Mo Pitney

by Dan MacIntosh

With his single "Country," Mo Pitney took the time – counted in hours, not minutes – to meditate on the word and its meaning. He didn't want to use it as a buzz word, and he wasn't seeking shorthand for instant musical credibility. Instead, he and his songwriting partners were intent on digging deeper into the roots of his stylistic calling.

This desire to go deeper is what immediately separates Pitney from many of his contemporaries. You don't have to listen to mainstream radio long to compile a long list of Southern-living clichés. Pitney, 23, was raised in Cherry Valley, Illinois on the music of special songwriters like Merle Haggard. Haggard was a great songwriter, who just happened to be raised in and on country. The same can be said of Pitney.

Signed to Curb Records, his first album is on the way, and judging by the first two singles, "Boy & a Girl Thing" and "Country," it's going to be a good one.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): I was listening to your song "Boy & a Girl Thing," and was thinking about the current issues with transgender restrooms and things like that, and how now distinguishing boys from girls might actually be politically incorrect. Do you ever think about that?

Mo Pitney: I have to be careful, as far as what I believe. I mean, my core beliefs in life might not line up with what might be politically correct at times, but there's a lot of things I'm not really ashamed of. I know what I believe and I know why I believe it.

I didn't think much about that when we wrote "Boy & a Girl Thing." I just thought about the way I look at life and the way I look at boys and girls, in the sense of I got tripped up with girls when I was a kid and I watched girls get tripped up by guys, and grow up and get married and live happily ever after.

Songfacts: I probably line up with your core beliefs pretty closely, but we're living in a time when the things we kind of took for granted are being questioned. There are even stores now that don't distinguish between boys and girls toys. So it's sort of a strange time.

Pitney: I think it's really hard to argue that we were not created differently, and that deep down inside of us, as we grow up – especially at a young age – you can really see the difference between a three-year-old boy and a three-year-old girl and what causes them to be excited or not excited.

God, I think, uniquely designed us that way for a reason, and I tend to just marvel at that and support that. I guess it's just hard for me to think any other way, but I'd love to hear the other ways people would think. I guess it just seems very natural to me to look at it the way that I have been, but I know that I could be wrong.

Songfacts: You worked with Tony Brown as a producer. I assume that you knew his reputation before you connected with him.

Pitney: Oh yeah. The things that he's done have just been amazing. He ended up giving me a call one night where he heard a few songs of mine. I heard, "Hey Mo, Tony Brown." And I'm thinking, the Tony Brown? And it was.

Tony Brown is one of the most respected producers in Nashville. He's worked with big stars, like Reba, Brooks & Dunn and George Strait. However, he's also produced albums for mavericks (including the actual Mavericks) like Kelly Willis, Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett.
We talked for a while and I took a meeting with him about a week later and just started talking production and what our approach was. We think very like-minded about a lot of things and just connected very very quickly. He's an artist producer - he doesn't want to put his name on the record. He knows it's the artist's record. He likes to crawl inside the artist's head and try to figure out what they want, which I think any artist would like, especially ones who know who they are.

Songfacts: Is he producing a full-length for you?

Pitney: Yeah, it's finished. It just got mastered last week, so we're hoping in the next few months to have that out. We don't have a release date yet, but we're pushing for one.

Songfacts: What are you calling it?

Pitney: We're on the fence. We're doing the artwork now. We think the title track of the record might be "Behind This Guitar."

Songfacts: That's one of the hardest things, isn't it? To put a name on it.

Pitney: We're still not sure if the first record should just be the representation of me, just calling it the Mo Pitney Record.

Bill Anderson is one of those rare songwriters that spans many generations. His songs have been recorded since the '60s, with some of the true greats - Ray Price, Wanda Jackson, Conway Twitty, Lefty Frizell and Eddy Arnold among them - tracking his works. He continues to be a fine source of relevant songs, with contemporary artists like Kenny Chesney and George Strait covering his work. In 2004, Anderson's "Whiskey Lullaby" was a big hit for Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss.
Songfacts: The song "Country" you co-wrote with Bill Anderson.

Pitney: I did. And Bobby Tomberlin.

Songfacts: I don't know Bobby, but I do know "Whisperin'" Bill Anderson. What was that experience like?

Pitney: That was the first day I met Bill. Bobby actually got the write set up. He says, "Do you wanna write with Bill Anderson?" And I'm thinking, "yeah."

Songfacts: You don't say no. Or nah, maybe not.

Pitney: Exactly. Bill walked in and we ended up very quickly just talking about life and country music and some of our favorite country artists and what we thought the state of country music was, and then it led us to talking about the word "country," and what we thought it meant. We talked about that for about four or five hours, and then Bobby said, "Why don't we just put everything we just talked about into a song, as much of it as we can," and we called the song "Country."

It's a song about the word and what we think it means. It might not be totally accurate, but it's what we think it means. So we wrote that song and it fell out in just a few hours. It ended up being my first single.

Songfacts: A lot of artists write songs where they self-identify as "country," but they lean too much on clichés, like sweet iced tea and red dirt roads. These are the same things you hear in 100 different songs. What I like about your song is that you don't lean on clichés. You dug a little bit deeper. Was that what you wanted to do?

Pitney: It's interesting you say that because after listening to it a while, I started to pick out clichés in it myself, and I'm very sensitive to clichés. I'm glad that you said that because I actually tend to look at my music and after living with it for a while, I start to think it's kind of flowery or cliché.

Songfacts: Are you your own worst critic?

Pitney: Probably. I've been working on that because I understand a lot of that could be pride. Thinking that I can do better than I actually can. There's something beautiful and humble in people that I've seen that accept their humanity. They're human. They might not be able to do things perfectly, and kind of rejoice in that.

Songfacts: Since Merle Haggard recently passed away, I wonder if you have any favorite Merle Haggard songs?

Pitney: It's hard to pick a favorite. I'm a huge Merle Haggard fan. "What Am I Gonna Do with The Rest of My Life?" is one of the greatest songs I've ever heard. "Forget You Every Day" is another great song that I love. "Farmer's Daughter's" is probably in my top two, three favorite Haggard songs.

Songfacts: You go into the deep cuts. These aren't necessarily hit songs, but you have to be a Haggard fan to know these.

Pitney: I don't know all his music. A lot of people still stump me with some of the old stuff, but I know that I've heard some unbelievable music from Merle that I can't shut off. And the reason why I love it is not only because he's so melodic and such an unbelievable singer, but just the believability. The things he writes about. "Kern River" is another one of my favorite songs.

Songfacts: I think about that a lot because that's a real California song. I know people that have gone to Kern River, and whenever they go, I always think about that song and I realize they probably don't even know that song.

Pitney: "I may drown in still water, but I'll never swim Kern River again."

That line's unbelievable.

"I may cross on the highway, but I'll never swim Kern River again."

I can't believe God makes brains that think like that.

Songfacts: I wanted to wind things up by talking about the new album again. I've only heard a few of your songs. Can you pick out two or three songs from the album that you're especially proud of?

Pitney: There's a song that I did with Alison Krauss that I don't think is ever gonna be a single, but it's one of my favorite recordings. It's the first song I wrote with Dean Dillon, and it's called "Take The Chance."

Songfacts: Did you have Alison in mind when you were writing it?

Pitney: No. It wasn't until after we recorded it.

Songfacts: But did it sound like a duet?

Pitney: No, it really didn't. I didn't think much about it being a duet, and she actually just sang harmony on this, so it's not set up like a duet, although her vocal's very prominent in it - you know it's Alison when she sings.

She made the whole track. We were excited about the track and it sounded really good, but it turned into something even more special than we originally thought when Alison was on it. After we listened back the original recording of it, and Tony said, "Wouldn't it be awesome to have Alison on this?" I said, "There's probably no way we could make it happen." But we sent the song to her, and it wasn't a week later we went over to her studio and we watched her put the harmony on it. It was so sweet of her to do it. She was just so kind. It made the whole record better just to have her on it.

Songfacts: What's the song about?

Pitney: It's a song about meeting a girl. The first line is:

There's an opportunity standing right in front of you
Green dress, great smile looking your way inviting your hi, how are you?


The end of the chorus is:

If you don't move your feet, you'll never dance
If you don't take the chance.


It's about stepping out in faith, really.

Songfacts: What are some of the other songs that are notable?

Pitney: "Clean Up on Aisle Five" is a song I wrote with Wil Nance, which is one of my favorite songs on the record. It's a ballad. It's about meeting a girl that you had dated in the grocery store and really falling apart. [Hey, didn't Dan Fogelberg do that on "Same Old Lang Syne" - "Met my old lover in the grocery store..." -editor]

Songfacts: Did you come up with the title?

Pitney: No, Wil Nance did. Lee Ann Womack had a song, "Last Time," which was always one of my favorite songs. The song is about losing a guy at a fairground, and I wanted a heartbreak song that didn't have to do with a girl cleaning out her closet or slamming the front door and leaving because I wasn't really living through that at the time, so I told him that and about a week later he said, "I think I got our title. It's a song called 'Clean Up on Aisle Five.'" He said, "I told it to a couple people and they thought it was kind of a tongue-in-cheek, fast song. What do you think?" I said, "I think it's sad and slow." And we wrote a country ballad out of it.

Songfacts: You talked about how your values influence your songwriting. Have you ever written any songs that express your spiritual faith?

Pitney: Yeah. God really changed my life two years ago. Before that moment, I just wanted to write songs. After that, I acquired a strong conviction to never say one thing that I don't believe, and let everything point to what I believe in.

It kind of happened about the middle of the record when God really got ahold of me. I hope that everything I say and write points to my faith in a way that's a whole body of work.

But I have written a lot of songs that are definitely more pointed. I've written some things that are very in-your-face. I've probably said some things that are very in-your-face, but that's only when I thought it was needed.

Songfacts: It's not always the most effective way to communicate.

Pitney: Yeah. I want peoples' eyes to be opened to truth, and what I understand to be truth. And any way I can do that, whether it be vague or subtle, or in-your-face, I let the Spirit kind of guide what's the right time to do the right thing.

June 1, 2016.
Get more at mopitney.com

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 2

  • Carol Huff from Evans, Ga 30809Mo, I love your voice belief in God. I wrote a song that I’d really like you to sing...so would God.
  • Larry Parker from Garner NcWhy can’t I find the song “Local Honey” by Mo Pitney in your song list?
see more comments

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