Pierce Pettis on Art, Life, and FatherhoodJohn Flynn
Pierce Pettis is an American singer/songwriter from Alabama. Formerly a staff writer for Polygram Publishing, he has recorded numerous solo albums but is perhaps best known for the songs themselves. Joan Baez covered one of his songs on an album in 1979, and since then, Dar Williams, Garth Brooks, Dion & the Belmonts, Sara Groves, Randy Stonehill, and a very long list of others have all recorded covers of Pierce Pettis songs.
Pettis lived the life of a musician on the road, even after starting a family. When traveling musicians are able to have success in both worlds — on the stage as a musician and at home with their families, it’s considered nothing short of a miracle. In Pettis’ case, as he began rising to fame, things at home began crumbling, and he had to make perhaps the biggest decision of his life: He put his career aside to focus on his children. Unfortunately, his marriage didn’t survive, but his kids thrived, and now, standing on the other side of his monumental decision, Pettis is closer than ever with his children and grateful he figured out what was really important in his life when he did.
Pettis spoke with Disney Dads via phone.
DD: Did you have a close relationship with your dad?
PP: My father and I were close, but not always in words. My father liked to lecture me a lot and I refused to listen. Turns out I was actually incapable of listening. 20 years ago I was finally diagnosed with ADD and put on medication, but as a kid, sitting still and listening was very, very difficult.
My mind was going 100 miles an hour, and my father, I’m sure, couldn’t understand why I was so hyper, why I was so all over the place all the time and wouldn’t shut up. Even with all that, I have to say, he was a very good dad.
My dad always had an enormous amount of kindness. My mother was the one with the temper (laughs).
DD: Our dads are imperfect, but they have a huge influence of the ways that we live our lives. What were ways that your dad influenced you most?
With my dad, it was the way he would react calmly when I did something really stupid. One day, for example, we went to the trunk of my car and he found a small bottle of Bacardi rum. And I thought he would go insane finding me with alcohol in my car, but he didn’t. He was very calm. He looked at me and said, “Look, whatever you do, don’t get caught in Georgia, because I don’t know anybody over there and I can’t help you.”
DD: How did your dad influence your own approach to parenting?
My parents were very loving, but they were not shy about discipline. With my kids, I wanted them to understand that there was always a line that they couldn’t cross, and it was always enforced. I wanted them to understand that you have to own up to it, whatever it’ is, and I think that’s a good thing. Some parents might not agree with that, but then, I’ve seen how their kids turned out.
DD: What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a dad?
My first marriage ended in divorce and it was very difficult. Thankfully, I had really good advice during that time from friends — that the #1 thing is to never trash the other parent in front of the kids and always hold up the other parent as best you can. I tried to do that. As difficult as it is, you need to put aside your ego and learn to bite your tongue, because you need to keep things nice for your kids.
DD: Being a musician, you’ve had to spend a lot of time away from your kids. Can you talk a little about what made that difficult, or how you dealt with that?
When my three oldest were really little, I thought it was okay to go on the road for three months at a time because, in my mind, I thought, “I’m doing this for my family.’ I was trying to break a new album for a major label and I was gone doing all kinds of things to support that record. What I learned from that experience is that you have to learn to say “no” sometimes. Maybe you don’t need a hit album; maybe your life would be just as good without it. Your art only imitates life; life is the real thing. If you miss the life part, what’s your art going to imitate?
After the divorce, my kids would come over to my little one-bedroom apartment. They all had to sleep, pretty much, in the same bed — I didn’t even have any furniture, but they loved it: it was like camping! And it’s funny — when I talk to my grown kids now, they remember those times as some of their best times. We didn’t have any money, so we’d go to a dollar store and I’d let them pick out one toy and we’d take it back and play with it, or we’d take a deck of cards and make a road out of it and drive cars on it. We had this big empty room and a few little toys, so we had to use our imagination.
DD: Your oldest daughter Grace is an accomplished musician as well. I see that you’ve been touring together. What’s it like touring with your daughter?
Grace is a real pro. She’s always prepared and she’s not afraid of anything. I’m the one that gets nervous; I’m the one that really has to warm up. For Grace, it’s just effortless. It’s great for me because I can count on her. She sings amazing harmonies like nobody [else] I know.
I like her songs and I love playing second guitar on her stuff. Grace’s career is going really well. She sure doesn’t need me (laughs).