I’ve come to be untroubled in my seeking
And I’ve come to say that nothing is for naught
I’ve come to reach out blind, to reach forward and behind
For the more I seek, the more I’m sought
These lyrics, from Joe Pug’s “Hymn 101,” might as well be the tagline for Pug’s current year-long tour, which has taken him from tooling around the local circuit in his hometown, Chicago, to tailing alt.-country legend Steve Earle’s tour bus on a swing down through Texas and back up toward the Great Lakes. From there, he’ll take a brief sojourn to Norway then take up with Josh Ritter for an upper-Midwest tour before heading west for festival season. “I rent a room in Chicago,” he tells me Tuesday after a set in Richmond, “but I’ve probably slept in it about 20 times this year.”
So far, Pug’s seeking has prompted plenty to seek him in turn—not least, Earle himself. “The way I understand it is, Steve’s manager played Steve my album, and Steve said, ‘Yeah, let’s go,’” says Pug. We’re sitting in the green room at The National, in Richmond—I on the slick leather sofa, Joe on the edge of a matching chair adjacent. The furniture looks like it might have been lifted from the set of Scarface, and Pug looks out-of-place in a plaid shirt, faded jeans fraying at the knees, and tan work boots. “It’s cool, a lot of great musicians have come through here,” he says. His tone matches his general comportment: humble, polite—but with supreme confidence lurking just beneath, every so often leaking to the surface like oil from plain earth. He had filled the role of opener that night with consummate deference: playing well, thanking the audience, then helping clear out his gear so the roadies could ready the stage for Earle. I had to wait for him afterward while he hawked his album in the lobby, stuffing a fistful of rumpled bills into his jeans. He’s not a star yet. But when he says plenty of great musicians have come through here, he’s certainly not apologizing for his own presence.
“Bob Dylan is someone I’ve been compared to a lot,” he says when I ask him about his influences, surprising me with his lack of shyness about this fact. (These comparisons are not for nothing: You can hear echoes of Dylan’s sneer, his indulgent harmonica breaks, and his poet-advocate m.o. in Pug’s music. But to liken someone to Dylan implies far more than musical similarities—and musicians, who are generally more sensitive to this fact than their fans, tend to distance themselves from such comparisons.) Pug also counts among his influences John Hiatt, Warren Zeavon, and Beck—“songwriters that don’t really adhere to a genre, they just write songs that connect to people.” But ultimately comparisons will not do, not even flattering ones. “You hear an athlete say they want to get to a point where they’re only competing against themselves,” he says. “As a musician, you want people to compare your music not to other musicians, but to the rest of your catalog.”
Pug’s catalog is currently only seven songs long. He recorded his debut EP, Nation of Heat, for free at a Chicago studio courtesy of a friend who worked there, and put out the album himself last summer. You can’t find it in stores, only on the Internet and at shows. “Your industry and mine are both changing,” Pug says to me, taking a drag in the smoking pen outside the National. That’s for sure. Here’s a guy who recorded seven songs and put them on the Internet, bypassing “the industry” altogether, and now he’s touring with Steve Earle and Josh Ritter. He’s been sought by plenty of labels, but has seen no compelling reason to sign. “I’m making a very good living just doing what I’m doing now,” Pug says, “and I have complete control over what I make.” He says there might come a time in his life where he’ll seek the stability of a label, but he’s in no hurry. “I really want one that’s into what I do,” he says, “not one who wants me to write choruses.”
Yes, it’s a different world: different than the world Dylan and the others played in—different than the world they described, and different than the one that rewarded them with fame. It’s easy to read the lyrics of Pug’s “I Do My Father’s Drugs” to mean that folk’s battle has been fought and won.
When hunger strikes are fashion, and freedom is routine
And all the streets in Cleveland are named for Martin Luther King
You will see me at the protest, but you’ll notice that I drag
I burn my father’s flag
But when I wonder aloud whether a ‘60s-style folk musician can thrive in the 21st century, Pug’s rebuke is polite but firm: “I think it’s sort of a misconception to call it ’60s-style folk,” he says. Pug describes folk not as an era-specific phenomenon but as continuum—one that manifested in Irish troubadours, then southern bluesmen, then the ‘60s discontents. What I take Pug to mean is that the tradition did not end; it still exists wherever there is restlessness and doubt and disillusionment and people who would use music to confront these things rather than to escape them.
In any case, it is far too early in the development of Pug’s music to know how popular it will be. He says he recorded his LP (scheduled for a fall release) with a backing band, meaning the album that will serve as most people’s introduction to Joe Pug might sound much different than Nation of Heat.
Pug’s set in Richmond included two new songs from that album, “Bury Me Far From My Uniform” and “Not So Sure.” You can check them out below, courtesy of Laundromatinee.com: