Pierce Pettis and his Serenade of the South

by Richard Cuccaro

There's something special about the voice of Pierce Pettis. Maybe it's the gentle rasp and slight twang that comes wrapped in a lump-in-the-throat emotional delivery, or that sense of urgency in his tone. In one of my favorite of his songs, "You Move Me," he sings:

    Here's how life seems to me

    Life is like therapy

    Real expensive with no guarantees

    So I lie here on the couch

    with my heart hangin' out

    Frozen solid with fear

    Like a rock in the ground…

    But you move me

    You give me the courage I didn't know I had

    You move me

    I can't go with you and stay where I am

    So you move me…

That one got covered by Garth Brooks on Garth's album Sevens. Pierce collaborates with other songwriters and has had many of his songs covered by other writers. He's able to write in a broad spectrum of styles and do it with honesty and eloquence. In listening to his new album, State of Grace, we hear:

    Well I always know

    Right where I am

    From Muscle Shoals

    Down to Birmingham

    From the rolling hills

    Clear to Mobile Bay

    Where I come from

    Is a state of grace

Early Influences

In Fort Payne, Alabama where he was raised, Pierce lists his early musical influences as Folk, Rock, Country, Rhythm  & Blues, and Gospel. His mom, played both organ and piano (as did his sisters). Beside hymns, she was a big fan of Stephen Foster and Pierce says,"…no doubt it gave me a strong attraction to all things Americana." He states: "I was forced to sing in the youth choir at my church for a while. I hated it. Strangely enough, I've since developed a real love for those old hymns."

Records first listened to included, his older sister's discarded folk albums from college -- Peter, Paul & Mary, Bob Dylan, Kingston Trio, etc. Then later, his own records: Beatles, Stones, Jimi Hendrix . . . and later, Allman Brothers, James Taylor, The Who, Cat Stevens, Paul Simon . . . and more Dylan. Asked about the local performers who made an impact, he brings up Jeff Cook, currently lead guitarist for the rock group, Alabama)

"Jeff," he said, "always had a local group -- and they were always good… there were a number of bands back then, and they all played everything -- radio rock and roll, R & B, country… everything."

He credits Don Phillips, a former Nashville sideman, as his biggest early influence. At the age of 10, he took guitar lessons from Don for a year. He also lists Jeff Cook as a teacher.

Let the Playing Begin

With typical Pierce Pettis humor and self-effacement, he describes his entry into the performer's life: "I started playing in bands about as soon as I started playing guitar and we always tried to learn whatever was popular at the time… we played things like talent shows, the county fair (won 2nd prize!), skating rink birthday parties, dances, etc. … I must tell you, though, we were so bad. Every band I was ever in. Just absolutely awful. But it was fun."

A Theft and a Turnaround

Performing Songwriter, in their 1999 article about Pierce wrote: "Though Pettis played guitar as a boy, he didn't turn to performing seriously until he was in college at Florida State University in Tallahassee. He calls music 'a hobby that took over my life,' and began booking himself into local coffeehouses and clubs." We were curious about what elements prompted the sudden "career" move. We'll let Pierce tell it: "Well, I started playing in rock bands in college (bass guitar). I had been writing songs for a number of years by then but tended to just play the songs to myself on an acoustic guitar.  That changed when my new bass guitar and amp, that I had just bought on credit, were stolen. 

Since I had no other means of paying off the debt, I took my acoustic and a mike and small Fender amp I owned, and got a booking at a local pizza/beer joint playing original songs for $10/night -- plus all the beer and pizza I could hold. Believe it or not, I eventually paid off the bass and amp with that gig. After that, I just never looked back."

The Career

For Performing Songwriter, Pierce offered  some explanation for his amazing songwriting versatility. He'd left school to pursue songwriting at famed Muscle Shoals. He said that he "got a real beating over there as far as learning what it means to be a good song… I came in there with all these songs like you will when you're college age and you think you're a genius. I walked in with all this stuff and they just tore it all to pieces -- 'Now this doesn't work because of this, this and this.' But it was good for me."

A couple of years later, Pierce became acquainted and won acceptance with the more academically-oriented songwriters in the Fast Folk community in New York City. It happened like this:

"I was first introduced to Fast Folk by my friend, Elaine Silver.  This was back in the mid-1980's.  I had met Elaine while playing the college circuit and had put her up when she was playing in North Carolina (where I lived at the time).  She returned the favor when I was working the Northeast, and on a day off, backed her up on guitar and harmony vocals (along with John Kruth) during her set at the Speakeasy, down in the Village. This seemed to go over pretty well and we were asked to record some of her songs for Fast Folk the next evening.  During a break in the session, Elaine encouraged me to play something. Mark Dann, who was engineering (as he did nearly everything on Fast Folk in those days) liked the song --so it ended up on a Fast Folk album (the first of several)."

In 1984, he released independently, his first album Moments. This caught the attention of Windham Hill Records. They made him their first artist signed to their new High Street label. His first album here, While the Serpent Lies Sleeping was released in 1989. This was followed by Tinseltown in 1991 and Chase the Buffalo in 1993.

After a corporate shake-up at Windham Hill, Pierce signed with Nashville's Compass Records. With Compass he has released Making Light Of It in 1996, Everything Matters in 1998, and State of Grace, this year, 2001.

I've been having a rough time getting Everything Matters out of the CD player lately. One great song after another. "My Life of Crime," "Miriam,""Hold on to That Heart, " and "You Move Me," are particular favorites.

Solicited Advice

We asked Pierce what advice he'd give aspiring singer/songwriters. This was his reply: "Stay in school, get a real job, write and play for fun. If you can't resist putting yourself through attempting to do this for a living, make sure you read

Jimmy Webb's Tunesmith.  That is absolutely the best book on all things relating to songwriting ever written. All songwriters should own this book.

Other than that, (and I could have used this advice, myself) I think it helps if young writers do a gut check as to why exactly they want to do this. This requires some honesty.  If your songwriting is really a cry for help, an attempt to impress girls, a way to trash an ex-boyfriend, a means of converting the world to your religion or politics, a money-making scheme, or just general venting -- please stop yourself.  Stop and straighten those things out on your own time. 

You don't want to inflict this stuff on your audience (and believe me, I've been guilty of this).

In my opinion, good songwriting must be about songs and nothing else.  No ulterior motives. Of course your lost love, lust, faith, psychology, politics etc. can figure into all this --but only as material.  They are material for your songs . . . but they are not the point.  The song is the point.  And as to songwriting as a money-making scheme . . .  ah ha ha ha ha ha ha, whew! That's a good one!  Listen… half the effort and talent can get you a law degree or an MBA, and believe me, you'll make more money.  Songwriting has got to be about the song."

This author thinks these final words sum up Pierce Pettis' character with all it's humor and honesty, better than anything else I could add. See him live every chance you get. In the meantime, buy the albums. You won't regret it.



Deb Talan

by Richard Cuccaro

It's Friday, September 14th. After four days of watching horrific images on television and facing new realities too awful to contemplate, we accept an invitation to gather at the Bitter End to listen to a musical offering, free of charge. In order to lift spirits, to do something, musicians Greg and Steve Tannen and friends take the stage. Among them is Deb Talan. Her turn comes and a moment of revelation arrives. She's strong… Her voice has a ribbon of steel running through it. It moves through the aural passages like quicksilver. Its fine sandpaper edge hones the song's emotional content. In response to September 11th, she sings:

    Are you somewhere, safe as houses

    Close your eyes, count one, two, three

    Run and hide, now are you ready

    Ollie, ollie, in come free

    Itsy bitsy spider crawls…up the clear blue glass

    Down the broken walls

    And all the games we played as children

    To fight against the dark…

    Red, red rover… four leaf clover…

    Ashes ashes, all fall down…

    All fall down…  All fall down…

The song we're listening to, "Safe as Houses," co-written with Steve Tannen, is riveting and appropriately child-like, full of horror and wonder. A sample of the song can be downloaded from her web site, www.debtalan.com. Click on "Sounds," and scroll down. Upon listening to her second CD, Something Burning, we find that her songs are full-blown, mature works of art, belying her youthful appearance. There's no doubt that we're seeing the emergence of a major talent.

After we learn about her background from her web site,  we're not surprised at how good she is. Deb, classically trained in clarinet and piano, began writing music when she was only ten years old. By the time she graduated from high school, she had written numerous pop songs and composed a score for a local production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. She began playing  guitar in her senior year in college. She wrote and fronted for an upbeat, pop band in Portland, Oregon, called Hummingfish for five years. While still in Hummingfish she moved toward a solo career and put out her own CD, Songs for a Misfit Heart. Performing two songs from this CD, Deb won second place in the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival Troubadour Contest in 1996. In 1998, she organized a series of successful, in-the-round shows featuring women songwriters from local bands (including herself).

Having begun her solo career, Deb decided, in February of 1999, to head for Boston, Massachusetts. Deb took a year off from performing while finishing her second solo recording, Something Burning. When it was finished, she began performing in noted area venues such as ,Johnny D's,  Club Passim and others. Her fan base in the Northeast grew.

Recently, Deb received Acoustic Guitar magazine's "Homegrown CD Award" for Something Burning along with two Boston Music Award nominations and won the Songwriters Showcase Competition at the 2001 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival. Although she now has a loyal Boston following and sells out shows easily at Club Passim, she's relocated to New York, seeking to expand her fan base. We're lucky to have her here.

Venue of the Month

by Richard Cuccaro

Outpost in the "Burbs" Coffeehouse

1st Congregational Church

40 S. Fullerton Ave. Montclair, NJ

973-744-6560   Shows at 8:30  


In the Spring of 1987, a group of young adults, meeting Sunday nights in the library of the First Congregational Church of Montclair, decided to open a coffeehouse as a means of drawing others into their group. The name "Outpost" was selected because it suggests a place that offers hospitality to those exploring the frontiers in their own lives and in our society.

The Outpost in the Burbs is a nonprofit community outreach organization, dedicated to enriching individual and community life through programs which foster and celebrate creativity, spirituality, and social unity.

As well as helping to run concerts, volunteers  work at the Community Foodbank of New Jersey and build houses with Habitat for Humanity.

Situated in a large, tree-shrouded stone church, the Outpost Concerts take place in two different rooms. The Guild Room is the smaller room, more intimate. seating 130. The Sanctuary is the larger room and seats 700. The bigger draws go into that room. Because of its size, The Outpost can still bring in stars like Dar Williams who will be performing in the Sanctuary on Dec 14

Richard Katz has been the program committee  chairperson for the past 2 and one half years (this is his third season). --  before that he was on the entertainment committee for a year. A Financial Consultant with Salomon Smith Barney, the job of program committee chairperson sort of "fell in to his lap," bringing him back to one of his first loves… music.

We asked him about some of his favorite Outpost performances and he responded: "Iris Dement baring her soul in a wondrous concert; Jimmy Lafave, lost in his music, having no idea how long he was on stage, and the audience mesmerized;  Dar Williams selling out the Sanctuary;  Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Shindell selling out the Sanctuary and Richard recording the show for his new album;  discovering Eliza Gilkyson (an amazing talent) when I

had her open for Tish Hinojosa as a favor to someone; Barachois... I never had more thank you's from the audience for bringing an act in; Ellis Paul playing through the movie screen accidentally being lowered between him and the audience.

Run by a friendly bunch of volunteers, The Outpost is a wonderful place to see a show. Grab a beverage and some cookies in the cafeteria, kick back and hear some great music!