The troika of Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, and Chris Stapleton isn’t the only gaggle making waves in country music and giving folks hope for the future. All signed to major labels and making more traditionally-oriented country fans salivate for what the future may have in store are Jon Pardi, William Michael Morgan and 23-year-old Illinois native Mo Pitney. With Pardi and Morgan already in the clubhouse with #1 singles and solid performances from recent albums, it’s now Mo Pitney’s turn to prove that performers with a bit more heart behind their songs are something the public is hungry for, and who knows, might become the next big momentum shift to overtake Music Row.
Mo’s situation is a bit different from his traditionalist contemporaries though. First off, he’s been spending the last few years steadfastly building up a strong grassroots following by avoiding the big, flashy forums of mainstream country, and instead sticking to a circuit that includes appearances at places like the Grand Ole Opry, and Larry’s Country Diner. Call it the RFD-TV scene if you will, but it’s worked in his favor as he now can boast over 100,000 followers on Facebook even though he’s just now releasing his debut record, Behind This Guitar.
But the disadvantage Pitney faces beyond being a traditionalist in a pop country world is that his label is Curb Records. Though still a major by definition and certainly capable of pulling some strings for their artists, Curb still feels very much like the dog of Music Row. As happy as the many Mo Pitney fans are to finally hear this full-length release, it has been a long time coming, and many of the songs have already had the opportunity to wear off their luster, some for years now after being featured in live or acoustic performances on YouTube.
Curb Records also doesn’t apparently have the clout of other major labels to magically make a single go to #1. All of Mo Pitney’s featured tracks have struggled on the charts, with his best performance so far being the song “Country” topping out at #35 all the way back in 2014. Curb is one of these record companies who appears to be scared of their own shadow and frozen in time—still stupefied by the digital economy while their meager promotional budgets just can’t go to bat for their artists like other labels can.
But that doesn’t mean Mo Pitney doesn’t have a fighting chance. His singles might not make it big, but the many traditional country fans who’ve been following Mo for years will be eager to gobble up Behind This Guitar in physical form or a cohesive album download. Pitney’s people are not necessarily the younger Millennial throwbacks looking for authenticity, or even the 30-something east Nashville hipster crowd. Mo Pitney is the name of hope for many older country fans who’ve been seeing and hearing him on rural-oriented programming and hanging out with folks like Marty Stuart and “Whispering” Bill Anderson (Bill co-wrote the debut single “Country”).
Mo Pitney is music for a simpler time and a decidedly rural and laid back sentiment. He’s an old soul who used songwriters like Dean Dillon and Don Sampson to bounce ideas off of instead of the usual Music Row songwriting crowd. Though this makes Behind This Guitar undoubtedly country, some of the songs could come across as corny to younger country fans, especially if they’re converts from the punk and rock worlds. The Cheerios reference in “Clean Up On Aisle Five” will stimulate more than a few sets of eyes to rolling, and the ending number “Give Me Jesus” may be too rich for secular listeners.
But once you get Mo, his simplicity of approach and undeniable authenticity become quite endearing, while his sense of performance, even when it’s just him and an acoustic guitar, can go as far as jerking tears. “It’s Just a Dog” might seem like sappiness to some, or many. But damn if Mo’s delivery and sense of timing don’t suck you in, or at least they did when he released the song acoustically. Yet this is one of the challenges of the record—since you’ve already been listening to these songs, sometimes for years, there’s no new car smell when you tear off the cellophane on Behind This Guitar unless Mo is completely new to you, which he won’t be to many who decide to pick up this record.
Nonetheless, Mo undoubtedly delivers in songs like “Love Her Like I Lost Her,” and the silly, yet entertaining “I Met Merle Haggard Today” among other tracks. Even if you knew what was coming, Behind This Guitar will still put a smile on your face with about the only misstep into the contemporary world being the album’s third single “Everywhere.”
It’s so hard to gauge where Mo could go due to his label situation and the winds of change blowing in the mainstream that may sweep him and others to heights we never thought possible for traditional country artists some two or three years ago. Mo did a great job sticking to who he is on Behind This Guitar, and even if some find it cheesy, it’s still a major sign of hope that songs with meaning and artists with authenticity are on the rise in the mainstream.
1 1/2 Guns Up (7/10)
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