Tony Cummings talked to young country music hitmaker MO PITNEY
Country singer Mo Pitney is an anomaly. This young Nashville-based singer/songwriter, having landed the big record contract, did not weigh in with the sanitised album of radio friendly pop confections which dominate much of today's country music scene. Rather, this 24-year-old released an album with the raw, plaintive country sounds which many thought were disappearing from today's scene. He's been rewarded with a successful debut album 'Behind This Guitar' which when released by Curb Records in 2016 reached number 10 in the US country charts; received a minute-long standing ovation when he made his debut at the iconic Grand Ol' Opry; completed a successful UK tour playing to packed out crowds and possibly most impressive of all, acknowledged the divine source of his creativity when interviewed by influential trade magazine Billboard with a headline story 'Mo Pitney on the success of "Country"."God has been awful kind."
Mo is shortly to visit the UK again to play the C2C festival and roadshow from 10th to 17th March. He's looking forward to it. "It's going to be great. Our first trip over there was really eye-opening for me and I really enjoyed the audience there and their love for country music and singer/songwriter music and I'm just thrilled and excited to come back. I had no clue what I was gettin' in to, and to be able to come and sweep through England and play a bunch of different shows and have almost every place packed out, and people really, really into what we were doing, it was more than a blessing for us."
What Mo has been doing has been to take country once again back to its roots just as in the '90s and 2000s "traditionalist" artists like Randy Travis, George Strait and Daryle Singletary reminded country radio listeners that not all music had to be as dull as the overproduced blandness of "cowboypollitan". Today Pitney is again reminding a forgetful industry that country loses much of its appeal when embellished with too much smooth pop production.
Mo was born in Cherry Valley, Illinois on 24th March 1993. His father was a part-time musician and by age six Mo was learning to play the drums. When he was 12 Mo was recovering from a broken arm when he asked his dad to teach him to play guitar. With a towel draped over the instrument's body so as not to scratch the finish, it didn't take long for Pitney to learn a couple of Johnny Cash tunes. By the age of 15 Pitney started playing banjo and got hooked on bluegrass music and formed an acoustic band with his friends.
By the time he was 20 Pitney had moved to Nashville with an eye towards making music his career. Things initially started off well for the teenager. He remembered. "I immediately got a deal with Universal, but it was only a demonstration deal, it wasn't a full blown record deal. Anyway, I recorded a record for them. But then a merger happened between Universal and Capitol Records and I was one of the people that they decided to let go." But if his music career hit a roadblock, in a more important area things were taking a giant leap forward for the singer/songwriter.
Explained Mo, "I was kind of raised in church. Both of my grandparents were pastors of the Baptist Church. But you know, I didn't really come to know God until I was 21. I sat in the church and it was just in one ear an' out the other. I would never have stuck up for who he was or guided anyone to Christ, ever, until I knew that I couldn't live without him. And I'm not perfect, I don't claim to be but all I can say is everywhere I go - every morning when I wake up - I'm not a self-made man, I need help, and err, I believe everyone else does too. I've found help and I just want to point people to it."
Using his Universal-recorded songs as a demo Mo was able to land a contract with Curb Records. He explained how he was able to get one of country music's most successful producers, Tony Brown, to work on his Curb debut. "A friend of mine, Don Sampson, he had another publisher friend that connected my name with Tony Brown and had sent a few songs in order to get him to just see if he would be willing to produce me. Out of the blue I got a phone call, 'Hey Mo, this is Tony Brown', and in my head I'm thinking 'THE Tony Brown?' So I ended up meeting him. He asked me to come to his office and play him more songs, and when I did he was ready right-away to make a record. I'm just thankful for that."
Recording the tracks which were to eventually make it onto 'Behind This Guitar' took several months. Two of the special guests planned for the album, Vince Gill and Alison Krauss, got to record but their contributions aren't heard on the final version. Explained Mo, "For some reason we had to change both of the songs that they sang on and actually do some re-recording to the point where their versions of singing didn't fit with what we were doing. I had to change some things with my vocal and they never ended up making the record, and it's not their fault. . . it was my fault [Mo laughs]. I wish they did get to make the record because it sure was fun to record with such amazing artists. But I might call them again and see if we can do round two on the next record."
Even without big star guests 'Behind This Guitar' proved to be a success. The first single from the project, "Country", got much praise and airplay. The song was written by Pitney along with Bobby Tomberlin and Country Music Hall Of Fame's Bill Anderson (writer of the country classic "Still" and a committed Christian). Working with Anderson was, Pitney told Billboard, "an honour."
Talking about the writing of "Country" Mo told Electric Music Magazine, "I think God was in the room that day because we tried to create a strong lyric with the message that meant something. In many ways it shines a light into my beliefs and who I am as a person. As the song says, 'Country is not a place on the map, it's a place in your heart'." The lyrics go: "Have you ever picked guitar on your front porch/In the morning as the sun was risin'?/Or followed your dog down to the river/And ran into an ole' baptizin'?/Do you think to pull off on the side of the road/When that big black hearse is passing?/Have you ever helped someone in need/Without them even asking?/We do that in the country/Let me tell you 'bout country/Country can be in the middle of a city/Country can be on a farm/Country ain't even a place on the map/It's a place in your heart/Would you ever hitched a ride to Music City/Just to see an Opry show?/Would you drive across the country/Just to listen to some country?/Country can be in the middle of a city/Country can be on a farm/Country ain't even a place on the map/It's a place in your heart."
Another fine song on his album debut is "I Met Merle Haggard Today". It's based on a true encounter that Mo had years before with the country music superstar. "Yeah, that is a true story. I was pouring concrete with my dad in Tennessee and a friend of mine, Nicky Lawson - who used to be the guitar player for JD Crow - he was in town and he was watching a Merle Haggard tape on the Marty Stuart Show and he asked me to come down and meet him and - just like the song says - at 4:45 I got to meet Merle Haggard. I wrote a song about it with Don Sampson the very next day."
Another gem of a song on his album is "Everywhere". Pitney told themusicsite.com, "I got to write that song with Phil O'Donnell and Dean Dillon. We were on a writing retreat in Canada. We stood up after a Bible study and Dean suggested we write a song about God. The song is talking about the one who created everything. And, no matter what you believe, every single person on the planet is standing face-to-face with him. He is everywhere, even if we are far from him by our experience, none of us are far from him at all, he literally is 'everywhere' at all times. It's comforting to know for me who travels a lot of different places. I really can't function without having faith in his love for me through Christ. I guess the route that song may be a little different than most people think but that really is the inspiration behind it."
Mo is already making plans for his next album. He explained, "We just gathered probably 25 of my favourite songs hoping to find my favourite 12 or so." He explained his attitude towards songwriting: "I try to sing about things that I still believe to be true, havin' a wife to love and a baby to love and being one of God's children and all those little things that I find a lot of beauty and delight in. I think that those are the true things about who we are and I try to sing about them - but I also try to sing about the other end of the coin, the tough stuff; the heartbreak - we all didn't get to grow up in great households; and that we've had bad things happen to us and a lot of us have made mistakes and, you know, all of that hidden experience that we go through. I wanna be able to record and document both sides, but always trying to bring in the element of hope and redemption and beauty. Yeah, that's the lyrics that I'm drawn to when I'm listening to other people; they're the lyrics that I like to write."
Mo is certain that his music is inspired by the Creator. He observed, "Some people believe that we are breathing our own air. In fact we are breathing his air, and so, to even think that I can put my fingers on the right part of the strings, and write the right lyrics, and make the right connections without my Creator - I tried to say before I'm not a self-made man, I didn't even make myself. He's the one that put it in my heart to be able to sing. He made my vocal cords. He gave me eyes to see. There was a time that I didn't believe that. Merle Haggard wrote a song that I sang in the studio the day that he died - because I was recording that day - and the second verse of that song says, 'What a gift the Lord has shared/With a man who never cared/Claiming every note I'd written for my own/So before it comes my time/There's a song of thanks in line/Before my Lord and Saviour calls me home.' And that song is called 'When My Last Song Is Sung', and Merle Haggard wrote that when he was around my age, I think. But I used to not assume that God was the one that gave me life and breath. I just thought that I did everything on my own, and all my talent came from me, and all that stuff, and that led me to a pretty lonely place. So, I try to really, sincerely hold on to the truth that that I can do nothing without him."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.