A rising star in Nashville’s country music scene owes a lot to the wide-open spaces of northern Illinois. Meet this young musician and discover shy his hometown is so close to his heart.
Mo Pitney, 24, smiles when he recalls his time growing up in the small town of Cherry Valley, Ill. He likes thinking about the days he spent with his father, Danny, enjoying one of their favorite activities – hunting.
“I’ve never been a city-type person,” says the singer. “I loved northern Illinois for the cornfields and the woods. I’ll never forget the first time I went hunting. I was 14 and we went to my dad’s favorite spot. We flushed out two pheasants, but we missed them both. It didn’t matter. I was hooked.”
A love of hunting wasn’t the only thing Pitney gleaned from his family – his parents, Danny and Tabitha, are both musicians.
“My mom wrote the songs and my dad played guitar,” says Pitney, who’s the grandson of the late Gerald and Nadine Pitney, a couple instrumental in getting the Rockford Rescue Mission off the ground. “It really made sense to find my place in the music business.”
And he has. After he moved to Nashville about five years ago, Pitney’s country music career took off. He’s signed a record deal with Curb Records; the release of his 2015 debut single, “Country,” earned a spot on the Top 40 Billboard U.S. Country charts. He performs across the country and already has worked with some of the biggest names in the business.
Not bad for a kid who wasn’t sure what he was going to do with his life.
Morgan Daniel ‘Mo’ Pitney attended Rockford Christian schools before he was homeschooled. He picked up the drums at age 6 and the guitar at age 12.
“I learned how to play with a cast on my arm by laying a rag over my dad’s guitar so it wouldn’t get scratched,” he says. It didn’t take long for Pitney to learn a couple of Johnny Cash tunes and make his debut at a local open-mic show a few weeks later.
By age 15, Pitney had started playing banjo, was hooked on bluegrass music, and had formed an acoustic band with his friends. He was inspired by the music of Keith Whitley, George Strait, Buck Owens and Ray Price.
At 20, Pitney was traveling between Rockford and Nashville before he decided to make a permanent move, along with his parents and siblings. Today his band includes his sister, Holly, who plays acoustic guitar, and his brother, Blake, on the bass.
“I never thought I’d leave the Rockford area,” he says. “I loved growing up here and I loved the people. But God called me somewhere else. It was hard to step out of my comfort zone and move, but I’ve learned so much about the business since moving to Nashville.”
Fans and critics alike praise the lanky Pitney for his throwback style, his low, smooth drawl and his good looks. All of which were on display in June 2014, when he wowed a Grand Ole Opry audience with two of his songs, “Country” and “Clean Up on Aisle Five.” The crowd went wild.
“It was the most amazing experience of my musical career,” he says. “I still look at it with new eyes. I had the jitters, but by the time it was over, the whole place erupted with the cheers. It was emotional. I even cried on stage. I’ve never had that feeling before.”
Following that performance, some people dubbed Pitney “the next Randy Travis.”
“I’m totally flattered when I hear that because what they’re saying is that I’m tremendously talented,” he says. “But that also makes me anxious about not living up to those expectations. I just want to step up to the microphone, sing from my heart and stay in love with the gift of music. Wherever that takes me is where I am meant to be.”
While things are looking up for Pitney’s musical career, there have been bumps along the way, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Pitney says he’s a better person than he was before, thanks to a newfound relationship with God.
“In a word, I was arrogant,” he says. “Even though I grew up in the church, I didn’t acknowledge that my talents were gifts from God. I claimed everything as my own. I did things that didn’t please God and I didn’t give Him any credit. I had an attitude of ‘Don’t question me. Don’t you know who I am?’ I lost a lot of friends over my attitude.
“Every human has something in us that tells us something is broken,” he says. “We all have character defects. People were hurt in my life because of my sins. That’s when God humbled me and brought me to my knees. I found forgiveness through Jesus Christ. I was able to go back and ask people I had hurt for forgiveness of the way I acted. I’m not perfect by any means, but I truly believe in my heart that the reason we’re all here is to find Jesus Christ.”
Pitney’s strong faith has helped to solidify his songwriting. While he’s quick to point out that he’s not a spiritual artist, God’s influence is evident in his music.
“I’ve never recorded anything that was very far from God,” he says. “Once God got a hold of me, my songwriting changed. I wouldn’t call myself a Christian artist. I’m a country artist who loves Jesus Christ.”
To support his music, Pitney has played venues all across the country. He might play in Maine one day and California the next. He’s opened for Rascal Flatts, Lee Brice and Merle Haggard, among others.
“I really love it,” he says of life on the road. “I didn’t know what to expect. It’s harder than I thought it would be. You play three hours at night and wake up early for a flight. If you’re sick, you’re still rolling on. In the beginning, I was worried about temptations on the road. But I’ve surrounded myself with a loving group of people who keep me focused on what’s important.”
Pitney returns to Rockford every six months or so. He’s played benefit concerts, Byronfest and Stroll on State. He received a RAMI award earlier this year that his mother accepted on his behalf.
This summer, Pitney came back to perform at the Winnebago County Fair. While his visits are short, they’re always special. “I love coming home,” he says. “It’s always about celebrating the music and spending time with the people I love.”
In addition to his hectic travel schedule, Pitney is putting the finishing touches on his first album, “Behind This Guitar,” slated to be released in October. And then it’s back to the road.
The biggest event for Pitney, this year, was his marriage to longtime girlfriend, Emily, in March. The couple met at a bluegrass festival when they were both just 15.
Pitney still makes time to escape to the great outdoors for some bow hunting in the Tennessee terrain – often with his new bride by his side. Life, he says, has a funny way of working out.
“It’s been an unbelievable ride,” he says. “God has changed my life. He has put us together. Every day we are learning more about ourselves, each other and God. We have an amazing life.”