A FEW MINUTES WITH… Pierce Pettis
By Don Wilcock
Pierce Pettis, who is playing his album release party at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs on Saturday night (June 30), used to joke about his song that Garth Brooks recorded. “I’ve got these platinum albums on my wall. It’s for Garth Brooks’ ‘You Move Me.’ I remember one day when my son was about seven or eight, he said, ‘Who’s this guy?’
“That’s the guy who paid for this house, buddy.”
The fact is that Pettis is best known for the songs that he wrote for such famous artists as Dion, Art Garfunkel, Dar Williams, Pat Alger and others. As a singer he says, “I’m widely obscure. I’m proud of that.”
In 2004 was quoted in World Magazine as saying, “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.'” In our interview he admitted the quote was taken from Junior Sample on the TV show “Hee Haw.”
His first big score was “Song at the End of the Movie” that Joan Baez put on Honest Lullaby in 1979, the album recorded right after her best album ever in my opinion, Diamonds and Rust. It was written when he was an unpaid writer for Muscle Shoals Sounds Studios. He explains he was 18 years old and an “intern.” He was just bringing people coffee, but the “job” brought him “access to the music world.”
He says he loved working for PolyGram as a staff writer. His boss Doug Howard told him not to worry about volume of output. “We know you write off-the-wall stuff, but your stuff is deep. Townes Van Zandt writes two songs a year. Would you rather have those two songs or 20 crappy songs?”
In the ’90s he was part of the Fast Folk scene in New York that spawned fellow songwriters Shawn Colvin, John Gorka and Suzanne Vega. “I’d been playing in southern bars doing Jimmy Buffett. They made me better than I would have been otherwise.”
Art Garfunkel invited Pettis to Chattanooga where he performed one of his songs “A Perfect Moment” with a symphony orchestra on the banks of the Tennessee River with backing musicians who included Eric Weisberg. Afterwards, Pettis asked Garfunkel, “Man, when you were up on that stage, and you’ve get that orchestra behind you, and you’ve got these 18 players from New York, isn’t that terrifying? And he said, ‘Absolutely. That’s the energy. Terror is what pushes you to these performances. That’s the addiction. It IS the terror. You’re out there on a ledge, and you’ve got all this power behind you, and you don’t want to screw up, but you also have to relax and let it go. Take that leap of faith and just go with it.’ It was really cool hearing that from a guy who’s been there.”
Dion recorded his “I Don’t Ever Want to Be Without You.” “We were talking about how even musicians at the very top of their game always think it’s going to end tomorrow because you never feel secure. When you have a lot of success, you always feel like you’re cheating somehow, that you’re getting away with something and they’ll take it away from you. He says, ‘But I never worry about it. I’m Italian. I can sell shoes.’ I thought that was funny, but he was absolutely sincere.”
But Pierce’s best story is how he came to write “You Move Me” for Garth Brooks. “I had this apartment in Atlanta, and I was broke. My first wife had left me, and I didn’t even have furniture. I was in a horrible place. My first wife was pretty much the devil. At any rate, she split, and I was left with absolutely nothing. And it’s gonna be Christmas, and I’ve got to spend it alone. I’m not gonna see my kids. I’m not gonna see anybody. I was really depressed, but on Christmas morning I got up. This is gonna be really corny, but I swear to God this is the absolute truth.
“I got up Christmas morning, and I walked into my kitchen. It was a beautiful day. Sunshine was coming in my windows, and there was a cedar bush outside my window, and it had rained, right, and there were little drops of water all over the bush. Well, the sunlight made all the drops different colors. It was like a Christmas tree.
“So, how often does that happen? All of a sudden not only do my feelings get supported, but I felt inspired. These lyrics started coming into my head. I heard music, along with these other voices in my head. But at any rate, back to reality. I had this song idea, and I went up to Nashville and got this work with Gordon Kennedy. Gordon is the son of Jerry Kennedy. Jerry is the guy who played the guitar part on (Roy Orbison’s) “Pretty Woman.” He played on “Nashville Skyline,” and Gordon wrote the song “Change the World” for Eric Clapton. He’s really good, and Gordon is one of these people that always has the right idea exactly when you need it. So, I pretty much had the song together, but I wasn’t focused on what do you call this? And I said (to him), “Here’s what it is.” I felt like I’d been transformed.
“I felt like I’d been flipped somewhere else. And he said, ‘Well, just say you move me.’ And I go, ‘God, that’s perfect, you know?’
“So, that’s how we get the song done, and it was recorded by Garth Brooks, and this part is also true that I was able to take some of this money and make a down payment on the house which otherwise could not possibly have happened in my life I don’t think, and it’s ironic ’cause this song is called ‘You Move Me’ ’cause like it moved
me out of this apartment. It moved me over here to the top of Lookout Mountain where I have this beautiful view. So, yeah, one song. Pretty amazing. It came out of this absolute depth of despair.”
Oh, did I mention that Pierce Pettis’ CD release party on Saturday for Father’s Son has no CD? It’s not done yet, but he promises to sing all the songs from it at the show.