“And I’ve come to know the wish-list of my father/I’ve come to know the shipwrecks where he wished/I’ve come to wish aloud/Before the overdressed crowd/Come to witness now the sinking of the ship/Throwing pennies from the sea-top next to it”
So declares Joe Pug on the first track of his debut EP, Nation of Heat. The song is called “Hymn #101,” and its a nearly five minute ode to the examined life– a call to arms for emotional agency and plain, wholesale honesty. Its lines feel lifted from some bible of Americana, steadfast and blue collared, defiant and hopeful. Sung in Pug’s dusty, full-bodied twang, backed by a steady, unassuming pluck, it lands like some sort of absolute truth before the feet of the listener, and, like all great songs, feels the perfect length and simultaneously leaves us wanting more.
I first heard “Hymn #101“ amongst the dimly lit crowd of the Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland, Ohio, on a hot July night, hours before my twenty-first birthday. It struck me like bullet to the heart, with poetry that seemed to open endless possibilities and illuminate something unspoken that I knew all along. The rest of Nation of Heat, which Pug recorded nights after working during the day as a carpenter in Chicago, unfolds with no less surefooted wisdom; it is a startling 24 minute manifesto from a young man who seems wiser than his age, and it packs the promise of a ferocious talent.
10 years have passed since that first recording, and Pug has paid back this promise in spades: with three studio albums, an EP between records aptly named In the Meantime, and a dedication to touring his work across the very nation he sings about. With each new batch of songs, Mr. Pug seems to sketch out his own grand American drama, populated by spiritually dissatisfied men and their lovers past and present, filled with moonlit drives down the county highways of Spokane and Dallas, anchored by sturdy melodies, poignant folk idioms, and the prevailing tone of lonely hearted resilience. “How Good You Are,” “Not So Sure,” “Those Thankless Years”– his titles read like some long-lost Steinbeck novel, and precede compositions of tremendous musical weight.
This past Wednesday was a homecoming of sorts; or so it feels whenever Mr. Pug returns to Chicago. Playing to a sold out crowd at City Winery (which has put him up for the last four years as he tours with his present songbook) he held the room in rapt attention with nothing but a voice, a harmonica, and a well-worn guitar. Pug is a serious performer; he strums with a muscular intensity, and delivers his lyrics through a piercing, contemplative gaze. But between numbers, the songwriter demonstrates a confidently dry wit, and a gracious rapport– for example: after his opener, Carson McHone, left the stage “If you can only buy one record tonight, make it mine. But, if you can afford TWO, Carson has some available as well.”
I’ll admit that City Winery isn’t the ideal venue for Pug’s brand of hard-hitting introspection; there’s something about hearing lines like “I’ve seen skeleton mothers and hungry folks/Across the street from the kitchens that cook dinner the most” while the table next to you gulps endless glasses of cabernet and chews on fried risotto balls that just doesn’t quite feel right. But even so, Pug manages moments of sublimity: unplugging and stepping to the front of the stage, dressed in denim, warmly lit, conjuring Dylan on “I Do My Father’s Drugs;” accompanying himself on piano for heart wrenchingly understated renditions of “The Great Despiser” and “Veteran Fighter;” and the debut of songs from an upcoming album, which I’m happy to report sounds like it will be another instant classic (the crowd favorite was a slick little country number called “I Don’t Work In a Bank”).
New music from Joe Pug is just around the corner, and we can expect him to continue touring in support of the fresh material. I hope to see him live again with a full band soon; on record his compositions are fleshed out by workmanlike session players, most notably the excellent Greg Tuohey on guitar. In the meantime, I highly recommend Pug’s podcast The Working Songwriter, featuring conversations on the craft with prolific, like-minded musicians (notable episodes have featured Gregory Alan Isakov, Brandon Flowers, and the incomparable Josh Ritter). And of course, the music is always there to return to. In preparation for this article I revisited all three studio albums, and they have aged miraculously; most strikingly 2015’s Windfall, which sees Pug’s true arrival as the prophetic master I heard whispers of all those years ago.
Joe Pug wrapped up his last tour dates of 2018 in Philadelphia. His latest release, Windfall, is out now on Lightning Rod Records. The devastating “Bright Beginnings” is an album highlight.