To Have and Have Not
Joe Pug navigates troubadour truths
Scuffed just enough to deem credible, Joe Pug's carpenter boots were a strategic detail rounding out his heartland rocker veneer: worn jeans, white undershirt, hard-shell guitar case. Neil Young once wore similar footwear, their workingman's weight fortifying his blue-collar persona. During the four years Pug lived in Chicago, those lived-in steel toes were as trusty an accessory as the open-mic drifter's acoustic six-string.
Then 23, the North Carolina migrant advanced a city whose music scene comprised cliques of longtime locals. Save for his lunch-bucket image, the budding folksinger remained otherwise evasive. Today, the five-year Austinite born Joe Pugliese has paired his flannel button-down with cowboy boots.
He's at ease in a vinyl booth at Gourmands, the bar's floors a two-toned sprawl below still-strung Christmas lights. Neighboring his Eastside domicile, the homey gastropub marks the Maryland native's go-to locale. Up north, the once aspiring playwright worked in construction. He'd moved to the Second City on a whim, after scrapping college two semesters shy of earning a theatre degree. Directionless and disenchanted, he soon traveled a pair of long-familiar avenues.
"I'd literally go straight from job sites, building walls and floors, to playing open mics – Timberlands and all," he smiles. "If this music thing ever lit on fire and the wheels fell off, I'd go right back into construction."
Pug often cut his University of North Carolina classes to frequent the campus library, where he'd spiral through Hemingway, gorging on Fitzgerald, Carver, and Dos Passos. Now three albums deep, his lyrics exude literary influence, fictively rich with wartime imagery and hymnal prose. Steinbeck and Whitman's thumb prints are as palpable as Dylan and Prine's.
The handyman's debut EP, 2008's startlingly poetic Nation of Heat, propelled him toward revered Windy City venues like the Double Door, plus an opening slot supporting Steve Earle.
"This might make me sound like a jackass," cautions Pug, "but I knew there was something special about the songs I was writing at that time. I was on fire. On board the Holy Spirit freight train."
Overcast calm belies the underlying edge of this pre-South by Southwest Sunday. Soon, Pug will preview his third album Windfall in-store at Waterloo Records, teaser local gig to his quartet's record release show at Red 7. The new LP outsold its predecessor in pre-orders alone.
In the store's parking lot, the songsmith slides into the driver's seat of his band's slightly seedy 2001 Chevy Express tour van. Behind him, evidence of an on-the-road existence lies scattered: a container of engine oil, half-empty Coke bottles, stocked merch bin. A parcel of untouched hardcovers protrudes.
"Some guy sent me his novel!" exclaims the singer, incredulous. "A fan briefly mentioned it to me after my show one night. Next thing I know, this huge box shows up at my front door! I don't know what to do with them all."
Above piercing, ice-blue eyes, his brow furrows.
"Maybe I shouldn't have given him my home address."
Playing solo, the chambray-clad singer charms a dense crowd; many sing softly along with older songs. He speaks often and amiably between tunes. As usual, Nation's fingerpicked "Hymn 101" stuns supreme, as the troubadour vows: "The more I buy the more I'm bought / The more I'm bought the less I cost."
"Wow," mouths a guy nearby. Unlike most others clapping, he simply bows his head.
Austin signifies a clean slate for Pug and his now fiancée, a fellow musician and eighth-grade teacher. In 2010, the former high school sweethearts reconnected after nearly a decade apart. With her living in D.C., the couple shot south to start anew.
"Austin's the city for at-heart Texans who aren't voting for Mitt Romney anytime soon," quips the soon-to-be bridegroom.
Playing 180 club gigs annually, he's home roughly half of each year.
"I tour like guys in the Fifties and Sixties did," compares Pug, citing Carl Perkins and Elvis' "Vaudeville-like" approach. "You've gotta get your hands dirty in this business. I meet the promoters, I pump the gas. I'm also the guy in the broom closet at the end of each night counting $20 bills with the bar manager.
"I walk into venues with my clipboard," he continues. "I meet the production manager, talk with the merchandise handler. Sometimes, it's not until I hop onstage for soundcheck a half hour later that the staff realizes I'm the same guy whose name's on their marquee!"
The avid reader loosely quotes late sci-fi author Robert Heinlein, who notably insisted a person should be as able to build a wall and butcher a hog as he is to write a sonnet or cook a meal.
"Renaissance knowledge is pretty badass," concludes Pug, conceding that while vigorous touring yields a staunch following nationwide, his home base may have taken the hit. "We've yet to have that big Austin show. That show where everything clicks."
Two days prior to his 31st birthday, the singer hosts a small celebration at his modest home. The smoky savor of slow-cooked barbecued pork wafts. Nearby, Pug's manager produces a Ziploc of sumac-seeped meat rub, the fellow Chicago transplant prudently handling the clear baggie like pricey primo dope.
The pair discovered Silkworm bassist Tim Midyett's seasoning after reading famed Chicago producer Steve Albini's epicurean nod in Bon Appétit. A cloud of grill smoke suddenly engulfs the table.
"Your comfort will be sacrificed for the integrity of this barbecue," shrugs Pug.
Waxing wistful in light of his birth anniversary, he brandishes a bottle of mezcal – a gift – emptying a small pour for himself before coolly concealing it from his thirsty guests. He checks the dimming sky for rain clouds, of which suddenly there are many.
"This new album's no different than my last," he considers. "Except now, my band has a few more years under our belts. That's an asset for my style of music. 'Singer-songwriters,' as opposed to indie-rock groups, start hitting their strides around age 35, riding that sweet-spot of creativity well into their 50s.
"Take Tom Petty," he poses. "Or Lucinda Williams, or Neko Case. The albums those artists made at those ages mark their glory days. Good songwriting takes time. Articulating what you want to say – and well – is hard. Not everyone realizes that."
Pug's acuity in propria persona matches the maturity of his lyrics. He's an old soul, but bears a sprightly, slightly formulaic work track.
"Everything's moving in the right direction," he reflects, emptying his glass. "No matter how long it sometimes feels to be taking. Finally though, I'm seeing eight years of hard work pay off."
Joe Pug's local release show for Windfall is Saturday, May 16, at Red 7.