“It is hard not to focus a lot on Johnny; he was very connected to me and still remains connected to me. Although my life is beautiful and I have so much more to it, it’s been hard to get healthy and move toward the future without my buddy… he made such a mark on my life and career. I would never have thought about becoming a real musician if it wasn’t for him. However, it is now me that has to keep moving on and making new music.” These poignant words come from the heart and soul of singer/songwriter, Sara Petite, who was establishing a solid reputation for herself in her adopted home of San Diego as well as in Nashville and Europe, when she lost her rock, John Kuhlken, whom she affectionately called her “papa bear.” He passed away much too soon, at age 49, from a blood infection in 2011. Kuhlken, an established local drummer, helped form Petite’s backing group, the Sugar Daddies, so named because the members were all over 40 years of age, including other bandmates Rick Wilkins on guitar and Wade Maurer on bass. She and Kuhlken lived together for a little over six years, sharing music and life’s ups and downs. “Life isn’t about feeling good all of the time, as I have been recovering the last year and half from illness and grief,” Petite relayed to me in our recent sit down interview. “It has been a great time of self discovery. Sometimes you are forced to look at yourself and your life and to slow down. I don’t think we are encouraged enough to do that in life,” she emphasized as she continued her reflection on the trials and tribulations over the past year and a half. “I know he heard me when I said goodbye to my Papa Bear, but there is so much left unsaid sometimes when someone goes quickly. I know he was at peace when he left this earth, but I wish we could have found more when he was here.”
As 2013 dawns, Petite’s own words – “my past is such a strong part of my present and future” – inspired her to pen a bevy of new songs, culminating in her brand new CD, Circus Comes to Town. Since launching her career in 2005, she’s recorded three previous CDs, including Tiger Mountain, Lead the Parade, and Doghouse Rose, respectively; her lyrical themes often draw from her nostalgic roots growing up in rural Sumner, Washington, however, this new offering will take the listener through an eclectic array of topics, fueled by her own admission that she wears her heart on her sleeve. “I’m drawn to songwriters with authenticity that have stories behind their songs,” she stated. One song on her new release, “The Scarlet Letter,” was penned from her conversational exploits as a part-time bartender, over the past nine years, at the Ould Sod watering hole, located along the Adams Avenue bar crawl in San Diego. “I happened to be reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter at the same time that a friend of mine was going through a bad divorcee. She told me how free she felt after losing a lot of friends through the whole process, who turned out not to be the true friends she thought they were.” This conversation, combined with a male customer’s insensitive and inappropriate remarks about women and their sexuality, in a separate conversation, gave birth to the song, with Petite’s vituperative lyrics crying out amid a din of honky tonk guitar riffs: “it don’t matter what he do… it just matter what she do…no matter how far you run… can’t get away from those wagging tongues,” conjuring up images of Hester Prynne’s unjust public ridicule in Hawthorne’s classic 19th century novel. And along the same lines, her stinging take on how some men treat their women, from her tune, “The Master”: “he’s the master… of loving, leaving, lying, and disaster… he’s fooled me… he’ll fool you… honey, he’ll screw you… that lying, cheatin’ son of a gun… the Master.” She is quick to point out, however, that she is not a man hater, but just an astute observer of human behavior in general, which ignites many of her song topics. The first time she played “The Master,” as she recalls, was at a gig in Kentucky. “It was so fun, but I thought I might be lynched and that the men would think I was a man-hater, but at the end of the show, a few of them came up to me and complimented me on the song; I soon realized that they wanted to BE the Master.”
Although she has courageously moved forward with her life and music, many of Petite’s inner struggles and personal sorrow is reflected heavily in the Circus Comes to Town disc. Her tune, “Drinking to Remember,” was partially penned before Kuhlken’s passing, then completed after his untimely death, with the foreboding refrain: “I ain’t drinking to remember… I’m drinking to forget,” lyrics that would ring true as she recounts in chilling detail, “I spent a lot of time in the bottle after Johnny passed away,” she explained, “I knew I was using alcohol to cope; it took over a year before I could get a handle on it and start dealing with life, and coping with the pain of losing my best friend.”
Rimrock Ranch is the desert canyon home of musician and surf wear entrepreneur Jim Austin, was a special setting where the couple enjoyed spending time, a very inspirational locale for Petite’s writing process, as she reminisces. “I don’t know if it is the magic of the place, or Jim Austin, or the two of them put together. I’d be having a conversation with Jim, or be hanging out with him, and then I’d go write a song. He’s one of the nicest, most beautiful and honorable men you could ever meet. I’ve written, started, or finished the majority of my songs at his ranch.” Another track from her new CD, “Ashes,” was penned from this pristine setting, as she details. “When Johnny passed away, it was so sudden and I felt so bad for myself and his best friends. I kept half of his ashes, and perhaps one day I will put them up at Rimrock Ranch,” as her haunting lyrics express: “keep a little for yourself… a little piece of me.” “Half of them went into the ocean and the other half are in my van,” she continued. “He goes everywhere with me. Some say that I’m holding on to my past and that I should let it go, but despite what anybody says, I’ve learned something internal through my grief, which is to follow your own light.”
Petite’s CD release party will be happening at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach on Saturday, January 12th, a matinee affair, commencing at 3 p.m. The Circus Comes to Town disc was recorded in Nashville, at the same locale as her third offering, Doghouse Rose, at Insomnia Studio, with Eddie Gore at the recording helm and handling production duties for both discs. Gore discovered Petite through his friend, Melanie Howard, who is the widow of legendary country music songwriter, Harlan Howard. Both albums are aptly augmented by a slew of Nashville A-list studio players, elevating the overall quality, especially in the final mix, beyond her first two local recordings. “I’d rather be using my own band exclusively, as we are a family, and have been through lots of ups and downs together, as well as driving each other nuts sometimes, but this was a great opportunity, so why not,” she proclaimed.
Petite’s twin sister, Jenny, ten minutes her elder, resides in Nashville. A singer/songwriter as well, she is also a keen photographer, and has produced a colorful panorama of photos for the Circus Comes To Town project. “We’re very close,” she says, “I stay with her when I’m in Nashville to do business, gigs, and record. She did a beautiful job imaging photographs to my lyrics; the photo shoot was a blast.” Her plan beyond the CD release party is to use Nashville as a hub, touring in that region of the country for a part of each month, splitting time with gigs back home in Southern California. “Eventually I’d like to play a Texas circuit, particularly the Austin-Houston-San Antonio triangle,” she said. “Using Nashville as a hub gives me a great opportunity to visit Jenny and her family at the same time.”
Petite’s songwriting process usually starts with a melody in her head, yielding lyrics, followed by picking up her guitar. “I often have a melody in my head, put lyrics to it, then pick up my guitar to work on chord accompaniment,” she states confidently. Although she played piano for most of her formative years, she no longer has a piano around, nor composes on one. However, she’s looking to incorporate some bluegrass banjo into the mix, as she’s transferring some of her guitar fingerpicking patterns over to her trusty Deering banjo. Fellow musician and friend, Chris Clarke, a deft mandolin picker, who fronts his own group, Plow, was a member of the Tiger Mountain Boys, a group Petite formed to play old-time music oriented gigs, was one of many influential musicians she has crossed paths with in San Diego. “I was a rhythm guitar player in his old time music band initially. I learned a lot from him. He’s a great rhythmic mandolin player. We had a lot of charisma together on stage as well.” Clarke recalls some fond memories playing with her, along with a classic pet folly. “We performed countless times together over the course of a couple of years and developed a great friendship,” Clarke remembers, “we used to rehearse the Tiger Mountain Boys over at her house. Her dog, Ricky Bobby, was an escape artist. I can’t tell you how many times we would have half the band chasing that damn dog around the neighborhood. We had a lot of fun playing together in support of her first record.” Petite is equally comfortable with an acoustic or electric guitar in her hands, enabling her to go from a harder edge country rock groove to a more subtle acoustic mood in her compositions. Detailed in her own words, “I consider myself more outlaw country, as opposed to line dance country, particularly in that I’m an original artist that mixes in a rocking out mix with traditional country tune structures.”
Another local artist, vocalist Eve Selis, who along with Lisa Sanders, will be the opening acts for the aforementioned CD release party, invited Petite to open for her on a recent tour through the United Kingdom, an opportunity she enthusiastically accepted. “I opened six shows during that tour,” she proudly stated. “Eve has been very supportive of me and loves helping out fellow artists. She gives 200% in all her shows, she’s so inspiring and great to watch on stage.” The admiration is mutual, as Selis relayed to me shortly after her sets with B.J. Thomas at the 2012 Carols by Candlelight benefit concert. “Sara has an ache in her voice that adds just the right kind of emotion to her songs. When she opened for us on that UK tour, my English fans fell in love with her. In addition,” she continued, “she’s inspired me to play my guitar more so we can do some ‘just us girls’ shows! This year should be a big year for Sara Petite and I’m looking forward to watching it unfold,” Selis concluded. During that tour Petite got a first-hand glimpse of European audiences, for many musicians historically, a pleasant change of pace from American audiences. “I really enjoyed them, seemingly polite. Audiences in the UK appeared reserved, a bit conservative, but that can fool you, as after my shows they would be very complimentary,” she observed. “Seems like there’s an emergence of more country artists in Europe and I’m looking forward to exploring the German market as well,” she added. As far as audiences in general, she speaks openly about a common dichotomy with the public, a reality that Petite has encountered in her growing visibility as an established name. “I’ll have people suggest a musical direction for my next CD. Most people want to be part of your world, which is fine, but I’m a pretty sheltered person, yet gregarious, so it’s a dilemma many artists have to sort out, and as I’ve discovered, most artists have a hard time determining who’s genuine and who isn’t.”
She realizes that in the world of a recording artist and performer, one has to stay as grounded as possible, particularly in all business aspects. “People offer you things all the time. You can never be too excited until you sign on the dotted line. Most people have really good intentions, but it can be tricky from a business perspective to know who’s going to really follow through on stuff,” she emphasized. “I wear my emotions on my sleeve, which sometimes leaves you vulnerable, as I’m an artist and as an artist, we’re all vulnerable. I have a good friend, Deborah Bourgeois, who works my merchandise table for me, and that really helps. I like to be in control of the business end, but I’m feeling better lately about releasing control in certain areas. I have a booking agent that’s starting to schedule gigs. In the past I’ve had business people that don’t know how to do their job as well as some that you can’t trust, so I never feel comfortable until I feel like they know how to do their job competently.”
When on stage, Petite portrays the overall joy she feels as a musical artist of not only presenting original music, but the opportunity the profession brings in meeting so many new people. “The life of an artist is so amazing,” she conveys. “As independent artists we get to live a really rich life; we’re a different breed, and I feel so lucky to be part of it as an independent artist. However,” she continues, “most people don’t realize the hard work that goes into all phases of a musician’s life; it’s hard work. On any given night, you may hate it, but the next night you have a blast and love it. When you’re really on fire musically, your whole body is electric,” she joyfully states. Behind that success, there is usually a mentor. In Petite’s case, multi-instrumentalist Shawn Rohlf would be the man. “I love Shawn. He was my mentor, he’s been a great source of guidance; I’ve learned so much from him.” Over the years, Rohlf, who plays just about any stringed instrument you hand him, and a founding member of the popular band 7th Day Buskers, has not only mentored her, but has played gigs and recorded on Petite’s albums. “He’s a true pro,” she smiled, “who knows his role in different musical settings, a team player.” Rohlf, back in San Diego after a recent gig with former Grateful Dead guitarist, Bob Weir, and singer/ songwriter Tim Flannery, shared his feelings about Petite. “Sara and I have been great friends for quite a few years now, and we always have a lot of fun on stage and off,” he noted. “She is one of the most dedicated and hardest working artists around, always striving to move forward with her songwriting and skills as a guitar player and performer, not to mention her infectious smile that brightens up any room she enters.”
Two other musicians that have augmented Petite’s sound, on disc and live, are mandolin wiz Steve Peavey, and fiddle wunderkind John Mailander, “I affectionately called John “sugar baby” when he became a member of the Sugar Daddies as a teenager,” she shared, after Mailander answered an ad for “fiddle player wanted” for her band. “A brilliant player and a gracious person,” she added. Currently, Mailander is attending Berklee College of Music in Boston. “Sara is such an awesome voice and presence,” Mailander said recently during a break from his studies. “She’s been so supportive of me ever since I first started playing out around San Diego. I’ve always connected with her songs because they’re so honest and welcoming, along with her overall passion and positive energy for what she does.” Peavey, who now calls Nashville home, appears on the Doghouse Rose CD and is held in high esteem by Petite, “He’s like a brother to me; we spent a lot of time together on road trips to gigs. He’s a good guy, as well as an excellent melodic mandolin player.”
One of Petite’s big goals ahead, is to have her songs picked up by other artists, as she prides herself on her writing style. “I really want other people to do my songs; that’s a definite goal of mine. It’s one way to maintain in the business, and possibly set up a more comfortable retirement eventually,” she mused. “I want to keep doing shows for a long time, but I want to have other streams of income, hopefully from songwriting credits.” Good friend and superlative singer/songwriter Gregory Page has been there for her over many cups of coffee, in discussing music, songwriting, and life. “When John passed away, he was there for me; he’s such a good person with a genuine heart.” As far as others, she lists quite a few that she admires in the songwriting arena, including John Prine, Loretta Lynn, Jon Vezner, Marty Stuart, John Mellencamp, June Carter, Rosie Flores, Tom Petty, and Buddy Holly, to name a few. “June Carter was one of my idols – witty, clever, and funny. I really relate to the stories behind her songs and think she’s just a brilliant artist and vivacious performer. Mellencamp as well, a big influence, with his voice that is so raw and emotional, along with his stories from the heartland.” Petite is quick to point out that simplicity is a key component for writing songs that reach the hearts and souls of many music lovers. “Like Mellencamp,” she points out, “Tom Petty is another favorite, another simple writer who speaks to the heart, which most people relate to.” As for Marty Stuart, former guitarist with Johnny Cash and Lester Flatt, and a well established songwriter in his own right, Petite reminisces back to her teen years. “I was 14 when I first saw Marty Stuart perform. I told my sister, Jenny, that I would go to Nashville and marry him someday. Never did, but it was a dream come true,” she grinned, “when I wound up opening for him on four separate occasions.”
“Barbed Wire,” another track from Circus Comes to Town, is the only co-write on the disc, with a special story behind the song. “I wrote this one with my good friend, John Eddie, one of my favorite songwriters,” she explained. “I was at Jim Austin’s place, Rimrock Ranch, where there is a heart with barbed wire wrapped around it at the entrance. I looked up at it and started singing the line: “she’s got barbwire around her heart… to protect them weaker parts.” “I think most people feel this way in that it’s hard to be a vulnerable loving person and be able to protect yourself from pain. After so many batterings, I think you just start building up defense mechanisms.”
In seven short years, since seriously beginning a full-time pursuit of a musical career, the prophetic words of her father still ring true in that “Sara’s always gonna do what she’s gonna do,” as she has lived a few lifetimes, encompassing the joys of playing in a band, writing and performing her own tunes, traveling around the globe, meeting new people and making new friends at every turn, recording at a top-notch studio in Nashville, opening shows for iconic songwriters, along with being recognized locally and nationally as an award-winning songwriter in the Americana music category, albeit mixed in with the rigors of the music business and having to cope with the deep personal loss of her papa bear, Johnny. In the end, however, her indomitable will to succeed and positive attitude pushes forward, as she cherishes the beauty in the world and the people around her.
“I have been blessed with great friends in my life, I couldn’t be more thankful,” she concluded, “keeping close to my heart all of them who like me for me, despite all of my skeletons, demons, and crosses to bear, as I accept and love them all for who they are, too.”
Don’t miss Sara Petite’s CD release, Circus Comes to Town, with special guests Lisa Sanders and Eve Selis. Saturday, January 12 at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, 3:30pm.
Wayne Riker is a freelance writer, guitar teacher, instructional book author, and columnist for Guitar Player magazine.