Although he doesn’t exactly sing the blues, and seems too genial to be a true punk, Ed Pettersen manages to live up to the title of his new record. The New Punk Blues of Ed Pettersen skips from garage-rock to country stomps, and, yes, essays a sort of bluesy punk. Still, you get the impression that Pettersen, who moved to Nashville five years ago, is too thoughtful, and too enamored of the city’s multiple musical legacies, to worry about categories.
The eldest son in a big Italian family, Pettersen grew up on Long Island, N.Y., and hung out at New York’s CBGB as a teenager during the late 1970s. He released well-received solo records and formed a group called The Strangelys, whose Spare Bedroom appeared on Sept. 11, 2001. Soon after, Pettersen decided to move to Nashville to pursue his musical career. He’s currently co-producing an ambitious project called Song of America with David Macias and former Motown engineer Bob Olhsson. It will trace American history in song from 1620 through today. The idea was suggested by his wife’s aunt, former Attorney General Janet Reno. The Scene caught up with Pettersen over coffee near his West Nashville home.
Scene: Tell us how Janet Reno came up with the idea for Song of America.
Ed Pettersen: I had written this song and done research about the ending of the Old West, and played it for [Reno]. She said, “Ed, that’s amazing, but you should do an entire album that tells the history of the United States in song, and each era will be a different song.” I have the handwritten sheet, where she breaks out the eras. She hands me this piece of paper, and you don’t want to tell Janet Reno no.
Scene: How far along are you, and who are the some of the artists you’re excited about working with?
Pettersen: We’re almost done. We hope to get Brian Wilson to do “This Land Is Your Land.” That’s the last song.
Scene: You were tour manager for The Dictators from 1998 to 2001. What was that like?
Pettersen: [Dictators guitarist] Scott Kempner and I were sharing an apartment, and he goes, “Guess what? The Dictators are gettin’ back together,” and I said, “You’re kidding me!” He goes, “Yeah, you wanna be the tour manager?” That was how I got the job. I had an old Town and Country van. They didn’t bring their amps. They only brought their heads and their guitars, and the rest was supplied by the club—it was in the contract. So, all five of them crammed into the back. Scott always rode shotgun, because I couldn’t take anybody else in the front seat. Richard [“Handsome Dick” Manitoba] will talk you to death, about crazy stuff. Me and Scott would be up there with the radio listening to the rest of them fight.
Scene: You wrote or co-wrote all the songs on your new record. Who are some of your songwriting idols?
Pettersen: One of my idols is Bobby Braddock. The four or five greatest living songwriters are Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, Bobby Braddock, Brian Wilson and Pete Townshend. In that order.
Scene: So, are you a singer-songwriter with a punk sensibility?
Pettersen: Touring with The Dictators was actually a turning point for me. Until then, you’re just another singer-songwriter, you’re doing your thing, and it’s all about your insight and your perspective and your sensitivities. Then, when you see The Dictators, and you see the show they put on, it’s a mighty roar. As Scott said to me, “Ed, don’t give ’em the early show. You gotta give ’em the matinee.”
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