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We’re out in the country west of Nashville. No office towers or power lunch spots here — just a lot of trees, tall grass nodding to a gentle breeze and a short road leading to a converted garage. Inside there’s some handmade furniture, a couple of rocking chairs, a faded but inviting couch, a mounted deer head … and, welcoming at the front door, beneath a ball cap reading “Bubba’s Pizza, Beer and Burgers,” an artist who just may invigorate modern country music as it’s not been in decades.
“I made that from reclaimed wood from a hotel that my dad, my brother and I tore down back in Illinois,” says Mo Pitney, pointing toward a coffee cup holder near the kitchen area. “My grandpa made this wonderful coffee table from that same lumber and drove it down here two or three weeks after Emily and I moved in. He also gave us that green couch over there.”
He pauses and smiles. “You know, when I played the Bluebird a few weeks ago, I closed with a song called ‘I’m Rich.’ The first verse says, ‘I’ve got an old green couch handed down to me, a green-eyed girl cuddled up with me. I’d say we’re rolling in the green.’ Well,” he adds, looking with love to his wife as she puts the final touches on her fajitas, “that’s the green couch. And Emily’s eyes are green. Like the song says, that’s really all I need.”
Within seconds after playing “Country,” the opening cut on Pitney’s debut album Behind This Guitar, you know that this is no ordinary singer/songwriter (and nimble guitarist too). But spend a few hours with him and Emily, perhaps over lunch at their modest place, and you realize he is equally unique in how he looks at the world.
He’s already stirred up a storm of interest among media, peers and listeners. With his lanky frame, self-effacing manner and easy-drawling baritone, he’s inspired Rolling Stone to laud him as “a heartfelt country crooner … an old soul … a vivid young storyteller.” Saving Country Music suggests that Pitney might spearhead “the next big momentum shift to overtake Music Row” and prove “that songs with meaning and artists with authenticity are on the rise in the mainstream.”
Perhaps the acid test came two years ago, on the night he debuted at the Grand Ole Opry. It was one of those epic moments, something along the line of the night the audience wouldn’t let Josh Turner go until he’d sung “Long Black Train” three times. For Pitney, it was “Clean Up In Aisle Five,” a heartbreaking paean to first love, that triggered the standing ovation which moved him to tears.
What that audience didn’t notice was that this young artist was at an emotional crossroads. “I’d been struggling with depression for years,” he admits. “When I woke up the next morning I thought about what a mess I’d made of my life because of my lack of compass. That very day my best friend John Meyer came by. He’d just come back from a church in Alabama and he told me, ‘Mo, I want to tell you something. Jesus saved me.’
“Now, I was raised in the Baptist faith,” Pitney continues. “But fear came upon my shoulders because I knew I didn’t have what John had. I had just played the Opry the night before. I thought I should be happy. But I was miserable. so I started to read my Bible. The more I read, the worse I felt. I had suicidal thoughts. I didn’t eat or sleep for a week because I felt I had completely ruined my life.”
By the time that week had passed, Pitney had begun his climb from despair that would lead in September 2016 to a creek near that former garage, where Meyer would baptize both him and Emily and welcome them back on the path toward redemption. Obviously this experience has touched every aspect of their lives — but for Mo also it confirmed his commitment to music as a service more so than a grab for gold.
“Music is what I’ve been given to do,” he says. “My grandma used to hold me when I was a baby, before I could speak. She told me the every time she’d sing ‘Home on the Range’ I would well up in tears. Then she’d sing something happy and I’d smile. Even then, melodies moved me.”
Pitney’s family was musical — his current band includes his sister and brother. They heard all kinds of music, including Cheap Trick, who were local heroes in Rockford, Illinois, Mo’s birthplace. “But I was always pulled toward a more down-home, simple country lyric,” he says. “Whether it was bluegrass at first or George Jones or Don Williams, a simple country production always resonated with me.”
Eventually he began to sing and play guitar, though never because he dreamed of chasing after fame. “I was satisfied just sitting on the edge of my bed, playing music,” he says. “When we started going to bluegrass festivals, I just wanted to hang out in front of a camper trailer with four or five friends, playing old songs I’d learned. I had no idea that you could even make a living playing music.”
When songwriter Billy Lawson heard Pitney perform, he proposed that they get together in Nashville and try to launch his career. Right after making the move, though, Pitney sensed conflict rather than opportunity in the air. “Some of the biggest struggles I’ve had since coming to Nashville has been about not wanting to make music for my own selfish gain. I have a gift for music. I’m probably meant to get onstage and sing. But how do you do that in a giving sense instead of a taking sense?”
Pitney answers that question by thinking of his career as a mission. As he began writing songs shortly after settling in Tennessee, he started thinking about using music to reflect “a universal truth. Now, I have my own viewpoint, whether it’s about hunting and fishing or sunrise and sunset. But all these things point toward a universal truth. It’s all wrapped up in love. My goal is to capture the love between a husband and a wife, or the feeling of losing a father or just the joy of fellowship with friends. That’s really the heart of my music — universal messages from a simple, humble outlook.”
That’s probably why the music on Behind This Guitar speaks so directly. A lot of it is easy to hear — the artful yet natural nuances of his vocals, his memorable melodies and vivid but understated way with words. Pitney credits much of that to Tony Brown, noting that the veteran producer “didn’t try to make me into something I’m not. He asked more questions of me than anybody I’ve ever worked with. He wanted to know who I am. He would step up when he knew there was something I wanted but didn’t know how to get it.”
As a result, Behind This Guitar reclaims the power of real country music, in the awestruck but completely true narrative of “I Met Merle Haggard Today,” the warm wisdom of “Boy & A Girl Thing,” a hug and ear-scratch for our four-legged friends on “Its Just A Dog,” the heart-stopping narrative and lingering lesson of “Love Her Like I Lost Her,” and the refreshing take on romance offered by “Come Do A Little Life.” (Is there any other young male country artist who wouldn’t even mention trucks or beer and instead marvel, “What a beautiful mom you’re gonna be”?)
Only one track, the last one, was completed without Brown at the console. There’s a reason for that too. “My conversion to the Christian faith happened midway through making this record,” Pitney says. “By the time we were done I knew I wanted to make a stand. The things I’d sung about — life, love, guitars, dogs, country music, Merle Haggard — are things that we experience in this walk on Earth. They’re not bad — after all, God created them all — but I wanted to say ‘you can have all this world. Give me Jesus.’”
That line appears in “Give Me Jesus,” the only song Pitney has ever cut without a single edit or overdub. It features him with his brother and sister plus piano and cello. It was, he says, “a beautiful, spiritual moment for us all.”
It’s also the ribbon around the gift of Behind This Guitar. “You know how I was saying there’s a way to give from the stage and a way to take from the stage? I hope to create a fan base that wants to be moved by music, by art and by beautiful things. I don’t care what stage I’m on as long as i’m with people who are willing to go with me and let something spontaneous happen.”
He helps himself to a some chips and homemade salsa. “Maybe that’s why I don’t really think we’ve quite made this a living yet. Maybe,” he says, locking eyes and trading smiles with Emily, “maybe it’s more of a scraping than a living.”
But living is what Mo Pitney celebrates, in life and song. In that garage with his grandfather’s furniture, waiting with Emily for their first child’s birth, with a guitar nearby and many songs waiting to be written, he’s already a success.