Sunday, January 20, 2013

Music: Grace Pettis: Song "Abilene"

She does the song with an acoustic guitar and no frontal microphone, her tone is dissonance, sometimes she seems to be rawly emoting into shouts almost.  You have to watch it several times, and watch the video, to get in her groove.  And then, for most of us, Grace Pettis begins to come across as a powerful ideosyncratic musician and singer in the folk music idion, but transgressing many of its assumed rules.

Musikos, refWrite Backpage music newspotter, analyst, columnist

Hat Tip to Byron Borger, whose write-up I've pirated below.

Grace Pettis performs "Abilene"


Grace & Pierce Pettis 

8:00 PM EST — Live from Saratoga Springs

If you are not watching the final wrap of the football games tonight, you might enjoy this. I have seen Grace and Pierce doing this show twice, and have been blown away each time. Beth and I and good friends from our church saw them Friday night and, again, it was profound, entertaining, and an evening of spectacular songwriting and craftsmanship. 

I have admired Pierce since his first indie release, and we sell his albums in the shop. His version of "In the Bleak Midwinter" (from Winter Solstice III) is my favorite version of that song, and I listen to Miriam (from Making Light of it) every Advent. He skewered the Christian right in "Lions in the Colosseum" --how many songs do you know about Dorothy Day? -- and sings more than one song about a certain lion from Narnia. He is up there in my top few performers and his passion and skillful playing and literate songwriting continues to mean a lot to me. Maybe some of our friends know that Steve Garber has the lyrics to a Pettis song as a frontispiece for his thoughtful Fabric of Faithfulness. So there ya go, just one of several book connections in his work. 

Pierce has recorded a Mark Heard song on each of his last several albums and he and his daughter are doing several Mark Heard songs in this tour. Grace’s skilled and evocative high vocals --skipping up into falsetto often -- adds perfect depth and texture to Pierce’s powerhouse voice. If you still miss Mark (who died after an on-stage heart attack during a Cornerstone show a decade ago) it will be worth the five bucks just to hear them do “Tip of My Tongue.” I was a little embarrassed how I cried sitting in the front row when I heard their live version last fall. 

Twenty-something Grace has a new album out (Little Birds) produced by Billy Crockett and she has matured as a songwriter and performer since her great first album. She is a gal to keep an eye on. I think (no matter how touched I am by Pierce’s powerful songs, all which are favorites since I play his CDs so much) the highlight of the show is the sad, slow song “Abilene” from her new album. It is a song about a desperate young woman whose hard life is going nowhere in a Texas town, as she promises her young sister that they will escape soon. The line that she got her name because her mother “liked the sound of Abilene” just slays me. Tune in and be transported by Grace into that life like a short story.

Here is her doing an early version:

Grace’s powerful voice soars and whispers in a song we might all be wise to ponder this inauguration day: Paul Simon’s “American Tune.” Pierce finger- picks it with his hard style, not gently, but nonetheless stunning. I have listened to Paul Simon (and others) do that song a hundred times, and nobody tops their live version. I trust they will do it tonight. Maybe you’ll hear it as a prayer for our needy nation.

They do some rowdy stuff, too -- Dylan’s “Down in the Flood” is manic, the banging guitar and amazing harmonica blaring brought the house down! -- and fun stuff like the song about eloping (“Rodeo Around the World.”) Pierce compliments Grace's songs and she does great backup on his. He does some great instrumental stuff, and tells lots of jokes. 

And they do the quiet tender stuff -- "Little River Canyon" captures the drama of adolescence wonderfully, and hints at disappointment, in a truly beautiful melody and gentle folk finger-picking. The Biblical literacy of the gorgeous “That Kind of Love” is sweetly touching, so beautiful you can hear a pin drop. That they did “I’ll Be There” from the out-of-print Chase the Buffalo album was a sheer gift, making me deeply glad for God’s faithfulness, for those Bible verses where Jesus says he is our friend, and also for our own long-lasting friends. I got a lump in my throat, too, for those whose lives are on the edge of desperation (“You make a lot of money/you make a lot of friends/ When you lose that money, a lot of those friendships end/ Lose that job, lose that house, lose that car, lose that spouse -- I will be here.”) He is a master of doing poignant, lyrical songs that are tinged with faith, that have double-meanings, that can be heard on different levels. He is profoundly and at times overtly Christian, but appeals to the broader folk crowd. (For instance, his homage to his home state of Alabama “State of Grace” which he nearly shouts out as solid Southern patriotism and as theological treatise.)

Young Grace, too. As in introduction to an old-school sort of ballad, “Lighthouse” she cheerfully warned that “this is a Jesus allegory. Or maybe not, maybe it is just a story. You can choose.” The dark Western murder ballad (“A Murder of Crows”) seems to have some theological thing going on, too. Weird, dark, true.

Perhaps one of the great moments in the show for me further illustrates this. The beautiful “Alabama 1959” (from 2004’s Great Big Love) is set up with a goofy story about finding his dad’s old home movies from his boyhood, movies nobody really watched much. The first couple of stanzas of the song wonderfully portray small town life in a mid-century Southern US of A. The third verse speaks gently of racism. There is a line that hints at complicity. At the end of the nostalgic story he sings

These old home movies, well they make me cry
Still I bring them out and watch sometimes
And all those ghosts come back alive
Alabama 1959

Ghosts, indeed. I think the first song I ever heard by Pettis was the powerful duet sung with the strong black vocalist from Take Six, “Legacy” and its sense of Southern culture and racism made me an fan. The songs is pretty powerful, and here he talks about it a bit as he plays it solo:

Pierce has done songs about race relations for his whole career. He doesn’t preach, but he illumines, and we, as listeners, are better for it.

Their live show includes moving and evocative and serious songs, but they leaven it with levity, telling stories and fussing with tunings and re-doing missed notes. Pierce has long been known as an introspective, literary songsmith and yet a zany, upbeat guy. Grace is cute in her flowing skirt and sexy cowboy boots but, again, brings a gravitas to her much of her writing. Like her old dad, she is a troubadour, with stories to sing from the road and songs to play from her nomadic life, searching, as it is, for beauty and goodness and truth. They don’t preach, but there is substance and warmth and insight here. 

The live streaming show is on tonight from the historic Cafe Lena coffeehouse. Don’t miss it.

Here is a link to Grace’s website:
Here is a link to Pierce’s website:


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