I’m honestly just as surprised as you are that we even have an album from Mo Pitney at all. I mean, he’s signed to Curb Records which have screwed numerous country artists over and in addition, Mo has yet to have a single song crack the top thirty of any country chart! But when that news came last July that he would finally be releasing this, I know that I’m not alone when I say that it was extremely exciting news.
Don’t get me wrong, in a just world, we should have gotten an album from Mo like two years ago, but still, to finally have it is something else. I really shouldn’t be surprised though. After all, mainstream country music is seeing more of a shift towards a more traditional sound, and with the success of other traditional newcomers like Jon Pardi and William Michael Morgan, now seemed like the perfect time to release this album, especially considering that Mo Pitney has that type of grassroots following that you don’t see in a lot of artists.
Of course, I don’t want to make it look like I’m drooling all over myself for this album. Heck, I haven’t even talked about it yet. There’s also the fact that I wasn’t overly crazy about any of the album’s singles leading up to this release. But I had hope for this album and Mo Pitney in general. After all, I love this guy’s voice, and we all know by now that the worst songs from albums are often the ones that get sent to the radio anyway, so I dug into his debut album, Behind This Guitar with a ton of hope. Was I let down?
I could certainly tell you how great of a singer Mo Pitney is. If you want a comparison, I’d say it’s a mix of Joe Nichols meets Keith Whitley. Of course, while that combination is awesome from a vocal standpoint, I don’t want to talk about the sheer greatness of Mo’s voice. You see, there’s a trademark element to this album that will potentially make or break your feelings on it, and there’s another element we need to talk about before we get to that. The element I want to focus on for the time being is the great sincerity in Mo’s vocal delivery. While I would say he excels on the ballads or the slower tracks on this album, he can surprisingly tackle the more fun, upbeat songs like “When I’m With You” very well. In other words, no matter the song, you can always believe what Mo Pitney is saying, and that’s an underrated element on a lot of country music albums.
And that’s what brings us to what I think could be the semi-polarizing element on this album – the lyrics and themes. Now, I realize that I may have already instilled a sense fear into some of you from that statement, but it’s not what you think. You see, many of the songs here do rely on some cornball innocence or outright clichés to get their job done. That’s why I wanted to preface all of this by talking about Mo’s knack for sincerity, because really, while many of these songs do opt for corniness, it surprisingly usually works, and the results can be downright astonishing.
Hell, you’ve all heard the joke about playing a country song backward and getting your wife, job and dog back. And yet, Mo Pitney isn’t afraid to actually insert a song in here about a dog dying. It starts with him rescuing it from the side of the road abandoned in the rain, to him spending all of his money because his newfound friend needs an operation. The story then shifts to that dog being there for him as he suffers a breakup to finally dying and the narrator realizing he no longer has his friend with him. Again, it may sound sappy I suppose, but it works so damn well. I’ve touched upon the sincerity on Mo’s vocals, but if anything, this song also works thanks to the details within the lyrics such as the man asking himself in the first verse, “why should I care about saving this dog? It is just a dog right?” to later asking that same question when his friend dies, only to realize all along that he knew this dog would always be something more to him. Hell, I cried at this song and I don’t even own a dog. Seriously, this song is outright incredible, and will easily make my year end list for the best songs of this year.
Well now that I’ve spent a couple paragraphs on just one song, I guess we’ll retrace our steps towards the beginning of this album. At one point, I didn’t care for the song “Country” for being a little too corny and cliché. The more I listen to this album however, I’m realizing that’s more of a feature than a flaw in regards to Mo’s style. You see when it comes to “Country”, I’ve found a newfound appreciation for it, especially when the overall theme of how country can be anywhere is something I relate to. I don’t hunt or fish and I’m from the north. That doesn’t mean I can’t like country music, especially when the lifestyle has very little to do with the music anyway.
Elsewhere, songs like “Clean Up On Aisle Five” and “Love Her Like I Lost Her” are songs that are definitely continuances of that “sappiness” but again, they work so damn well because Mo sells them with a sense of authenticity and sincerity. The former is a song about a guy who runs into an old flame and how the encounter is too much for him to handle since he’s not over her. “Love Her Like I Lost Her” takes the exact approach by telling a story of a man who literally has a dream of his lover dying which makes him realize how much he truly needs to tell her how much he loves her.
A couple more of my favorite tracks include the pretty humorous “I Met Merle Haggard Today” for showing a different side to Pitney as well as the personal title track which sure, has been before time and time again. Like I said though, the key word for this review is “sincerity”, and that’s exactly what you need for a song like this. And while “Give Me Jesus” has been labeled as the one song here that many listeners have passed on, you can tell that it’s coming from a deep, real, and personal place for Mo. Considering that I too am a man of faith, I really liked this song, and I like that Mo isn’t afraid to show that faith either.
Now, if I were to nitpick with this album, I would say that Mo sometimes plays things a little too corny sometimes. I never cared for “Boy and A Girl Thing” because of that exact reason, and while “When I’m With You” isn’t a bad song per se, it doesn’t really feel essential to the project. Sure, “Come Do A Little Life” and “Everywhere” could also be docked points for being too lyrically lite, but I still find elements to enjoy of them.
When describing the sound of this album, I could definitely take the easy way out and tell you it’s full of great country music, but the surprising thing is that I have more to say than I could have imagined. You see, where fellow neo-traditional country artists like Jon Pardi and William Michael Morgan feel like they’re opting for some type of sound (Jon’s being more modern and Morgan’s being more of a throwback), Mo’s sound doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be anything. It’s not traditional country, it’s not neo-traditional, it’s not pop-country or rock-country. It’s just country.
Behind This Guitar is able to feel like it’s something that could drive the genre forward while also just being authentically country without even trying. The hardest part is describing how. I don’t know, maybe it’s because Mo isn’t afraid to take some chances with the production and instrumentation. There’s an almost ghostly swell to “Take The Chance”, especially in the fiddle line with an outro that feels oddly reminiscent of “Draw Me A Map” by Dierks Bentley. “Give Me Jesus” is backed by a dark, restrained violin that really accentuates the intimate feel of that song. While I get why people have bashed “Everywhere” as the worst song on this album, I actually think that Mo combines the traditional with the contemporary sound quite well on this song. Other moments on this album are just sprinkled with so much steel guitar, fiddle, and even dobro and mandolin to really make a great, cohesive sound for this album. It’s one that’s rooted in country and really brings out the best parts of it as well.
So in end, Behind This Guitar by Mo Pitney is a damn great debut album from a guy who has definitely earned the right to release it. I really enjoyed every element of it, and while I don’t think certain tracks really needed to be here, the standout tracks that this album produces are downright amazing. Again, the writing will most likely determine whether you love, like, or dislike this, but I have to admit, it really clicked with me. Mo Pitney may not have that smash hit that he deserves, and that’s honestly a damn shame, because Behind This Guitar is damn good.
Best Songs: “It’s Just A Dog”, “Take The Chance”, “Give Me Jesus”, “Behind This Guitar”, “Clean Up On Aisle Five”, “I Met Merle Haggard Today”
Worst Song: “Boy and A Girl Thing”