Pierce Pettis is taking stock of life. His first solo release in ten years, Father’s Son (Compass, Jan. 19) offers a retrospective on the past and a prayer for the future. As Pettis sums it up: “The overall theme, at least for me, is ‘Father’s Son’—and all that can imply. I’m thinking of my own father, as well as being a father. Two of my grown children are writing and doing music, experiencing a lot of the things I did. So there’s that.” Pettis reminds us that “there’s also the Hebrew/Aramaic name Barabbas, or Bar Abba, which literally means ‘son of the father.’ Or more literally, ‘Daddy’s son.’”
Pettis has been at it for a while. He began his long career as a writer at the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Alabama and later as a staff songwriter for Polygram/Universal Music in Nashville. His songs have been covered by artists ranging from Garth Brooks and Dion to Joan Baez and Art Garfunkel. Probably his best known song is “You Move Me,” covered by Garth Brooks and Susan Ashton. As Pettis says, “That one helped me buy a house. Pretty hard not to like that one.”
Yet Father’s Son contains more of his deft lyrics, great playing, and passionate voice—even if the years have left his voice more well-rutted gravel road than slick blacktop. The songs exude gratitude and contentment even amidst the challenges life presents—and Pettis has had some in the ensuing years. In the album’s lead cut, “Wouldn’t Change It For the World,” he observes “we all have something from which to recover,” and yet when all is said and done he resolves that he “wouldn’t change it for the world.”
The songs move easily from the transcendent to the immanent. “More” is a recognition of Pascal’s oft-quoted recognition that there is a God-shaped vacuum in every heart: “A thing resounds when it its true/ When it’s ringing all the bells inside of you/ Like a golden sky on a summer eve/ Your heart is tugging at your sleeve and/ you cannot say why/ But you know there’s more.” And “Mr. Zeidman” is a true story about his small Alabama hometown’s one and only Jew, who “had a smile for every child/ A piece of candy, too/ There was kindness in the hands/Of our one and only Jew.” “Don’t Know Where I Am” is a testimony of a man losing his way, moonless: lost at sea, alone under the sky, floating far away.
Although Pettis identifies as a “most unworthy and undeserving Christ-follower,” he moves easily in and out of Christian circles, writing and playing with contemporary Christian music songwriters like Andrew Peterson as well as mainstream writers like Tom Kimmel and Kate Campbell. It seems well-crafted songs are respected, no matter what the source. Part of that acceptance owes to Pettis’s congeniality: his enthusiasm, warmth, and passion for life are infectious—even if he sometimes leaves his audience behind. After telling one story at a concert, he observed that he “had to realize that not everyone was in his head.”
Like all of his albums released since 1994, Father’s Son includes a song penned by the late Mark Heard—this time, “Look Over Your Shoulder.” Pettis recalls Heard’s deep influence: “Mark influenced me with his artistic integrity—for which, he would have credited Francis Schaffer, who was his mentor. Mark took his work seriously and himself, lightly. He was also very funny.” He has a poignant recollection of Heard: ‘Look Over Your Shoulder’ was the last song he ever performed in his life. I know that because Pam (Kate) Dwinell Miner and I were on stage with him at the time, at the Cornerstone Festival in Illinois. So that song is pretty personal to me. Don’t think Mark could have picked a better exit song."
As to the future, “Instrument,” the closing song on Father’s Son, may just sum it up: “Make me faithful, make me grateful/ Make me useful in this life/ All this living without giving/ Give me one more chance to try.” Between the regrets and blessings of his life, faith and craft keep Pettis centered. He is, after all, his Father’s son.