Mo Pitney is only 23 years old, but he’s already being lauded as one of the finest new artists in country music. There’s a sincerity in his vocals and a maturity in his writing that makes some of the 40-year-old country megastars look downright childish.
But he’s not worried about all that — he’s just trying to follow his heart. A man of immense faith, Pitney has seen his star rise doing just that, from the phenomenal standing ovation at his Opry debut to critical praise of tunes like “Boy & A Girl Thing.”
Pitney took some time out of his busy schedule to talk about being raised outdoors, the passing of his idol Merle Haggard and what he hopes for his own musical legacy.
We first chatted in Austin during one of your South by Southwest showcases. How was your experience in Texas?
It was great man. Me and [my wife] Emily had just gotten back from our honeymoon in Colorado like three days before we left for SXSW, so we joked that week was our second honeymoon. All of my shows were really short and acoustic so the rest of the time we just got to hang out.
So you moved to Nashville, got a record deal and got married. That’s a lot of life to live in a few short years. Did you expect things to go so quickly?
I didn’t expect life to go so quickly. I had some major spiritual changes in my life right before I went on my radio tour. God had done some really big changes in my heart, and that’s what really set things in motion as far as maturing me faster than I expected. When I first moved to Nashville, I thought it was going to be a long time before I married. I put life on hold to chase music, and I think God knew I needed somebody to ground me as I go out on the road and stuff. And she’s already been a major help for me.
One of your favorite stories to tell while playing is how you met Merle Haggard. How has his passing affected you?
I look back on his music, and I can really tell how much he’s influenced my music. I have his records forever to listen to — we all do — and there’s a lot of country music meat there. I know there will be a lot of young kids and people that aren’t even born yet who will pull from that well, that heart and soul he’s put into his records.
But to see someone I idolized so much growing up pass away — music is a great way to leave a legacy, but his passing has affected me in a way that caused me to do a lot of deep thinking. That music may not be the only thing I leave for people to know me by. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about being an artist and what I want my overall message to be throughout my career. I’m deepening in thought on that and it’s been really good for me.
His music has always influenced me to go deeper with my music and write things with real meaning. To put my heart into my music and not just be surface ditties but actual things that might change people lives.
So do you think about your legacy every time you write or just try to tune everything out and see what comes?
Both. I sit down and tune everything else out to see what happens, but I always know my driving factor in life is to have an overall story arc in my music. This world is broken, everything is not perfect, and we don’t have to act like it is — but there is redemption and hope. Being a Christian, I think most people know what my hope is, and I want to vaguely point to that, whether it is in every song or through full bodies of work, like records.
I want to take people on a journey where it’s like, yes, there are relationships that are broken, and there are lighthearted and fun things we get to enjoy while we’re here. But in the end, everything we experience through life, there is one thing better than it all and one thing that helps us through it all. By the time I get to the end of my life, and when people are talking about my death, I’d hope that they would say my whole body of work points to that. I’m not always smart enough to do it, but I’ve approached it with prayer and asked God to give me something that means something. Normally when I try to do something with my own strength, it turns out trite and meaningless (laughs).
When do you find you do your most meaningful writing?
It’s very random. I’ve gotten some of my favorite songs from some of the weirdest, most complicated situations where I almost expected not to get anything. Whether it be sitting in a room with someone I’ve never met before that thinks a lot differently than I do or whatever.
But I do try to write with people who are likeminded, that like heartfelt songs and share the same beliefs that I do. I went on a retreat recently with two friends, Will Nance and Bobby Tomberlin, and they’re guys I’m just very like-minded with. We wrote five songs and recorded four in our recording session here just a few weeks ago. I’m just thrilled with every one of them. We went out to Blackberry Farms in East Tennessee in the mountains and came back with some really profound things, I think.
And you kind of grew up in the outdoors. What did that mean to you?
Living out in the country and learning how to hunt and fish taught me so many principles and a work ethic that I would not have learned otherwise. It’s kind of an instinct I picked up on, being thrown into situations where you have to make something out of nothing. I’ve grown an appreciation for creation and animals and wanting to study that kind of thing. I guess I’m rambling, but I really think God put something in me where I feel more at home when I’m out in the boonies (laughs).
I’m going through some of this with my wife right now. She’s been going turkey hunting with me and loving it. The reason I know she’s loving it is she’s still going after we’re married, even though she’s already got me (laughs). She asks when we’re going next. As we’re out in creation, she’s discovering there’s a lot you learn when you out there. We’re learning how to survive in the woods, and there are a lot of life things she realizes she missed out on not starting at 12 years old like I did.
So is that how you get away from the craziness of the music industry and slow down?
Luckily I live about 40 minutes from Nashville. I’m walking around in the backyard right now. There’s 100 acres behind the house, and we’re across from the Cumberland River. I’m right in the heart of being able to do what I love. Yesterday at 5:30 I got up and went turkey hunting right in my back yard. I don’t have as much time as I used to, but I think everybody that grows up and gets a job goes through those feelings. There are times I miss being home and relaxing, but I’m just so grateful I get to share my other love with people, which is music.
You’ve been pegged as a voice for traditional country. Do you welcome that, or try to stay away from the labeling and politics?
Definitely the second of the two. Early on I felt a heavy anxiety that put me in a box and didn’t let me be an artist. I had accepted the claims from other people that I was going to be a traditional artist. It didn’t let me just close my eyes and sing or write and see what comes out. I tried to lose that idea. But that being said, when I close my eyes and sing, normally what comes out is something that’s more traditional than anything else going on (laughs). I’m put together by my influences, which go across the board from Cheap Trick to James Taylor to Merle Haggard to Ray Price. But I think what I do is at its heart and soul a country sound cause I’m just a simple country boy. What excites me about music is a type of humble, stripped-down country lyric and sound.
What has been your favorite reaction to your music so far?
My favorite compliments are normally a variation of someone saying, “I’ve never really heard that before.” Copying is easy, creating is hard. For a while I was listening to all those old songs, like Merle Haggard’s “What Am I Gonna Do (With The Rest Of My Life),” and I’d go to a writing room and say, “I want to write one of these,” but all you’re trying to do is recreate something that has already happened and isn’t as exciting as the original thing.
So when can we expect the first album? Is there a date?
Well, we did have dates. I was told by the label we were going to come out at the end of May but there has been a hiccup in the process of trying to get artwork and mastering done. We might be a few months later than that.
That must be a little annoying.
Yeah, you can rise up worries and frustrations right away with that stuff, but I normally quickly kill those worries knowing that life is not in my control anyways — I only think that it is. Knowing that when something outside of myself disrupts my idea for how I think things should go, normally that’s God. I know he’s guiding me to the best life possible, so if that means my record doesn’t come out for a year I trust him.
Who are some of your favorite new artists in the meantime?
Very new artists — I can tell you one. The first time I heard her play live I was really impressed, and that’s Cam. I just stood on the side of the stage. Her band was amazing. It was really stripped down and wasn’t overproduced and I respected that. She’s got great melodies and words with integrity. As far as brand new artists go, what I’ve heard of Cam has been very cool.