Although much has been made lately about Christian music and the mainstream success the genre has enjoyed, most of the songs found there still fit into two categories: "capitalization" numbers wherein you need a lyric sheet in order to tell "love" from "Love" or "him" from "Him"; and tunes in which the dominant thought seems to be "Hey, this song's about Jesus; it doesn't have to be that good."
Like the artist he most immediately reminds you of--Bruce Cockburn--Pierce Pettis doesn't settle for either of those easy outs. Rather, like Cockburn, he's a songwriter secure enough to allow his faith to remain in the background, never really directly addressed but constantly referenced. A songwriter's songwriter, his words and music have a rare resonance and a special connectiveness. His 1993 album, Chase the Buffalo, had an astounding number of great songs on it--"Natchez Trace," "I Will Be Here," and a back-to-back foursome that should induce despair in 99 percent of the fey pretenders out there in acoustic-guitarland: "Trying to Stand in a Fallen World," "One Who Got Away," the ambivalent yet still affirmative "No More Sad Songs" ("All I got to show for all this/is songs that make you cry"), and "Lions of the Colosseum."
His brand-new album, Making Light of It--made with Derri Daugherty and Steve Hindalong of the Choir, appropriately enough one of the most interesting of the new, more subtle "alternative" Christian acts--more than lives up to Buffalo. Try as you might, it's hard to imagine Steven Curtis Chapman being so much like you that he could sing "I have been an outlaw/all my grownup life/Just ask my former in-laws/Just ask my former wife," as Pettis does on "My Life of Crime," a takeoff on archetypal Americana that recognizes the Jesse James that lurks within all of us--sometimes unbidden, sometimes not--and that not all robberies occur at the point of a gun.
Pettis is everything that ever compelled one person with a guitar to sit down in front of a couple of others, his message so direct that you hardly notice the sophistication of his presentation--a gift that holds as many different levels of meaning as Making Light's title. This show will be worthwhile simply for Pettis and his music (as it should be), but if you've never been to a show at the Downstairs Cafe at Wilshire Baptist Church (particularly if you think that there's something about the beerless basement of a church that's antithetical to good music), you really should check it out; the attention and enthusiasm of the folks who gather there can be instructive--like Pettis himself--on many levels.
Pierce Pettis performs at the Wilshire Baptist Church Friday, October 18.