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Social commentary, especially in music, is a tricky act: too blunt, audience rolls its eyes; too fine, audience scratches its head. “Whitman once explained that poetry’s not supposed to confuse people,” Joe Pug—local boy and folk icon-in-waiting—said in an interview last summer. At the same time, musicians that merely trot out talking points or shout buzz words while beating a defenseless instrument may be dismayed to find their art doesn’t last.
Notwithstanding overeager proclamations from the occasional starry-eyed critic, folk has yet to find its next prophet. (Remember when it was supposed to be Conor Oberst?) Last year, the restless Greenbelt native Pug (last name shortened from Pugliese) dropped out of college and promptly yanked the sword out the stone. For a man of 23, Pug struck a remarkable balance between innuendo and clarity in his 2008 debut EP, Nation of Heat. He uses old tools (voice, guitar, harmonica), long verses, and one-line choruses, letting his lyrics stand on their own legs. His delivery is at once cocky and sincere, pressing notes to the roof of his mouth and spilling his melodies over the chord changes. Pug is a student of the old school, and his influences are pretty apparent—although in the interest of avoiding hypocrisy, I’ve promised myself not to use the “D” word until he puts out a proper album.
Pug doesn’t sing protest songs, exactly. The EP’s title track, “Nation of Heat,” is a scattershot critique of the pressures and contradictions of American life, but it’s more a portrait than a polemic. “Hymn 101,” “Hymn 35,” and “I Do My Father’s Drugs,” meanwhile, address not political questions but existential ones: Why have I come here? What am I? How can I define myself in contradistinction to my forebears? These are relevant questions for anyone, but especially for an anachronism like Pug. The answers he offers on Nation of Heat are full of passion and irreverence and confusion and the kind of chilling poetry that you feel right between your shoulderblades. But Pug’s first full-length album—which is expected this year, despite his marathon touring schedule—will have some big questions of its own to answer: Can Joe Pug save folk for his generation? If so, will his generation notice?
Pug will be sharing a stage with alt.-country legend Steve Earle in Richmond and Charlottesville on June 6th and 9th. If you were like me and missed Pug when he came to the Black Cat the other week, I highly recommend that you make the trip—and I highly recommend that you give me a ride.