Last Sunday I was a visitor hiding on the back pew of a church in Houston. It was an inconspicuous little place filled with quietly ordinary people and a sensible lack of grandeur. After the sermon and the closing hymn and the benediction, the pastor held up his hand and told us one last announcement had slipped his mind. He was hosting a Pierce Pettis concert in his home the following weekend and we were invited.
I shot upright in my chair and looked at the man sitting next to me.
“Did he just say Pierce Pettis?”
The man next to me nodded and shrugged as if to say, ‘Yeah, whoever that is.’
My first reaction was to grab the man by the hair and pound his head against my knee until I was sure he knew exactly who Pierce Pettis was. After years of training however, I have generally learned to ignore my first reactions. Instead, I asked him if he wanted to come to the concert with me. He didn’t.
After church, lunch ensued (a glorious concoction of bread, cheese, basil pesto, and who really cares what else) and I shuffled the matter of buying concert tickets to the back of my mind. When I got home, though, I visited the website the pastor had directed us to for tickets and found that, while pleasant to look at, it was rather confusing and didn’t seem to be offering up any information about concerts or shows or the genius of Pierce Pettis. Bah, I thought, I’ll figure this out later.
So the week went by and I procrastinated like the champ I am until Friday afternoon. I called the church only to find that no one would answer, so I left messages telling of the urgency with which I intended to purchase tickets, and of course I blamed my failure to buy them sooner on the confusing website and it’s lack of information. No one called me back.
This was getting serious.
So I go back to the website in search of clues and–ah hah! A phone number. I dialed the number and a pleasant gentleman answered and offered to help. Pierce Pettis, I told him. I must have a Pierce Pettis ticket, forthwith.
“Do you have the password?” he asked.
This was not the response I was hoping for.
Password? Since when do concerts have passwords? My first reaction was to tell him, “I don’t want to steal his Facebook page, you twit!” My training intervened.
“It is a private show, sir. You must have the password.”
So I patiently explained to him that I’d been invited by the pastor and had met with all manner of obstacle and distress in my quest. Bless the man, he had mercy and told me the password.
So, rejoicing, I proceeded to the confusing website and entered the secret password and was in short time the owner of a shiny new Pierce Pettis ticket.
Saturday night I plugged the address of the pastor’s house into my trusty iPhone and I was off. Thirty minutes later I pulled up to the house and realized that I had failed to account for one troublesome matter. I didn’t know any of these people. I’m very uncomfortable around groups of people I don’t know and generally avoid such situations at all costs. Sitting in a room full of strangers and trying to be civil makes me sweat buckets and spew the stupidest things in attempt to be social. Things like: “Hello, you have a lovely home, I’d rather be anywhere than here right now!” or “Why no, I’m not married, how old is your daughter?” Statements like these, you must understand, leap out of my mouth without the slightest intent or forethought and typically are the source of the sweating and awkwardness I feel for the rest of the night. I need more training to subdue those first reactions, I suppose.
So I walk up to the door in a state of complete dread and nearly turn back two or three times. I have to reassure myself that once the show starts, people will stop talking to me and I will stop saying preposterous things and everything will be fine and it’ll all be about Pierce Pettis and his particular genius.
“Welcome!” says the doorman. I try to convince myself he’s sincere, his smile suggests he is, but to me his greeting sounds like the rasped invitation of a vampire into his looming castle filled with shadows and lurking menace. Gulp.
I step inside and there are charming people everywhere.
It’s worse than I thought.
I can already feel some horribly mispoken “Hello, so nice to meet you and, wow, you’ve got huge hands” gathering at the back of my throat and threatening to jump out at the first unfortunate person to greet me.
I spot an empty chair in the back corner of the room and navigate myself toward it. I dodge a cackling blond lady who might be tempted to turn and say hello. Then I slyly evade a tall gentlemen in a Rockets t-shirt and achieve my seat without incident. Out comes the iPhone and I’m safely checking my email, Facebook, and Twitter pages until the show starts. Whew, made it.
Finally, I can relax unaccosted by hand-shakers and how-do-you-doers and wait for the music to begin. An emcee dressed like a barista steps to the microphone beside the fireplace and gathers everyone’s attention.
“We’re going to start the show in about fifteen minutes just to give folks time to get some coffee and get to know each other.”
When he’s done he walks right past me with no idea of how narrowly he’s avoided my violent first reaction to this announcement. I’m tempted to leave. Fifteen minutes in a stranger’s house filled with people being pleasant to each other is an eternity to a man of my particular oddities. Maybe I’ll get some coffee.
I get up and angle my way toward the coffee pots in the next room but I don’t get far. A short man wearing glasses and a button-up a shirt that looks like it’s part candy-cane makes eye contact and won’t let go. He pounces and the next thing I know I’m shaking his hand and telling him my name and lying about how happy I am to be staring at his shirt.
When he’s done with me I try to get my coffee but the line is filled with people chatting and threatening to greet me. Don’t they know how lines are supposed to work? The whole purpose of a line is to stand, facing forward, quietly, eyes ahead, shuffling in silence until you reach the front, acquire your coffee and exit the line in the most efficient manner possible. Nowhere in the ‘Coffee Line Handbook’ is there mention of chatting happily, turning to shake hands, or speaking before first being spoken to.
Screw it. The line is a disaster. I go back to my seat. Phone out. Facebook. Twitter. Email. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. Finally the barista guy is back at the mic and introducing Pierce Pettis. Home stretch.
But wait. An Asian guy with a rat-tail and red Chuck Taylors taps my shoulder and asks if he can sit next to me. I answer yes—by which I mean no—and he sits. At least he doesn’t try to talk to me.
At long last, people are clapping and the great Pierce Pettis is standing at the mic. He tunes his guitar and plays a Mark Heard song called Nothing But the Wind and finally I can relax and enjoy myself.
If you’ve stuck with this little tale for this long, you’re probably wondering why I felt the need to tell you all this. Here’s why. I suffered—suffered, I tell you—to go to this concert. And why? That’s easy. Because it was worth it.
Pierce Pettis is an elemental force of a songwriter. He spends his words with thrift and sets them down precisely where they belong so they illuminate everything around them. He places words like stones in a wall, each supporting the other, until the entire edifice would crumble if even one was out of place. He writes songs that twist and whirl and move things inside me and they’re better each time I hear them.
But Pierce is a paradox. I’ve found his music is difficult to pass on because it’s the kind of treasure you’ve got to work for. It’s not bright and shiny, or radio friendly, or always particularly catchy but it’s got depth and luster and is cut with so many facets that it’s something new from every angle.
It’s great not because his records are easy to listen to or easy to hum along with. They’re not. And it’s not because his live shows are the best you’ve ever seen. They aren’t. No, his music is great because the best things in life are often the ones you have to work the hardest for. It’s great because it’s a hidden thing you have to seek out, and suffer for, and take a chance on. It’s magical because it’s the age-old and dying art of the songwright working long and hard in the heat of the forge.
A Pierce Pettis song is a fine gem on display, cut by a master that’s gone into hidden places to delve and polish and bring something glimmering and sharp out of the chaos of language.
With Pierce’s songs, the first reaction isn’t always the best but diligent training will show them for what they are. They are worth the phone calls and the passwords and the confusing website purchases and it’s worth the handshakes and the sweating and all the awkward hellos to go and sit for a spell at the feet of a master and see him spinning gold.
If you don’t know Pierce’s songs, go out and find them. Train yourself not to trust your first reaction. Let them work on you. Allow those gold-spun words to settle down inside you and reveal the treasures they hold. They are worth the effort.
Here’s a song from his 1998 album Everything Matters, “Love Will Always Find its Way”.
LOVE WILL ALWAYS FIND IT’S WAY
(PIERCE PETTIS & FRED KOLLER)
CAN’T STOP A RIVER
DON’T EVEN TRY
IT’LL CARRY YOU AWAY
CAUGHT IN THE CURRENT
SWEEPING YOU ALONG
RUNNING DEEPER EVERY DAY
OH, MY LOVE, LOOK AT YOU
I LOVE YOU MORE THAN I CAN SAY
NOW I KNOW THAT IT’S TRUE
LOVE WILL ALWAYS FIND ITS WAY
HELLO AND GOODBYE
DIVIDED BY A LINE
DOWN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD
BUT THE SAME ROAD THAT TAKES YOU
SO FAR AWAY
IT CAN BRING YOU BACK HOME
OH, MY LOVE, IF I GO
IT WILL NEVER BE TO STAY
I WILL COME BACK I KNOW
LOVE WILL ALWAYS FIND ITS WAY
I CANNOT ESCAPE
THE FACT THAT I HAVE MADE
SOME TROUBLE FOR MYSELF
TROUBLE SO DEEP
BUT THE WATER WAS SWEET
BY THE RIVER WHERE I KNELT
OH, MY LOVE, WASH ME CLEAN
LIKE A SIDEWALK IN THE RAIN
TAKE MY ARM, WALK WITH ME
AND LOVE WILL ALWAYS FIND ITS WAY
–TO MY BRIDE MICHELE