Joe Pug: A Journey With 150 Stops Per Year

I didn’t pay much attention to those “Sponsored Pages” Facebook started adding to our timelines until they finally got one right. Recently, I received a post from a musician offering a free sampler of his music.

“There’s no subsidiary of Viacom shoe­horning my music onto radio playlists. There’s no carefully worded advertisements assaulting you at the bus stop. You heard about my music from a friend, simple as that. Which means you listen to music for its substance, not its convenience,” explains the artist’s website.

Is Facebook my friend? That’s a question best left to the philosophers. Regardless, I enjoyed the music I downloaded. It’s like acoustic Conor Oberst with less pathos and Van Morrison or Bob Dylan with more piss and vinegar. It’s urgent and passionate, alternately tender or sweaty.

I appreciated the call for us to share our free music with friends if we liked it. “There isn’t a media outlet in the world as powerful as word of mouth,” his website continues. It means he’s confident his music will rise above the cacophony of a million bands playing a billion songs online all at once. He has something he needs to share, not something he wants to sell.

I’d like to think of people who read these music articles as “friends” in at least some community-based fashion. I hope that by now some of you trust me to uncover some interesting new music for you. This may be in print, but it’s my version of word-of-mouth: Ladies and gentlemen, meet Joe Pug.

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Pug lives the dream, or at least his own. Over the past five years he’s independently released two full albums, two eps and a live disc. He plays up to 150 shows a year with an electric guitar player and standup bass accompanying his own acoustic guitar and voice. “We like to think of ourselves as a power trio,” he laughs.

This lineup has been crisscrossing the country for nearly three years. The hours are long and the job is expansive. The band logs all those miles in a van and handles all the peripheries of a show like selling merchandise and sound-checking at each venue. And all that work is paying off. “There’s a pattern,” explains Pug. “The first time we play in a city there’s no one there. By the fifth time there’s a nice audience. Luckily, we’re a lot closer to the fifth time than the first in many places.”

For Pug, each stop is another on a journey that started eight years ago in North Carolina and travelled to the Midwest. Pug was attending college on the East Coast, studying to be a playwright. “I was unhappy; I don’t think school was for me,” he says now. “I had a buddy in Chicago who told me it was good there. I didn’t want to go back home, so I went there instead.” He’d played guitar since middle school and was in a few bands in high school. Music took a backseat when studying at college, but now that he’d left that behind Pug took to it again “like a duck to water.”

“I started writing songs and it just clicked with me more than anything else I’d been doing,” he recalls. “I’ve listened to music my whole life, but I haven’t been going to see plays for that long. I have a more intuitive understanding of how songs work.”

Pug says he’s inspired by “all the American singer-songwriter luminaries,” and rattles off some favorites: Warren Zevon, Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams, Tom Waits, Neko Case, Tom Petty. The list is diverse and the inspiration Pug draws from them has more to do with how they write songs than what they sound like: “They can all go to deep places in their psyche and pull out these images, and give us these great, poetic descriptions of them. Only a few people are brave enough to go in and pluck them out.”

Perhaps more than song skill, Pug works on being able to search his own mind for these moments. “It’s a personal thing. It has more to do with how you live your life than the music itself: Just living in a way so you’re the person you hoped you’d be and trying to live up to it on a daily basis,” he offers. “I’ve gotten lucky a time or two and I’m getting better. You fall short sometimes, but you always try. Then you can get to the good stuff.”

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Onstage at Johnny Brenda’s in Phila­delphia in the beginning of May, Pug and his band are hard at work. It’s their twelfth time in the area and you can tell by the dedicated, mostly silent, audience. People like him are masters of their craft thanks both to endless touring and the fact that they’re reaching out to potential new listeners at each show.

Pug plays a lot of quiet music; even the slightest slip-up would be glaringly apparent at small, intimate venues. I’m reminded of his own line as he works to hold his captive audience: “The world has bested better men than you.”

He’s clearly accepted his own challenge. The emotional cores of the songs take the spotlight while his craftsmanship quietly nuances each one. When Pug sings he naturally sways, leaning toward and away from the microphone in a way that accentuates his voice at certain points without ever fading. He swings off one guitar and grabs another in one motion and tells stories to cover guitar tuning and maintain pacing as well as set the stage for the next song.

Pug puts on a great show and sells his records afterwards, but his goals reach further than selling tickets and moving units: “I’m hoping people will listen individually and privately,” he explains. “I hope these ideas help them describe their life and make sense of it in the same way that books and records and paintings that I love have done for me.”

Go Online at http://www.joepugmusic.com

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