The authentic heart and soul of ‘Boy and a Girl Thing’ balladeer Mo Pitney
“I am thankful that I don’t feel like I have to put on or be something I’m not when I entertain an audience,” maintains a sincerely authentic Mo Pitney in Part One of an eye-opening three-installment profile. “I am the same person.”
Brazenly pronounced the savior of real country music by Digital Journal, the frequent Grand Ole Opry guest has two long players under his belt — the Billboard Top Ten Behind This Guitar  and Ain’t Lookin’ Back  for the independent Nashville label Curb — and is contemplating his next artistic step in an industry riddled with eager sharks and broken promises. But with a strong support system of God, family, a good woman’s love, and songwriting mentors by his side, the waves aren’t quite as tempestuous as they might otherwise be.
Over the course of a 50-minute phone conversation from his Nashville home shared with wife Emily and preschooler Evelyne, Pitney divulges how the believability of the unbridled Johnny Cash at San Quentin transformed a teen’s bluegrass-subscribing ears, whether Vince Gill and Alison Krauss sang on Behind This Guitar, what parts might he reimagine on his debut, if any songs embarrass him to playback today, the acoustic folk and classic country covers he posted exclusively to YouTube, a dream collaboration [hint: Elvis Presley covered a bluesy song by this singer-songwriter in 1973’s landmark Aloha from Hawaii satellite broadcast which holds the world record for largest audience for a one person TV special], two Christian artists whose music provides daily encouragement, conquering nervousness and anxiety, curating setlists, and whether he might exchange acoustic for a Fender Telecaster electric guitar anytime soon.
The Mo Pitney Interview, Part One
As a teenager growing up in Cherry Valley, Illinois, what grabbed your attention when you unearthed Johnny Cash at San Quentin  in your dad’s record collection?
I look back on all the music that drew me early on in my life, and I can point a finger at a heavy level of authenticity and believability. It wasn’t really fast picking or anything tremendously flashy, but when Johnny Cash took the stage, you never questioned if he believed what he was saying.
The same applied to guitar players Carl Perkins and Bob Wootton and all the musicians that played with the Man in Black. Obviously I did appreciate the sound, I liked the groove that drummer W.S. Holland was coming up with, but I don’t doubt for a second that whatever they were playing, they were putting their heart and soul into it.
A couple of weeks later I participated in my first open mic night and sang Cash’s “Big River” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” I had a ton of anxiety that night. I thought I was playing the Grand Ole Opry. Twenty people were there but it was a big deal [laughs].
We had some family friends, Nora and Lori Sandall, who lived up in Rockford [the third largest city in Illinois, Rockford is nine miles northwest of Cherry Valley, a suburb of Rockford hosting approximately 3,500 people and plenty of corn fields and woods]. We all carpooled to Oregon, Illinois, and had an amazing night. It was a big deal for a little kid.
Do Vince Gill and Alison Krauss sing background vocals on Behind This Guitar?
You’re pulling that information from early interviews when I was in the middle of recording [January 2015], and journalists asked who was singing on the record. It took a long time to get Behind This Guitar completely complete [officially released on October 7, 2016].
I have an early version of “Take the Chance” that Alison sang on and one of “It’s Just a Dog” that Vince sang on. By the time we had tracked Alison and Vince’s harmony vocals, I decided I wanted to change certain aspects about my lead vocals. We also slowed down the entire performance of “It’s Just a Dog.” Vince’s vocal track would’ve obviously been too fast [laughs].
Ideally we would have circled around and brought Alison and Vince back in to rework their harmony parts, but we didn’t want to ask too much of them as they obviously have their own busy lives and careers. We were crunched time-wise as the release date for the record was looming. My younger sister Holly Pitney sings on the final rendition of “Take the Chance” with me.
If you could magically redo any part of the Behind This Guitar album, where would you start?
I’ve learned a lot these past few years. It’s difficult to explain, but I will give it my best shot. I wish there was more energy or vibes scattered throughout the record — in a really creative way — not just in a get louder or softer type of way.
I do love music that’s soft and easy listening. Some songs on Behind This Guitar are indeed soft-sounding and pretty heavy lyrically, which doesn’t benefit us a whole lot for live shows. Audiences tend to expect more high energy.
The only things I would change on the album are song selection and the way some of the things were played to provide more contrast in the overall listening experience between the down ballads and the up-tempo songs. Because of all the live experiences under our belt, it would be very interesting to hear my road band tackle Behind This Guitar track-by-track in the studio.
So there’s not a song on Behind This Guitar that embarrasses you to hear again?
I don’t think so. “I Met Merle Haggard Today” is a little bit tongue in cheek and funny. It’s not one that I sit and listen to on repeat [laughs]. But it’s one that we get asked for a lot, and it brings light-heartedness to what we do. In fact Merle heard the song on his bus the day we wrote it. The guy that invited me actually to come meet Merle sent it to his bus player.
Was “My Father Didn’t Raise No Fool”, exclusively available on YouTube in a stripped down acoustic version, written by you?
Yeah, I actually wrote that with Phil O’Donnell [e.g. George Strait’s “Give It All We Got Tonight” and Montgomery Gentry’s “Back When I Knew It All”].
Have you considered gathering your acoustic folk and classic country covers posted exclusively to YouTube for an album project?
Maybe that would be something to do in the far future, but I don’t have any plans to gather them for an entire record anytime soon. However, some of those acoustic tunes may show up on future records in full band versions.
Is there a songwriter or artist that you would like to collaborate with someday?
I have been blessed to write with some of my all-time favorite ones already. If I could dream, James Taylor would be one, but that’s not realistic [laughs].
What can you divulge about your upcoming second album?
We are not too deep into it and are experimenting a little bit. It’s gonna grow in a maturity in the lyric. I don’t totally know how different it’s going to be until I get in and do it, but I do know that it’s gonna be song selection that might make the record sound a little bit more mature since I am in a more mature place in my life.
We don’t have anything recorded. We’re looking at studios that we might use and just being slow as far as how we put it together. I don’t want to get in a hurry.
How long does your record deal with Curb last?
We are going to make like 10 records with Curb.
What artists have you been listening to lately?
I always listen to stuff I grew up with like old bluegrass songs. There have been a couple of artists that I have been listening to a lot which are actually Christian songwriters in Nashville. One’s name is Andrew Peterson, and the other is Eric Peters. It is very different from what I record, play, and sing. It has been a real big encouragement in my life.
How do you generate a show setlist?
We sprinkle a lot of the songs off Behind This Guitar throughout the whole set, obviously because that’s the only record we’ve released [laughs]. Then I interchange new songs that I’ve written or thinking about recording in the studio. I’m doing some experimenting and getting inspired with new things.
We have a lot of listeners that follow and like what we do because we tip the hat to some of the classic country songs [e.g. George Jones’ “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes,” Merle Haggard’s “The Farmer’s Daughter,” Don Williams’ “I’m Just a Country Boy,” Emmylou Harris’s “Hickory Wind,” and Ray Price’s “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me”]. You’ll be hearing some of the things of the future and of the past.
Are there any solo acoustic segments in a Mo Pitney concert?
For the most part the whole band plays. Sometimes in an intimate listening venue I’ll sit with my acoustic guitar and play alone for a little bit.
Coming from a bluegrass background, by chance do ever you play electric guitar?
I’ve got a 1967 Telecaster, black with a red pick guard, along with a little Fender amp sitting here in my living room that I pick every once in a while. It’s been in my dad’s possession for a long time. Dad encouraged me to grab the Telly a couple of times. Finally I just saw it sitting there at his place and I brought it down to my place one day [laughs]. One of those things that happened.
I don’t play the electric guitar onstage or in the recording studio. I wouldn’t feel very comfortable doing that — you have to learn a different technique where you use more of your fingers along with a pick. I’m hoping to get to a level of comfort over the next year, and then I’ll play electric guitar as the song dictates. I’m also figuring out chicken pickin’ as made famous by James Burton [e.g. Elvis Presley, Emmylou Harris, John Denver, and Merle Haggard].
I’m just really comfortable playing acoustic. When it comes to the live show, we don’t have another acoustic player. I’m the main acoustic player. On a record I would be able to lay an acoustic track down and then overdub electric later on. Which would be fun…but the sound that we’ve created is mostly built around the acoustic. I don’t know how to get too far from that. It would be just a little special appearance here and there to play electric.
Have you conquered nervousness and anxiety before you step onstage?
That’s pretty much passed, but sometimes I miss the nervous excitement. I don’t think it’s gone forever — I’m just in a season of life where a lot of things are pressing. There’s so much stuff that goes on behind the scenes that you don’t get to focus all your attention on the stage before you step off the bus and have to run up there.
I feel comfortable on and off stage. I am thankful that I don’t feel like I have to put on or be something I’m not when I entertain an audience. I am the same person.
The audience recognizes your authenticity — you’re simply being yourself.
Thank you. Nerves kinda come from feeling like you have to do something different than what you would do off stage. When you’re able to make those two things meet, the nerves can start to go away — at least the bad nerves. There is a type of nervousness, anxiousness, and excitement that realizes, ‘This is important tonight.’ I hope I never lose those feelings.
A brand new day with ‘I Didn’t Wake Up This Morning’ songsmith Mo Pitney [PART TWO]
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The soul-saving testimony of ‘Behind This Guitar’ troubadour Mo Pitney [PART THREE, CONCLUSION]
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