Mo Pitney might still be in his early 20s, but has been playing all over Nashville – including the Opry. Born in Illinois, Pitney is a country boy through and through. His debut album Behind This Guitar marked Pitney as a youngster who is going against the grain and returning to the traditional country sound and style. He rebuffs the 'saviour of country' tag that many want to force on him and thinks of himself simply as an artist who's just making music the way he wants. Led by his deep faith and obsession with music, Pitney was named as one of Rolling Stone Country's Artists You Need to Know in 2015. Three years down the line, it's about time UK country fans found out more about the rising star of country.
PG: You're on tour at the moment with Ashley Campbell, how's that going?
MP: Great. The last few shows we've played with her and Ryan (Kinder) the audience have been awesome, and we're just pleased with everything. We have two more to play, the last one is in London at Borderline, and we are in Birmingham tonight.
PG: You played at Country to Country recently how was that?
MP: We had five little gigs there that all went well. It was great to see that many people there for country music. We walked into the O2 Arena, and I couldn't believe that pretty much every one of those seats was filled. I don't know if it's because these sort of events are less frequent here and people really make the time to go, but in the US you don't always see that many people turn up to that big a place. You don't see that many venues of that size, but to see it pretty filled up was amazing.
PG: Did the British country fan base surprise you given that it's such a traditional American genre?
MO: It did. On my first trip over here it was an eye-opener to see how many people do love country music, but I don't think it shocked me because I know that for some reason country music is really resonating.
PG: You grew up in a musical household, how motivating was that to you?
MP: I don't think the motivation came from being the best or being the best in the family; it was originally born out of a desire to be like my dad who always had a guitar in his hand. Once I put the guitar in mine, it came naturally, and I just fell in love with it. You hear some people say their parents' made them practice almost like a chore, of course, I set aside time to practice, but when music won my affection, always having a guitar in my hand was the most natural thing to do. I think my brother and sister have the same story as well and it just evolved into what it is now, and I'm really thankful for that.
PG: Your wife, Emily Bankester, is also a musician
MP: That's very special to me. One of the most special things that I will ever hear is her singing around the house. She has a very calming, warm, smooth voice and I love to sing with her. This Valentines Day we did a small show in Franklin, south of Nashville. It's really fun; I think it's good for our marriage, it's a good point of connection apart from our love for one another. Music is another anchor that we are thankful for. She plays the guitar, and her favourite instrument is clawhammer banjo. She accompanies herself, and she likes to sing a lot of old hymns. Her dad and I have talked about making a record just to capture her singing those old songs. It might happen one day.
PG: Is your daughter showing any signs of following in her parents' footsteps?
MP: She's 14 months, so she goes la la la la. She will follow melodies. If her Mom or I hum a melody or are being silly, she'll always match the inflections that you are trying to do which is pretty cool. Maybe she'll be musical, but I won't force it on her. The only way that it ever seems to be something fruitful is if someone comes to love it the way I did; if music, the gift God gives you wins your affection. If that happens her Mom and I will be very equipt to help her. If God has something else in her path, we want to learn how to support that as well.
PG: Who has been your greatest musical influence?
MP: I never admired someone because they were famous or anything, it started with bluegrass music. My dad was also a bluegrass player, and I'd get hold of his records. They were singers who most people, especially in the country world, didn't even know exist. Guys like Larry Sparks and Tony Rice, people who I thought could effectively share their art through music. I always wanted to be like that whether I was sitting on the side of the street, or just had friends over at the house or a stadium show, I wanted to be able to pick up my guitar and effectively communicate emotions through music. James Taylor and Carole King were big influences for me. In the country world: Merle Haggard, Roger Miller, Keith Witley, Randy Travis, Johnny Cash, the Dean Dylan, the list seems to be endless.
PG: I love a lot of Tony Rice's music, one of my favourites is Manzanita.
MO: If you want to know what kind of a kid I was, I used to sit in my room with the Manzanita record and I was learning those chords. There were other things like Blue Railroad Train was an old song he recorded and I would spend countless hours in the night learning how to play the guitar. I didn't care as much about singing back then, but I really wanted to play the guitar. Most people don't recognise Tony as profound a singer as he is. To me, he was always a very believable singer, his vocal hooked me and caused me to want to sing. I sound nothing like him, but I wouldn't phrase some of the things I do today if I'd never heard Tony Rice.
PG: Your debut single was 'Let Me Tell You About Country' what does country mean to you?
MP: Country is such an interesting word. At the time we wrote that song a lot of the lingo on the radio was about farm kids, tractors and things like that. Our heroes and people that we love weren't that at all; they didn't sing songs just about the country lifestyle, they were connected to an inner spirit of hurt, loss and love and they were simple and honest in the way they portrayed them. We talked about all these things, and we ended up writing that song. We can all come together, whether you are in a big city or tossing hay bales and listening to Merle Haggard. We can all be thankful for the country we grew up in and show camaraderie in the music, and it can live in our hearts. That was the idea of the song.
PG: You describe yourself as a god fearing man has faith always been part of your life?
MP: I grew up in church, but faith wasn't part of my life. Specifically, I think religion was. There was a point when I was twenty, twenty-one when I had to have a wake-up call; my creator had to show me where I was wrong. I was taking the gifts that He was giving to me freely and essentially stealing them so that I could use them the way I wanted to. I think that's something we all find ourselves guilty of at times, taking something beautiful and turning it into something for ourselves. I faced that and called out for His help. I needed His forgiveness, and I knew that if I were to live a life without Him, it would be empty and black. I still have dark days and times I feel distant from Him, but I'm walking by faith, believing He's part of my story, my life, my marriage and my future and I want that to come out in my songs. I want to point out, especially to young people that are doing all their searching now and they may have gotten the message that it's uncool to believe that their creator loves them, I want them to know that it's the opposite of uncool to know the person that actually created you.
PG: How come a young guy like has got such an old head on his shoulders?
MP: Maybe because He had to knock it off. (laughs) In the first half of my life, I was still an uneducated person. I was homeschooled and I learned how to cheat my way through it. I didn't take life seriously other than the things I loved like music, hunting and fishing. He had to wake me up. He put me around people that showed me how much life matters; how much every word that comes out of your mouth matters, and how every hug you give to your neighbour matters. I do not do that perfectly, I'm still human, but I still fight every morning and know that it does matter, and I'm not just floating downstream.
PG: You love the simple things in life – I think people forget them in the modern world, how do you stay on track?
MP: The temptation comes, but I think it's our insecurity, pride, power or control that makes us forsake the things we loved as children. All that fear and the other stuff causes us to go a different direction to find peace. That dance back to being childlike is how we get that back, and sometimes it seems like an impossible dance, but that's where faith comes in and his ability to remake us as we started. We all wish we had that (childlike wonder) back.
PG: Will you return to bluegrass music in the future?
MP: I have done some, and I do it any chance I get. I go to IBMA festival, and I've done some recording with JD Crowe who worked with Tony Rice. I did three songs for a JD Crowe tribute, and that was out on bluegrass radio. I've just recorded with JD Crowe himself. He did retire and set down his banjo, but he got another one that was similar to Earl Scruggs' banjo. Scruggs was his hero, and he wanted that to be recorded. So I came in and did a couple of songs and hopefully, that will see the light of day one day. I was really proud and excited to look over at Crow in the recording studio, that was something I never thought would have happened when I was fourteen or fifteen years old.
PG: Do you have a new album in the works?
MP: Yes I do. When we get back, we have two full days locked away in the studio to record fifteen or twenty songs. Then we'll pick ten or twelve that fit well together. So when I get back, hopefully, I should have my part of it done, and then it will be up to the record label to see when it's best to get it out.
PG: You're involved with the Perry Pitney Memorial Foundation and their annual concerts in aid of the Rockford Rescue Mission. Can you tell us more about that?
MP: My Grandpa (Rev. Gerald O. Pitney - named G.O by friends and family) started the Rockford Rescue Mission in my home town, and Perry was his son (Perry passed away in 2005). I'm really thankful for the work that they do. It started with my grandfather, he had Parkinson's disease, and he would walk on the streets by himself and talk to people about their lives and how they got to the position they were in. He took them into his home and even when people robbed from them they kept doing it. It all started with him wanting to see people find redemption in Christ and find a place to rest their head. It's turned into a huge organisation now that he's passed away. My sister showed me a picture of my grandpa G.O the other day, and I was staring at the picture and realised how much I looked like him. It's scary to see how you grow up into the image of your ancestors, but anyways, that's the story of the Rock Rescue mission. The head on my shoulders is built on the faith of my grandpa, and he believed that what you do matters.