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Music of the Mind: Joe Pug

Local transplant trades the hammer for the pen

By William Harries Graham, 3:07PM, Tue. Nov. 19, 2013

Music of the Mind: Joe Pug

Joe Pug moved to Austin four years ago to be closer to musicians he admires, like Joe Ely, James McMurtry, and Ray Wylie Hubbard. He settled on the Eastside and frequents the Long Branch for a nightcap. Pug tours most of the year, but on off days you’ll find a book in his hands, “nonfiction mostly.” Catch him at the Parish this Saturday, Nov. 23.

Austin Chronicle: What did you do before music?

Joe Pug: I moved to Chicago after I dropped out of the University of North Carolina. The first day I arrived in the city, I walked onto a job site near the house I was crashing in. I asked the general contractor if he needed any laborers. The next morning I was ripping out plaster and crown molding for $10 an hour.

I worked for that guy for four years. At night I would play open mics and small shows. By the time I released my first album, the crash of 2008 was hitting the construction business in Chicago. Next thing you know, I haven’t swung a hammer in five years.

AC: What music influenced you most when you were growing up?

JP: On the one hand, I was really into bands of my generation: Nirvana, Fugazi, Meat Puppets, and Sonic Youth. On the other hand, I really loved the music my father introduced me to, songwriters like John Hiatt, Warren Zevon, Jesse Winchester. I always loved the independent ethos of those younger bands, but I was more enchanted with the songwriting of their forebears. That’s how I ended up playing fairly traditional music but going about it with a DIY spirit.

AC: What happened after you self-released your first disc?

JP: I’ve released my last two records through Lightning Rod out of Nashville [2012’s The Great Despiser and The Messenger two years earlier]. It’s also home to Jason Isbell and Billy Joe Shaver. They’ve been damn good to us. The owner, Logan Rogers, cut his teeth with Compadre Records down here in Texas. He’s a music lover first and foremost.

AC: What was your first big break?

JP: When Steve Earle released his Townes album, he tapped me to open his tour. It was a couple months in the U.S. and Europe. He was playing solo, so every night, there were only two people on stage. First me, then Steve. I was too young to be as terrified as I should have been. It was his endorsement that really made people take notice.

Everyone needs that first hand up into the business, and Steve extended his to me. Grateful does not begin to describe the feelings I have for him. Since then, it’s been a slow and steady burn.

AC: Favorite moment onstage so far?

JP: Shortly before he passed away, we were asked to open for Levon Helm. We were playing a few shows at South by Southwest and the Levon gig was in Ann Arbor. We drove 18 hours across the country just to play that gig. We got to meet him before the show and even though he was very sick at the time, you could still see the fire burning in his eyes. There’s only a handful of times in your whole life when you know you’re in the presence of greatness. It was palpable.

AC: What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?

JP: I had a professor in college whose house I used to paint just for the excuse to have a cup of coffee with him afterward. He was around 85 years old, the wisest man I ever met. I asked him how he had made it so far in life and managed to retain that sense of wonder. He told me that no matter what you have to do you must always maintain a secret life of the mind: learning, discovering, participating.

AC: Advice to musicians starting out?

JP: The only thing that matters is getting good songs in the ears of people who could fall in love with them. And drink a lot of water on tour.

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