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By Crista Munro
Special to The PREVIEW
The ninth annual Pagosa Folk ‘N Bluegrass Festival will be here in just a few more weeks, kicking off on Friday, June 6, and running through Sunday, June 8, right here on Reservoir Hill. This year’s lineup comprises 16 of the most talented music ensembles hailing from all over the United States: Peter Rowan’s Twang an’ Groove (featuring Yungchen Lhamo), the Claire Lynch Band, the John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band, the Tony Furtado Trio, MilkDrive, The Deadly Gentlemen, Cahalen Morrison and Eli West, SHEL, Shook Twins, Finnders and Youngberg, The Railsplitters, Jon Stickly Trio and Moors and McCumber, plus this week’s featured bands: Grace Pettis and Pierce Pettis and The Steel Wheels.
I first heard Grace Pettis at the 2013 Folk Alliance International conference in Toronto, playing to a small crowd in a hotel showcase room. Her talent and lively spirit won me over during the course of her short and intimate set, and I stuck around to talk to her afterward. Purely on a whim, I asked her if she was any relation to Pierce Pettis, an amazing singer-songwriter who had appeared at a FolkWest festival years ago. Imagine my surprise to find out that Pierce is Grace’s father. Imagine my delight more than a year later when a booking agent called to see if we were interested in booking Grace and Pierce for a festival appearance this summer.
After a lifetime of crafting finely wrought, heart-touching songs, singer-songwriter Pierce Pettis feels that he’s finally found his comfort zone.
“The biggest change,” he says of this point in his career, “has been getting over myself and realizing this is a job and a craft. And the purpose is not fame and fortune (whatever that is) but simply doing good work.
“From the time I was very little, I always had the music going in my head,” Pierce Pettis explains. “Like my own personal soundtrack or something. I also come from a fairly musical family: my mother went to music school and was an excellent organist and pianist. And my sisters all played piano and other instruments. In school, I met other kids who wanted to be rock stars, just like me. From the time we were around 10 or so up through high school, we put together various bands — all of them horrible.”
His “horrible” bands didn’t deter him, though, and even though he had a nagging feeling (“I thought I was supposed to be a doctor or something”), he persevered, not only playing music, but writing songs in a mix of rock, folk, country and R&B genres that landed him an unpaid position as a staff writer for Muscle Shoals Sounds Studios. While there, his track “Song at the End of the Movie” found its way to Joan Baez’s 1979 album “Honest Lullaby.”
Pettis hit the road and became a member of the “Fast Folk” movement in New York in the mid-1980s. He released one independent solo album, “Moments” (1984), before signing with High Street Records, a division of Windham Hill. There, he released three albums: “While the Serpent Lies Sleeping” (1989), “Tinseltown” (1991) and “Chase the Buffalo” (1993). His relationship with Tinseltown producer Mark Heard transcended the album. After Heard’s untimely death in 1992, Pettis committed to including a song of Heard’s on every one of his own albums, a practice that continues to this day.
Pettis was a staff songwriter for PolyGram from 1993-2000 and when his High Street contract ended, Pettis signed to Compass Records, where he has released “Making Light of It” (1996), “Everything Matters” (1998), “State of Grace” (2001) and “Great Big World” (2004). Pierce Pettis’ songs have been recorded by artists including Susan Ashton, Dar Williams, Garth Brooks and Art Garfunkel.
With stories in her soul, a dash of courage, and a smile that melts walls, Grace Pettis is busy doing what she was born to do. The life of an independent touring artist is tough, but somehow she makes it look easy.
In her short career, she has built a reputation as a respected songwriter among artists, industry and fans. Her highly anticipated second album, “Two Birds,” has received excellent reviews. Maverick Magazine featured a five-star review of her new album in their October edition. This sophomore album is a culmination of years of writing, touring and surviving as an independent artist.
While still in college, Grace released her self-titled debut album recorded at the renowned Blue Rock Studio in Wimberley, Texas. After releasing her album, she splashed onto the music scene winning NPR’s Mountain Stage’s NewSong Contest, where her “Nine to Five Girl” was selected for Best Song honors.
Grace carried this momentum when she performed as an Official Showcase Artist at the 2010 International Folk Alliance conference, where she captured the attention of presenters and radio programmers as a young standout. Later that spring, Grace won the Wildflower Performing Songwriter Contest grand prize and the People’s Choice award.
Grace went on to join the Storyville Coffee “Freedom Tour” across the U.S. with Willie Porter, David Wilcox and her legendary songwriting father, Pierce Pettis. She then continued to tour in various formats from solo shows to performances with Pierce Pettis to trio performances with her producer Billy Crockett and cellist Dirje Smith. In 2011, Grace won the Kerrville New Folk Contest, and was an Official Showcase Artist at the 2012 New Music Seminar.
Grace and Pierce will play together on the Folk ‘N Bluegrass stage on Saturday, June 7, at 2:30 p.m.
The Steel Wheels have captured audiences across the country with their heady brew of original soulful mountain music and their deep commitment to roots and community. Based in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, this dynamic four-piece string band marries old-time musical traditions with their own innovative sound and lifestyle, generating a truly magnetic revival.
The Steel Wheels is an amalgamation of hard work and easy rapport. The band is renowned for their raw energy and chemistry on stage, where they often cluster tightly around a single microphone to adorn Trent Wagler’s unmistakable tenor with bell-clear four-part harmonies inspired by their shared Mennonite heritage. Add to this Eric Brubaker’s evocative fiddle, Brian Dickel’s grounded upright bass and Jay Lapp’s signature mandolin style, and it’s no surprise that The Steel Wheels have enthralled the contemporary Americana scene.
Their breakout album, “Red Wing” (2010), garnered critical praise and enjoyed tremendous success on the radio. It spent 13 weeks on the Americana Music Association’s Top 40 Chart, where it reached the No. 15 slot, and cracked the Euro Americana Chart top 10. The Steel Wheels were nominated for five Independent Music Awards in 2010, with “Nothing You Can’t Lose” taking top honors as Best Country Song.
Following 2011’s release, “Live at Goose Creek,” The Steel Wheels continued to take the Americana scene by storm with their album, “Lay Down, Lay Low” (2012), which lingered for 10 weeks on the AMA’s Top 40 Chart and was the 2012 Americana Album of the Year from the Independent Music Awards. Additionally, NPR Music named “Rain in the Valley” their Song of the Day, marveling that the “heavy hymn […] is sparse and dense all at once.” 2013 brought yet another Americana charting release entitled “No More Rain.”
The Steel Wheels are selling out venues from coast to coast and appearing at many of the top festivals in the U.S. and Canada. These include Merlefest, Bristol Rhythm and Roots, Ann Arbor Folk Festival, Stagecoach, Fayetteville Roots Festival, Moab Folk Festival, Musikfest, Walnut Valley Festival, Canmore Folk Festival, Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival, Riverhawk, Kerrville Folk Festival and many others.
2014 shows no signs of slowing down, with a full schedule of prestigious festivals and venues. In 2013, the band hosted their own annual Red Wing Roots Music Festival (www.redwingroots.com) that brought over 40 bands to four stages for three days of music and community. In addition, as the schedule allows, the band organizes and performs the SpokeSongs bicycle music tour, during which the band members tow their instruments, equipment and merchandise from one show to another via bicycle. Past tours have spanned up to 11 days, 600 miles and 10 shows. The attention from these special SpokeSongs tours allows the band to raise extra money and awareness for charities and causes along the way.
As the band thrives, so do their partnerships with local businesses, artisans and charitable organizations. The values portrayed in their music — devotion to roots, community and family — are a way of life for The Steel Wheels, and this is reflected in everything from production process and booking agency to merchandise and touring.
The Steel Wheels will be closing the main stage on Friday, June 6, with a 9 p.m. set.
Pagosa Folk ‘N Bluegrass is supported in part by funding from Colorado Creative Industries, a state agency whose mission is “to promote, support and expand the creative industries to drive Colorado’s economy, grow jobs and enhance our quality of life.”
The FolkWest website features hundreds of photos from past festivals. Tickets and information are available online at the website, www.folkwest.com, or by calling 731-5582. Children 12 and under receive free admission to the festival when accompanied by an adult.
(Pierce Pettis, Grace Pettis and The Steel Wheels provided biographical information found in this story.)