When Joe Pug says that he owes his life to Steve Earle, it may not be in the way you might imagine. It could appear that he’s speaking metaphorically and sure, Earle’s music, just like that of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Gillian Welch and others, are Pug’s permanent church. This time though, we’re dealing with a potential ass-whooping.
“Steve saved me from being lynched in Ireland,” Pug says at home in Austin, Texas. He’s gearing up for a gig at Waterloo, a rather legendary local record store, which he imagines will be like a “big bear hug” from his city. I’d asked him to share any backstage antics he’d witnessed on tour with either Earle or his son Justin, and this is what he comes up with. “We were in a part of Ireland, and I was so oblivious about geography and geopolitics that I almost went on stage and referred to it as the UK, which it’s not. Violently so. I called it that backstage and Steve said ‘you jackass. We’re not in the UK. If you go on stage and say that they will go and drown you in the fucking Guinness factory.’ He saved me a beating on that one.”
But it’s rather impossible, near-gaffes and all, to ever imagine anyone beating up Joe Pug. For one, he clearly doesn’t gossip, even at the expense of his own ego. And two, he just gives off the air of a guy knows that, getting to write folksongs for a living, he’s got it pretty good. When he finishes a concert, he tells the crowd that he’ll be sitting at the bar and, hey, come join him for a drink. “It’s a charmed life,” he says with equal parts gravity and gratitude.
Those folksongs have ended up on his newest record, The Great Despiser, which finds Pug’s lyrical tendencies and acoustic Guild guitar rounded out by Modest Mouse and Iron & Wine’s producer Brian Deck, who paired him with the likes of Sam Kassirer (Josh Ritter, Langhorne Slim), The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn and Califone’s Jim Becker. The finished product takes Pug’s storytelling and makes the music an equally able raconteur –a subtle change from the six-strings, mouth harp and early-Dylan-inspired rhythm where he began.
The thing about Pug is that does what he wants. Not in an entitled way where the thinks the rules don’t apply; he just operates under his own code. A less cynical soul might say that he leads with his heart, and heck, I’ll say it too. Pug was heading into his senior year at University of North Carolina, studying theater, when he woke up and decided to drop out. It wasn’t the call of the road or the come-hither of the stage. It wasn’t even about a girl.
“I just didn’t want to go to college anymore,” he says. “I didn’t want to pay money if I didn’t feel like I was learning anything and certainly not learning anything that I couldn’t teach myself.” He left a day before classes started for Chicago, taking with him a play he had started but could never find the right words to finish. One day, with the help of his old guitar, he took another stab. Only this time, in song. “The themes I was trying to expand on and bring to life just weren’t happening as a play,” he says. “And as soon as I tried to talk about them in song it flowed incredibly easy. Those themes became what the EP was about.”
And Pug released the “Nation of Heat EP” on his own terms, with an offer that is still good to this day (albeit digitally): he printed up CDs with his most popular songs and shipped them out free of charge. He wanted to find fans, friends, followers, not just customers of his music. It worked – Pug was shocked as he traveled from town to town, finding people who could sing along. He eventually sold over 20,000 copies on his own, piquing the attention of Lightning Rod Records, who signed him and eventually released his full-length LP, Messenger, in 2010. He’s toured constantly ever since, on the road for 150 to 200 days a year.
“The way we did it takes a lot longer and it’s a much slower build,” he says. “I am not even saying this to be corny or cute but I really think that the fan base that we have developed now …they are just a little bit more engaged, and when we know people are paying such close attention it inspires us to not cut any corners.”
Not that you’d find him spurting out throwaway tunes anyway –Pug doesn’t consider himself prolific, so to speak: “It takes everything I got just to finish ten good songs,” he says. Instead, writing is a more deliberate process where he embraces moments of craft, rather than waiting around for inspiration, and almost always begins with the words. “Before anything I sit down with the pen and the page for a while,” he says. “I have an idea of what the melody would be in my head but I basically just draw out many different verses or poetic forms in the same meter until I get a bunch of stanzas that I like.” He rarely composes on the road. He’s tried, “but when you’re splitting a queen size bed with your bass player in Oklahoma City it’s hard to reach into your inner voice to find something really poetic.”
But after all the work is done, the nights in crappy hotels, the long drives and uncomfortable bedmates, what he waits for most is to hear his songs hummed back at him by a crowd. “There is something about the communion of playing to people who have listened to these songs and have now interwoven them with the narratives of their lives,” he says, “and mean different things to different people. That’s a very special moment and thing I could never trade. I think I’ll always have to be on the road.” And if he gets lonely, well, he’ll just put down his guitar, head to the bar and wait for a fan to join him.