RIGHTEOUS MESSENGER Joe Pug

The
singer-songwriter’s been notching the Dylan comparisons (and some Steve Earle,
too). But he’s not ready to be pigeonholed.

 

BY JEDD FERRIS

 

In “Speak Plainly, Diana,” the closing track of his brand
new full-length debut album, Messenger,
Joe Pug casually rolls off the chorus, “I don’t mind riding around.”
That’s a drastic understatement. For the past two years Pug has lived on the
highways of America, playing an amount of shows he can only describe as “a
fuck ton.”

 

But for Pug, delivering his songs night after night in new
towns is never a burden. It’s certainly more fulfilling than the Ivory Tower,
which he abandoned the day before his senior year at the University of North
Carolina-Chapel Hill, where he was studying playwriting.

 

“When it came to writing plays, it always felt like pulling
teeth,” says Pug, who chatted by phone from a truck stop on his way to a gig in
Seattle. “Songwriting isn’t necessarily easy, but it comes more naturally to
me.”

 

When he had enough of school, Pug packed his things and
moved to Chicago where he became a carpenter by day. He picked up a guitar for
the first time since his teenage years and began writing songs based on a play he was working on called Austin Fish. At night a friend would sneak him into a
recording studio when other musicians had cancelled sessions, and he pieced
together Nation of Heat. The popular
underground EP spread virally, much in part due to Pug’s guerilla marketing
tactic of literally mailing a two-song sampler with his own postage to
interested fans.  

 

Without ever releasing a full-length album he started
getting offers a young singer-songwriter could only dream of – tours supporting
Steve Earle, Josh Ritter and M. Ward and a slot at last year’s Newport Folk
Festival. It’s a testament to Pug’s instant appeal.

 

His delivery is simple and honest-a live show that usually
features just Pug plucking and pounding his acoustic guitar, while frequently
blasting harmonica fills. His voice sounds hauntingly weathered well beyond his
mid-20s baby face. His hypnotic wordplay lingers with the gut-punching imagery
of self-realization. It’s all amounted to an abundance of the dreaded overdone young-Dylan
comparisons that just can’t be overlooked.

 

In lines like, “I’ve come to meet the legendary takers; I’ve
only come to ask them for a lot,” from “Hymn #101,” the stunning sparsely
picked opening track on Nation of Heat,
Pug shows his knack for delivering the vagabond wisdom that Dylan perfected on Blood on the Tracks.

 

But Pug is not ready to be pigeonholed, and Messenger – released in February on
Lightning Rod Records – immediately proves he’s much broader than a Bob
reflection. “I think those comparisons will be dispelled with this new album,”
he says. “They’ve been accurate but not necessarily enlightening. Dylan
definitely casts a big shadow. As Steve Earle says, he invented our jobs. But I
think some more interesting comparisons can be made, when it comes to my work.”

 

When asked about his influences Pug lists Beck, Warren
Zevon, and John Hiatt. The latter is apparent on Messenger’s title track, which starts the album as a bold statement
of Pug’s new studio approach – augmented by a full roots-rock band with driving
pedal steel. “It’s the direction I’ve been trying to go for a long time. I
didn’t want to sit around and write Nation
of Heat Part 2
. It’s a bit of a departure. I think some fans will be
surprised and not know how to take it, but I had to keep moving forward.”

 

Through the rest of the new album Pug also keeps moving
forward with his ongoing examination of self. The earnest ballads
“Unsophisticated Heart” and “Disguised as Someone Else” reveal a man who faces
his demons head on, despite some insecurity. It’s another reason why songwriting
is easier than playwriting. Playing make believe just isn’t Pug’s thing. 

 

“I’ve always had a really hard time writing through the perspective
of a character,” he notes. “A lot of what I do is imagine myself in a
situation. Maybe that’s what a character is. Anyone who you could consider a
character in one of my songs is pretty close to me. I’m not the kind of person
who writes as a reaction to something that happens. If someone breaks up with
me or calls me an asshole, I don’t sit down and write a song about it. I try to
write everyday. It’s one long continuous thing about the way I look at the
world.”

 

The philosophy also extends to performance. Despite being a
solo acoustic act, Pug has always tried to avoid playing in quiet coffeehouses
or theatres. He says he prefers the challenge of noisy bars and rock clubs,
explaining, “People are rowdier, and they might start talking through a song,
but that’s a very good threat to have on the table. It makes you work harder.
Battling for their attention through an entire show makes you stay on your
toes. If what you’re doing on stage is not more interesting than their
conversation, that’s a fucking problem.”

 

So far, Pug hasn’t had that problem. His voice continues to
command the attention of his listeners, peers and predecessors. He’s booked
solid through May, currently playing bigger rooms on a coast-to-coast tour with
Justin Townes Earle. Then in April he’s doing a run in Ireland with Josh
Ritter. When the road gets tedious, he thinks back to something he learned from
Earle’s father Steve when he toured with him last year.

 

“I watched his show every night,” Pug says of the elder Earle.
“This is a guy who’s been on the road for 30 or 40 years, and he’s still
tweaking the set list every night. It’s amazing that he’s been doing it for so
long, and he still takes it so seriously. I only hope I have half as much
conviction when I’m his age.” 

 

So is he in it for the long haul?

 

“That’s what I’m coming to terms with – I think the answer
is yes,” he concludes. “I’m traveling around to places with crowds drinking
beer singing along to songs that I wrote. That’s as righteous as it gets.”

 

 

[Photo Credit: Todd Roeth]

 

 

 

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