Janis Pruitt: A Georgia Peach of a Songwriter

By Keith Wicker

A Chinese proverb says that it is a curse to live in interesting times. These are interesting times. Baby-boomers have seen to that. The generation that once grew their hair long and made love in the grass now hide their bald spots and use Viagra, but baby-boomers are not slipping into retirement peacefully. As they empty their nests of their young, the baby-boomers look for new challenges or return renewed to old endeavors. This spirit of never-say-die can be found in the strong voice of Janis Pruitt, native of Rome, Georgia, who is currently writing songs and performing them in the great city beside the Ohio River, Louisville, Kentucky.

In her mid-forties (gentlemen don't get specific), Janis is no newcomer to music. While still in high school she journeyed to Atlanta for her first gig at the tender age of 17. She cites early influences as the Beatles, Byrds and the usual zoo of British wags. The first female singer she remembers was Marianne Faithful, who she was drawn to because of Faithful's alluring alto voice and her covers of Beatles tunes. Later on she discovered Emmylou Harris and what her son calls "hillbilly-hippy" music.

Janis has paid some dues. She's spent time on the road with a Christian group, as well as working with rock bands in the Atlanta area. She spent a few years in Nashville studying songwriting by listening to the plethora of talent there and taking part in the Bluebird Café's Open Mic and Songwriter Night, the latter a gig that requires passing an audition. As a favor for a friend who published a folk music magazine, Janis came to Louisville for a KFC festival and interviewed Doc Watson and Peter Rowan. While here she also met some friendly Louisville citizens. After frequent visits with these friends and checking out the music scene, she and her husband, Fred, moved to Louisville a couple of years ago.

I first heard Janis at an open mic at the Lighthouse on Frankfort Avenue. The club's powerful PA could barely keep pace with her muscular, clear delivery. Her songs explored the tender moments of life with a mature passion; they stomped on the hypocrisy of life's frustrations in knowing tones of pain and anger. As she sang, she beamed her smile at the crowd and shook her bangs as if she were Paul McCartney on the Ed Sullivan Show. The crowd went wild for her, and so did I.

Recently, on a Monday night in February, I ventured to the Twice Told Coffeehouse to hear Janis. She hadn't been getting out much; she's been rehearsing her band and polishing her material for an upcoming CD, so I was looking forward to hearing her again. This was my first experience with the Twice Told, which seems to be a hangout for college-age folks, at least the knot of black-clothed people blocking the door appeared to be in their undergrad years. I was pleasantly surprised to find a first-class listening room in the back: numerous chairs facing the stage, good lighting, and a top-notch PA that not only gave the music a crystalline quality, but allowed listeners to understand what was being said between songs. As for the artwork decorating the walls, let's just say the sophomores weren't just hanging outside.

Janis blessed all present that night with an enchanting, intimate performance. Of her original songs, I especially like "Amsterdam," a song about her husband's experiences in that Dutch city; "Dangerous Man," a song about an old boss that Janis describes as an "a_ _ hole"; and "October," a poignant song about memories of growing up and surviving the awkward moments of "not getting asked to dance." But Janis does a stellar job with covers, as well, reaching back to her earlier influences for rousing renditions of "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" and "My Back Pages."

Here at Louisville Music News, the editor, Paul Moffett, says he doesn't mind criticism as long as it doesn't just tear down without offering something constructive. With this in mind, I'll put my last point as delicately and constructively as I can. Janis' performance was flawed only by her accompanist. The musician hasn't been working with her long; therefore, he probably doesn't know the material well. Instead of holding back and playing a supportive role, he took extended lead breaks that added little to the material; even his fills lacked the subtlety and taste that her music requires. I'm aware of the angst of going solo; having another musician onstage provides the songwriter with a modicum of comfort. Nevertheless, songwriters shouldn't be so eager to find that comfort that they use instrumentalists that are unprepared and distract from the songs. Similarly, accompanists should strive to play a supportive role and avoid using the songwriter forum as an excuse to display their prowess, or lack thereof.

Although Janice occasionally struggles with the fact that some may perceive her as a "grandmother type," she is driven to write and sing. And Louisville is better off for her determination. Before I left, she told me that she would be opening for Randall Bramlett at Barretones two nights later. I'm happy for her. She's back out, belting out great songs, and offering proof that baby-boomers continue to be a mighty force and proud voice in the local music scene.