It’s New Year’s Day — a clean sheet, a promise for the future, fresh beginnings — yet it finds me doing what I’ve been doing for more than 40 years, and that’s going out to listen to live music.
I last saw Grace Pettis five years ago, in Texas; her fan-funded sophomore album Two Birds was in my top ten releases of 2012. So, when I saw that she was going to be playing locally to where I was staying during a visit to the US, I couldn’t possibly pass up the opportunity to see her. That’s how I found myself, kicking off the year, sitting in the audience for her performance at Club Passim.
Because the small but perfectly formed gathering comprised family, close friends and fellow singer-songwriters, Pettis said, “I’m going to play a lot of new stuff – there’s not too many of us, what the heck?” and proceeded to do just that. It was a great approach, because it enabled me to see how she has developed as both a performer and songwriter. I’m pleased to report that she has blossomed into a really fine lyricist with an engaging stage presence. Coming from a family of songwriters (father Pierce and brothers Rayvon and George) and a poet (mother Margaret Mills (Meg) Harper), Pettis has inherited the writing gene and demonstrated this none more so than with a new, introspective, song “Alabama Side”. Here she acknowledges her heritage, after years of being less than forthcoming about where she spent some of her formative years.
Another sign of her growing confidence was the reading of a song that had been finished just days before. She was joined on stage by two of her three co-writers — Matt Nakoa and Jared Salvatore. I think that its title might be “Better Be Good”, and they were! Immediately afterwards, Pettis generously gave the stage over to each one of them in turn, so they could showcase their own material. Both are Berklee College of Music graduates and clearly gifted. Nakoa, a Kerville New Folk winner, had earlier offered me a copy of his latest CD A Dozen Other Loves and his choice of song “You Are My Moonshine” augured well for the album. Salvatore, an incredibly expressive vocalist, also drew very appreciative applause. Pettis joked that she’d find it hard to follow the pair but cleverly chose a slow song “Dry Spell” as a counterbalance to Salvatore’s lively song choice about not learning lessons from previous mistakes.
Earlier on, Pettis had dedicated her song “Texas Boy” to her husband, Cris, who was in the audience celebrating his birthday. The lyrics chart their meeting and how she fell in love with him – a warm and touching tribute. Another family member, her mother, a leading authority on the poet W. B. Yeats, was also in the audience and joined Pettis on “TVA” — a song written about the regional development agency, set up to help Tennessee recover from the Great Depression. Still in her 20’s, Pettis’ growing maturity as a songwriter sees her drawing upon a range of influences. Whilst she doesn’t have any immediate plans to follow up Two Birds, I will certainly be on the lookout for when she does
In the meantime, she will continue touring, writing, and no doubt winning more awards and garnering accolades. She is a delight, and when you see her name on a concert schedule, do check her out – she will charm you and steal your heart with her smile, her music, and her storytelling.
(Photo credit: Neale Eckstein)