First Published July 2017
“THE ONLY THING I REALLY LOOK FOR IS HONESTY AND TRUTH.”
Some things in life are hard to put into words. While other things, however, can be easy as pie. Articulating MoPitney‘s place in the world of country music right now definitely falls into the pie category! Simply put, this young man from Illinois is one of the most exciting talents to appear on the country scene in…well, you know what, it’s probably not wrong to say decades. Nor is wrong to say (at least not in the eyes or ears of this writer) that Mo, although at a slightly younger age, is doing much the same as what Chris Stapleton has been doing for country music over the last few years. By putting the song, and the story in the song, right back at the centre of a traditional country sound, Mo has been winning new fans, winning back old fans, and reminding everyone of the main thing that has always made country music so special: great songs, simply told.
When the chance came along for me to chat with Mo recently, I didn’t need to be asked twice if I was interested. In fact, I’m not sure the full question was even asked before I’d said yes! I was excited, and I wasn’t let down.
Now the first big reason Mo and I were actually chatting was because next month he returns to Ireland to take part in the first Harvest Country Music Festival, held in Westport in Mayo, and Enniskillen in Fermanagh, on consecutive days. Harvest Fest will be headlined by Nathan Carter and Miranda Lambert, and will also feature artists like Charley Pride, Kip Moore, Dan & Shay, and Sam Palladio, as well as Ireland’s Una Healy, Hurricane Highway, Catherine McGrath, and Pete Kennedy, and the proverbial ‘many, many more’!
I asked Mo if he was looking forward to being back in front of an Irish audience again?
“Oh yeah. Totally. I mean, my first trip to Ireland has been my favourite trip, so to be able to come back and bring my wife and baby, well I’m just thrilled.”
Mo‘s first time in Ireland had been for last year’s Irish TV Irish Country Music Awards.
“It was, it was. Me and my brother came over then, and we just had a great time. So yeah, this time thankfully, it’s gonna be my wife, and my baby and I, but also my brother’s comin’ again. And my sister is comin’ too, because they’re part of the band. And my dad runs sound, so he’s comin’. And my mom’s comin’ over just to join the ride, because she couldn’t be left out! [laughs]”
With the extended Pitney clan all boarding a plane for Ireland, I wondered if there was going to be anyone left at home to look after things there?
“Oh I don’t know, maybe we’ll just have to let it all go by the wayside and let the weeds grow over everything here, I don’t know! [laughs]”
Before we moved on to Mo‘s own music, the second big reason we were talking, I wanted to ask him about something he once said about country music. And that was this: that when he began really listening to country songs as his love for the music grew, he started trying to, “…figure out what moved me and why it moved me….” So what I wanted to know was did Mo ever figure out what it is about country songs that move him, and why?
“Well, I think lookin’ back now I’m understanding more about what and why things move me. But I always knew I felt things very deeply. Whenever I was listening to Merle Haggard’s music or someone else’s music, even if I hadn’t gone through whatever they had gone through, I was still able to recognise that they had gone through something very, very significant or difficult, or joyful or whatever it was, for them. But I knew they were experiencing some very intense emotions, even if it was good or bad. And I think some of that [being able to to relate and empathise on such a deep level] got me into some bad places, especially with some depressed country music! [laughs]. I don’t know, I think it’s recognising artists that sing about something they had actually lived through, and wasn’t kinda puttin’ on somethin’ that was fake.”
So in a way, even when Mo was very young, it was almost as if he was an old soul really?
“Yeah, well my dad was a steel guitar player, so he was always playin’ the old stuff around the house, and we also played bluegrass music. So naturally when you’re a bluegrass musician you’re really tuned into the old stuff. So I think it was just the environment that I grew up in that just made it seem pretty normal to look to the past. So I owe a lot of my kind of traditional flavor to that.”
So, onto to Mo‘s own music. ‘Country’, of course, is the song that really brought him to peoples’ attention and into their hearts. And it’s songs like ‘Country’, ‘Clean Up In Aisle Five’, ‘I Met Merle Haggard Today’, and ‘Everywhere’, that all possess a beautiful, simple sense of truth, something that’s very easy for fans to relate to. Now me, I’m a dog man. So with a song called ‘It’s Just A Dog’ on the album, and given that ‘I Met Merle Haggard Today’ was based on a real-life experience for Mo, I had to know….was ‘It’s Just A Dog’, with the heartbreaking line near the end, “….it just hits me/ she’s not with me…”, based on a true story, too???
“Well, it is, and in fact, there’s three true stories in that song. I wrote that song with Jimmy Melton and Dave Turnbull, and when we were writing all three of us were writing about certain different elements about our relationships with our first dogs. So depending on what line you’re hearin’, you’re hearin’ a true story about one of our first dogs. I think all three of us had lost dogs, and especially back then [when you’re younger], it just hits you like, oh my gosh, this dog that you’ve had for however long, that could always cheer you up, is not here anymore.”
It must have been a pretty emotional song to write then?
“Oh yeah. And by the time that I had written that song, it was a long time after I had lost my first dog. But I did have my favourite dog with me still at the time when we were writing it. The song didn’t take very long to write, and the guys had already had it started before I jumped on in. So we recorded it, and then on my drive home I put my phone up to my ear and listened to it and cried, ya know. It wasn’t hard as we were writing it, but afterwards, when I was listening to it as I was driving home I knew the song had something special to it.”
When Mo writes, is every song that he begins or finishes one that might potentially be released some day, or are there some songs that he writes just to get things out of his system, or for personal reasons, or even just for practise almost?
“Well you’re always just writin’ and hopin’ that a song will be heard in some space or another. I think there’s certain ideas that you recognise probably won’t find room in a mainstream space, but you’re always hopin’ that it will get heard in some way. But there are songs that you can tell are more personal, and maybe just for you, even if you doubt that anyone else might feel it. But sometimes they do, because a song is so real. But I don’t think I’m always tryin’ to think about where a song might eventually show up. I’m normally just writin’ to write, and let a song be in whatever space it finds itself happen, rather than try and force it there.”
Mo has been described as being a ‘Man who loves God and George Strait’, which is not a bad way for any man to be described in my book! Mo‘s faith is clearly very important to him, and therefore a big part of his life. But what kind of role, if any, does it play in his songwriting? Are there certain subjects that he wouldn’t write about? Or does he try and weave some kind of positive message into most of his songs?
“What I’m recognising is that faith always hopes. And there’s a temptation when we feel down or discouraged to write in such a way that is really….. hopeless, overly sad. But I can tell that my desire, even if I do go through times of hopelessness or discouragement, is that I’m always tryin’ to bring in my songs an underlying faith element. Because I think there’s much too much art and music that really just pushes us down into the pit even farther. And I think that’s one thing that drives me. And then there’s also things that…I mean, you write a love song, ya know, and I recognise things that ‘The Word’ tells me you don’t want to idolise, like a relationship. You really want to treat a relationship with your wife, or with your children, as a gift from God and not an end in and of itself. And there’s certain inflections in the way that I write that I can’t really ever get away from because of what I believe. So I think that gives a little tone and twist on every song I write, even if it’s not about God. If it’s about my relationships here on Earth, or my experiences here on Earth, it always has a little different nature to it than maybe what someone who doesn’t believe would write.”
I love the fact that Mo recorded ‘Behind This Guitar’ while singing and playing at the one time, in a very traditional, pretty much ‘live’ way. I wondered if he’d agree that with so many songs nowadays being recorded literally piece-by-piece, as opposed to how he had done it, if that has maybe contributed to the blurring of lines between what’s country, what’s pop, what’s rock, and so on?
“I don’t think it’s the way things are recorded in as much as it is just the actual people that are recording. We’re all looking for something new and exciting and different, and we’re tryin’ to ring the bell and make money, and survive on this Earth and play the game. And that just causes art to be confused. And I’m really not sayin’ this to say that what’s goin’ on is right or wrong, I have no problem with things evolving and turning into something different than it was in the past. The only thing I really look for is honest and truth. So even if someone thinks differently than I do, as long as in their art they’re being true to themselves, I think there’s something to be respected about that. Whether that be a party song, or a different type of track, whatever it might be, as long as they’re not not tryin’ to be someone else that they’re not. I think it’s ok to be however they’re gonna be.”
Now, not only is Mo a young husband to Emily, and a young father to Evelyn, but he himself, of course, is a young musician. And as such, and even more so because of his success, he’s one who spends a lot of time on the road and away from home, something which must be quite tough at times?
“Yeah, it is. And I definitely strive in any way that I can to keep them on the road with us. And like I said, they’re actually comin’ over with us to you guys’ land when we go, both the baby and Emily, which I’m really excited about. It’s just kinda not very natural, historically, for a husband to be away from his wife. I think God really designed it for him [a husband] to come home and be in the same bed every night. I think there’s something really safe and healthy about that, that the music business can’t break up. And really in culture at large, I think we’ve really gotten the ability to get too far away from a rooted place called home. So it [being on the road] can make it difficult, but I’m thankful that in this day and age, even though we are travelling, we’ve got cellphones and that’s awesome. And we’ve got Facetime, that’s helpful. But we do strive to stay close together as much as we can. We just think that’s the right approach.”
It’s the one question that Mo probably has fired at him in every single interview he does, so before I even asked him this, I felt like I should probably apologise for throwing it his way again. So I did. And then I asked him anyway….For any country artist, walking out onto the Grand Ole Opry stage, and setting foot inside that circle, which is sacred ground in country music terms, it has to have changed him. The Mo Pitney that walked off stage couldn’t have been the same Mo Pitney that walked on stage, surely? What was that experience like for him?
“Well there was a lot of fear before I went out, and doubt as to whether or not we would be received well. So being able to go out and step into the circle, and just be a kid that shared his song, and then have the place stand on its feet and applaud, really it blew me away. And I think there was a moment of recognising that wow, well maybe I do have a spot here in the music industry where I could make a livin’ and enjoy playin’ music the rest of my life. So there was a lot that happened, not just thinkin’ about that moment alone, but what that moment could mean for the rest of my life, too. It was pretty powerful. And I’m really thankful to be able to look back on my first time there and have such a great memory.”
Before saying our goodbyes, at least until Harvest Fest next month anyway, we closed our chat with a little what-if kind of a question. If any past country artist, someone who’s already passed on, could come back and play just one more ‘live’ show, who would Mo most love to go and see perform?
“Hmm. Let me think. Maybe….wow. Yeah, maybe George Jones, only because I didn’t get to see him. I got to see Merle. It would probably be a tie between Roger Miller and George Jones. I’m very much so a Roger Miller fan, too.”
For me, the soul of Mo Pitney was revealed in that last answer about what it felt like for him that first time he played the Opry. Whereas so many people just want to be famous these days, and being a ‘celebrity’ is often seen as being a worthwhile goal in itself, for Mo, playing on the greatest stage of them all just made him think that maybe he could “make a livin’ and enjoy playin’ music” the rest of his life. Simple as that.
And I think you just might, Mo, I think you just might.