Going about the Lord’s work in song would seem to be a noble, glorious quest. Gospel music uplifts the soul and makes life easier to bear. Or at least that’s the theory. In practice, it’s not that easy, especially if your goal is to set the Bible to bluegrass music. “The Bible will offend anybody, and should,” says Charles Pettee, co-founder of Chapel Hill’s Shady Grove bluegrass band. Pettee’s new project, Folk Psalm, sets the text of Psalms to bluegrass melodies. Despite their lyrical beauty, the content of the Psalms, as is the case in many of the Old Testament books, can be offensive. “When we’re bathing our feet in baby’s blood and letting the dogs have their share of the enemy–we want to act like we’re better than that, or we feel like we are,” Pettee says.
Pettee focuses on the less bloody and vindictive Psalms, where God is the benevolent Big Daddy with all the mojo. Though his translation of the text isn’t quite that literal, he does admit to giving the Psalms a makeover. “I know that the wandering Hebrew people of 3000 years ago were agrarian shepherds; earthy people around a campfire. There weren’t no stained glass around.” Although the melodies have long been lost and over the years the Psalms have been presented in what Pettee dubs ” fancy cathedral settings,” the Psalms were folk songs at one time. “Being a folk musician, I wanted to see how they worked, looked, felt sounded as folk songs.”
But Pettee’s agenda goes a bit deeper than a scholastic interest. The singer admits to having ignoring the Bible as well as church for most of his adult life. A funeral in ’99 piqued his interest in evangelical matters and he started reading the Bible. “I thought maybe there’s more here than Jerry Falwell allows us to see.”
He also admits to a more down-to-earth reason for the project. “It’s a cheap shot for a songwriter. Lyrics are not always forthcoming for me, but melodies are coming at me all the time.” As a long time bluegrass musician, Pettee found that the minor keys in bluegrass imply a Middle Eastern sound, so the marriage of the Psalms text with the high and lonesome sound could be the foundation for a long-term relationship.
There was still some work to be done to make the marriage work. For counseling, Pettee turned to Ellen Davis of the Duke Divinity School, playing the songs in her living room while she followed along with a Hebrew manuscript and made comments. This helping Pettee convert the Psalms to a verse/chorus/verse format.
The first record, Steady Love: A Collection of Psalms, came out in ’02. On it there’s a range of instrumentation–from an acoustic trio to an eight-piece ensemble with bass, drums and twin fiddles. Though it seems a bit strange at first, Pettee’s masterful arrangements and close harmonies soon have the listener forgetting they’re listening to the Bible. It’s more like snappy bluegrass with God instead of moonshine or murder as the focus.
To help with the snappy part, Pettee enlisted the help of singer Taz Halloween, a friend for some 20 years. Handing her a rough mix of Psalm 55, which he called “Wings of a Dove,” he asked her to listen. “I don’t know how you feel about ancient Hebrew poetry, but for just some damn reason I’m hearing you sing this thing.” Recorded shortly after 9/11, Pettee asked Taz to “just think about September 11 to get the feel of the betrayal that’s involved here.”
She turned in such a performance that Pettee asked her to return to do more work. Singing in the same octave that Pettee sings in, by the end of the song she was putting out so much power that she was four feet away from the mike up against the glass with her head turned sideways. “After she did that, I was like, ‘girl, we’re gonna have this one thing sticking way out. We’re gonna have to get you in here and get you on some other stuff.”’
The singer ended up contributing to five tracks on that one, and on the latest, ’04’s True Wealth, appears on all but two of the cuts. Pettee considers her the heavy artillery in live shows as well. “Live, it’s kinda like having a bazooka up there. Aim it somewhere and watch ’em go down, man,” he laughs.
As the ringmaster for Shady Grove, Pettee is known for his sense of humor. It would seem tough to do comedy based on the Psalms, but Pettee manages. At Merlefest he advised campers to refer to their pew Bibles during his show. “I was about to say there’s no overt humor, but I can’t help but run my mouth,” Pettee laughs.
“It’s light-hearted, but I hope heartening. We’re into making good music and having a good time. We laugh a lot. It’s weird to say it, but it’s a fun concert.”