Throughout his career as a performer, songwriter, and recording artist, Fort Payne native Pierce Pettis has been inside the hurricane they call the music business. But he is also an outsider, never achieving the often sought-after goal of world fame — and for that, he is grateful.

Through his work with Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, PolyGram Publishing, High Street Records, and Compass Records, his songs have been recorded by music legends such as Garth Brooks, Joan Baez, and Art Garfunkel. Pierce has also released numerous albums, both as a solo artist and as part of groups. His work can’t be pigeonholed in one genre.  

He dreamed of making it big as a young musician, but after working in the industry and seeing firsthand the tribulations stars can face, he feels blessed to have worked as a craftsman behind the curtain, doing what he loves.

“This is going to sound crazy,” Pierce says. “I count my blessings that I didn’t reach what I thought were my dreams when I was young: fame and fortune. Well, I wouldn’t mind fortune. But I have friends who are very famous, and it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. It takes a toll on you. And so I’ve had the great privilege of seeing it through friends’ eyes without having to go through what they went through.”

Before Pierce was born, his father moved from Evergreen, Alabama, to Guntersville, where he finished high school. Eventually, the elder Pettis opened a store in Fort Payne, but as Pierce tells it, the family didn’t know anyone in town and, unfortunately, his father’s business didn’t thrive. But they liked the town and, even though they were “outsiders,” everyone was welcoming and kind. 

There is that “insider-outsider” theme that would echo throughout the songwriter’s professional life.

Pierce comes from a musical family, and he was in childhood bands from an early age. He left the Fort Payne area, attending school in Florida and later traveling to and living in a multitude of places, including London and Paris, North Carolina, Ohio and New York, and Nashville. After his first marriage ended in divorce and his children were living with his ex-wife in Atlanta, he came home to Fort Payne and has been there ever since. No matter where he traveled, the songs that emanated from his soul tended to touch on his home and were rooted in small-town Southern culture.

“I realized looking back at all the songs I wrote during all that time, there were so many songs about where I grew up,” Pierce says. “I have a theory that one of the reasons is the South in particular has a very powerful oral tradition. And we’re agrarian. When you live in the country, you tell stories. We’re like the Irish. Most of Ireland is still very rural. That creates a nation of storytellers, and we’ve created a lot of writers and a lot of singers and songwriters. It’s just in the air.”

Pierce Pettis performs as part of The Lookout Sessions in Mentone, Alabama

Pierce Pettis performs as part of The Lookout Sessions in Mentone, Alabama

So how did Pierce get from his early days of college in Florida to a career in music? That path, too, winds through Fort Payne. “I was down at Florida State, about to be kicked out of music school, because I was an idiot,” Pierce laughs. “I was forging my advisor’s signature to get into classes I wasn’t supposed to be in. And I didn’t bother to pick up a principal instrument, which you’re really supposed to do. I could have been a voice major. I didn’t have the sense to think that through. Meanwhile, my friends from Fort Payne, Dennis and Russell Gulley, called me up one day and said, ‘Man, you need to come over to Muscle Shoals.’ So I dropped out of college and headed to the Shoals. I met [producer] Jimmy Johnson and I had reels of all these songs I’d written. Jimmy was kind enough to sit and listen and he saw some potential.” 

While he was working in Muscle Shoals, a big break came Pierce’s way when Joan Baez covered his song “Song at the End of the Movie” for her 1979 album “Honest Lullaby.” 

“Joan Baez’s album, before the one I was on, was called ‘Diamonds and Rust,’ and it was a huge album,” he recalls. “So everybody wanted to be on the next album. I got to be on this album, and that was really something because of the other writers — like Jackson Browne and Randy Newman. Everybody thought this album was going to be gigantic. And it wasn’t.”

Meanwhile, Pierce signed with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) in Nashville, partly because they believed the upcoming Baez album with his song was going to be a huge hit. 

“But signing wasn’t the greatest thing that ever could have happened to me,” he says, “because it forced me to go back into the trenches. My deal ran out in Muscle Shoals in 1980 and I ended up going back and finishing school at Florida State in mass communications and psychology. Pretty good background for a writer, right?”

As a singer/songwriter, he played the college circuit, along with basically anywhere else he could take the stage. This included rough and rowdy venues where the crowd couldn’t care less about the music or the writing.

I was blessed that I got to go through that,” he says. “I was blessed that I got to find out that I wasn’t the most important thing in the world. The song is not an advertisement for your ego.” 

In the early 80s, Pierce became part of the Fast Folk movement in New York. He released an independent album in 1984, and then after signing with High Street Records, a division of Windham Hill, in 1989, he released several more. He continued to meet various people in the music industry and was a big fan of T-Bone Burnett. Burnett had produced an album by Mark Heard, whose manager Pierce contacted for a listen to some of his work. That resulted in a trip to Los Angeles, where he spent time with Burnett and Elvis Costello, among others. Heard produced an album for Pierce called “Tinseltown.” But Heard passed away shortly thereafter.

Mark died, and my marriage broke up, and I blamed music for it,” Pierce says. “I was going to quit music.” 

Pierce considered other creative jobs that would allow him to spend more time at home, but his marriage dissolved nonetheless. The couple had three preschoolers. Pierce was devastated. But producer David Milner persuaded him to stick with music, and in 1993 he made the album “Chase the Buffalo.”

Fast-forward to the mid-90s and a song Pierce wrote with Gordon Kennedy. He laughs that the song has “almost paid for my house.” It has had several iterations and a tie to an artist who is most definitely in the category of world famous.

I was going around Nashville trying to meet a good manager and get a record deal,” Pierce says. “I met Garth Brooks’ manager, whose name is Major Bob. Wonderful guy. So I got in the door to talk to him, and he heard my stuff and said, ‘You know, you really need to get signed out of L.A. You don’t need to get signed out of Nashville, because Nashville’s not going to really get what you do. But L.A. will get it.’ And so I did. I ended up signing with Windham Hill. But at any rate, there was a guy in the back making coffee, and that was Garth. He had just released his first single, and I think he was living in his truck then. He was on the phone, saying ‘Thank you for playing my record. Thank you for playing my record….’ He came out and said, ‘Hey, you guys want some coffee?’ And he made coffee for everybody.” 

Brooks would later have a huge hit with his recording of the Pierce/Kennedy song “You Move Me.” But to write that song, Pierce first had to experience a painfully sad Christmas morning at a low point in his personal and professional life.

“I didn’t get a Christmas tree … I didn’t get reindeer,” he says of the first Christmas following his divorce. “I was like, ‘let’s just get it over with.’ But I got up Christmas morning and found myself in this very strange, euphoric mood. And I walked in my kitchen and it was a beautiful day with sunshine pouring in the window. Just outside my window was a cedar bush. It had rained the night before, and there were little drops of water just hanging in all the little pointy parts of the cedar. And the sunshine made each drop a different color. Like an instant Christmas tree.”

Pierce was inspired and started thinking of lyrics and hearing music in his head. “I took the song up to Nashville, and I got with Gordon,” he says. “But I didn’t have a title. I didn’t have a hook line, I didn’t have something to pull it all together. And I had all these crazy ideas for lines. And Gordon said, ‘Why don’t you just say, You Move Me?’ And I thought, damn, that’s the greatest idea I’ve ever heard in my life. Gordon’s like that.

“Think about that line,” Pierce continues. “When you have been emotionally impacted, what happened? You’re transported, right? You were here, now you’re over there. You were moved.” 

Gordon played the song for one of Brooks’ backup singers, Christian artist Susan Ashton, and she played it for Brooks. “You Move Me” was included on Brooks’ album “Sevens,” which sold seven million copies. The song went to number two on the charts.

Though the song didn’t reach number one, and Brooks went on to release his next album, Pierce considers his path lucky and his place in the musical universe a blessed one.

The latest Pierce Pettis album, “Father’s Son,” again reaches deep into his emotions, his relationships, and his experiences. His music is a lens through which to view life, not an end unto itself. The title track “Your Father’s Son” was enthusiastically received by Compass Records.

“Every album I do, it’s interesting that the other songs sort of cluster around the theme, not always intentionally,” he says. “It’s always sort of there, and I think, ‘oh, that belongs there.’”

For Pierce, one word stands out when he reflects on his life. “The word ‘grace’ means undeserved favor,” he says. “Good things happen I don’t deserve. There’s a song I haven’t recorded yet that has a line, ‘I am not an accident, a victim, or a slave. I am the sum total of the choices I have made.’ And there’s one line that says, ‘I’ve tried so hard only to fail, but I’ve also known successes that were undeserved as well. It always seems to equal out. I really can’t complain. It’s all about the choices I’ve made.’”

Humbleness is comfortable skin for Pierce, and he is happy not to put himself on a pedestal. Art, he says, is filtered through the artist “like you are a prism and it comes out as this rainbow that we can all enjoy.” 

It may just come as a tree outside, with the sun shining through the raindrops. Pierce keeps sharing the gift of his insights and talents through performances and songwriting workshops. To find out where he’ll be next, and to learn more about his many albums, visit https://www.piercepettis.com.