Getting his first break when Joan Baez recorded 'Song at the End of the Movie' back in 1979, the Alabama born former Nashville staff writer became an integral part of the 80s Fast Folk movement in New York alongside the likes of Shawn Colvin and Suzanne Vega, making his solo debut in 1984 with Moments. Since which time, he's released a further eight albums, of which 1993's Chase The Buffalo and 2001's State of Grace, are particular highlights.
However, while he's featured as part of the New Agrarians trio alongside Kate Campbell and Tom Kimmel on their 2014 debut, this is his first solo album in ten years. It's a welcome return on which he's joined by a core backing band of Stuart Duncan on fiddle, and mandolin, Doug Lancio on electric guitars, keyboardist Reese Wynans , with bassist Garry West and drummer Josh Day providing the rhythm section.
The album kicks off with Ruth Moody on background vocals and daughter Grace Pettis singing on the infectious refrain for the mandolin tumbling 'Wouldn't Change It For The World' that's essentially a celebration of life lived as, his voice slightly more gravelly than before, he sings "Any given day/Got a 50/50 chance/Things will go my way/ As the tables turn/Sometimes you're blessed/ Sometimes you're burned/ But that's ok/And I wouldn't change it for the world."
While the plaintively sung, soulful 'Very Same Moon' slots comfortably into the thoughts of home while on the road genre ("Under the sky/At the same time/I will be dreaming for you/Though we're apart"), there's a strong reflective streak to the new material, evidenced on the stripped back 'Don't Know Where I Am' on which he uses the imagery of being adrift at sea, at the mercy of the wind and waves to talk of a loss of direction.
It's immediately followed, however, with ' The Adventures of Me (and this Old Guitar)' on which music provides the compass ("When I strike a certain chord I feel the flutter of his wings") that's seen him sail on "Oceans of gasoline/Millions miles in my car" and brought the contentment of learning "to make my peace/With all the things I could not force", the focus shifting from stages to the intimacy of being "alone here in this room", crafting a legacy for his children. Which, of course, is at the heart of the album's organ-backed, almost hymnal title track, one of two tracks to feature Jordan Perlson on drums, Pettis sounding a little like a smokier Daniel Lanois as he runs through a litany of inherited traits,
A co-write with Andrew Peterson, the fiddle and organ-backed 'More' is another song addressing life and paths taken, an optimistic number about faith and things having a purpose because "our nature hates a vacuum" and that, even if we not see the big picture, "There is more/More than we can see/From our tiny vantage point/In this vast eternity."
By way of contrast, 'Mr. Zeidman', featuring a string arrangement by Andrea Zonn, is the album's only storysong, a poignant memory of and tribute to "our one and only Jew", a Holocaust survivor (who "wore long sleeves/To keep an ugly thing from view") who ran the local tailor's shop and "had a smile for every child and/A piece of candy, too." He never spoke of his experiences, of those he lost, but,having sold up and moved to Miami, "came rumors of a fatal jump", suggesting perhaps the result of a life no longer with a purpose.
There's two covers. First up is Jesse Winchester's soulful, blues-tinted 'A Showman's Life', a song that has clear echoes of Pettis' own experiences of "the fevered chase of a tiny star …. a hotel room and a lonely wife", the other, as on his past albums, being a song by his late friend Mark Heard, 'Look Over His Shoulder' riding organ and steady marching drum beat as the lyrics chime with the album's fears of uncertainty but also its sense of affirmation and faith as he sings "It takes more than your passion and more than your pain/For the rock of forgiveness to melt in the rain."
Fittingly, then, echoing Cohen's songs about his relationship with his God, the album ends with the moving hymnal 'Instrument', mournful fiddle accompanying Pettis as he pleads "Let me be an instrument of your peace/Let me be a tool in your hand/Crooked and warped though I might be/Let me do some good here while I can", that people might "catch a little glimpse" of their saviour through him. "Make me useful in this life", he concludes, which takes your mind back to the opening track and the line about "Maybe why I write these songs/Like a crazy man on a mission." These songs are his sacraments of grace, offerings to touch and hopefully ease the heart and soul of those who take the time to listen.
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