pettis's visit to the historic venue in 1991. "I had never seen in the 44 shows I produced a response from an audience like that. He had four encores. I'd never seen a four-encore show. He's a creatively intense and expressive, magnetic performer. After his fourth encore, Pierce leaped from the stage to the front of the audience. He stood there as if it was planned, and shook hands with almost every person in the audience. There were 700 people there."
As a listen to either of his CDs, Tinseltown and While the Serpent Lies Sleeping, proves, Pettis has put time and effort into mastering his instruments -- voice, guitar, and harmonica. He sings with a rock edge, recalling Gordon Lightfoot only less thunderous and with more upper range. At times he wanders up to tones that make Michael Bolton sound like ...well, Michael Bolton.
His guitar work is faultless, best evidenced in instrumentals such as "Flannery's Georgia" and "Infernal Equinox." His acoustic set this week will also display his ability to bring in harmonica fills, notably on his "Grandmother's Song." The harp touches add a plaintive mist to a song that might otherwise be susceptible to death by sugar overdose, at least in the hands of a less-skilled artist.
But in Pettis's hands the lengthy and absorbing tune makes the listener mourn the aging and inevitable loss of a grandmother. "Grandmother's Song" itself reaches into poetic fields rarely tilled by contemporary folk artists, mixing fact and feeling in arresting and disturbing ways: "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."
Another of his finest songs, "Legacy," so affected some television producers that they added it to the Roots soundtrack when the television epic was re-edited for the Family Channel. With lyrics like these, it was an obvious choice: "You are a black man/I am a white man/ ...We are quite different/We are the same," he sings, describing the legacy of the title as "a wild and bitter seed, scattered on these fertile fields/Where roots run deep." Pettis says he believes that commonalities -- language, food -- among black and white Southerners gives them a better chance at getting along than most of America. "I have always suspected that eventually the South would lead the way in terms of race relations," he says. "I think it's interesting that such a huge percentage of blacks turned out and voted for a governor of Arkansas, a white man from Little Rock for crying out loud."
Twenty years ago as a bright-eared teenager, Pettis hired on as a staff songwriter at Muscle Shoals Sound, where he met Bob Dylan and Paul Simon at recording sessions. You can hear elements of their best productions in some of his -- the synergy of African percussion and fretless bass on "Can't Get Away from My Love," the tasteful addition of a digiridoo, the background vocal licks of Claude McKnight on "Legacy." He also wrote for Joan Baez ("The Song at the End of the Movie") and is collaborating with Jonathan Edwards and Bill Haughey on his CD-in-progress. "The core of what I do is songwriting," Pettis says. "I feel that I can put a song across as well as a solo act as I can with a band, but in a different way."
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And he believes he can capture that on his new album, being produced with David Miner (T-Bone Burnett, Leo Kottke). "I'm psyched," he says, adding that he and Miner shared the same visions of what to do with his music in the studio. The fact that he's bringing in some of his heroes -- Booker T. Jones, David Hidalgo, Jim Keltner -- doesn't hurt either. "On one song," Pettis says, "called 'Stick Man,' we cut just the first track, guitar and voice and string bass, and we sat back and listened to it and went, 'You know, there's really nothing we can add to this,' which is kind of nice."
Pettis was anointed by Florida's late, great troubadour Gamble Rogers before his tragic drowning in 1991. Rogers called Pettis "wonderfully intense, a special new voice." But an even better clue of what to expect from Pettis live comes from Ken Crawford, the producer of his show at the Lyric. "When he was in the dressing room in between encores," Crawford recalls, "I tried to get him off the stage. But the energy was still there and he said to me in this boyish way, 'How did I do?' And I said to him, 'Boring, man, boring.' And he says, 'Boring? Really?' So I said, 'Hell, no. You should be playing stadiums, hoss.'"
Before the stadiums, there is the park. And after that, there is the music. That, and the paradox of having one of the finest singer-songwriters of our generation still close enough to touch.
Pierce Pettis headlines the Second Annual South Florida Folk Festival, Saturday and Sunday, at Easterlin County Park, 1000 NW 38th St, Oakland Park, 583-9118. Admission costs $6 per day or $8 for both days. Pettis performs at 8:45 p.m. Saturday.