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Joe Pug, middle-class troubadour 

Two questions into this phone interview, in which singer-songwriter Joe Pug is at his home in Maryland, he’s called away to an emergency.

“I have to go poopy.”

A few minutes later, 3-year-old Rudy’s all squared away and has settled in front of the television for some cartoons.

Poopy. “That’s the stay-at-home dad life,” Joe Pug says. “When I’m not on the road, I’m at home with my kids.”

The interview resumes. Here’s what happens when Pug’s not home: He tours. On Monday, February 17, he’s at Restaurant Good Luck. He plays songs from the albums and EPs he’s been releasing since 2007. The latest, “The Flood in Color,” came out last summer.
click to enlarge “I prefer to let it be a blank canvas for people to project their own feelings and ideas onto,” Joe Pug says of his songs. - PHOTO BY DAVE CREANEY
  • PHOTO BY DAVE CREANEY
  • “I prefer to let it be a blank canvas for people to project their own feelings and ideas onto,” Joe Pug says of his songs.
He explains himself: “I know I wake up in the morning and think about all of the ways I screwed up the day before, and all the ways I’m likely to screw up today,” he says. “We can really flagellate ourselves for those things. I guess that’s where that line came from.”

Here’s that line: “No god is cruel enough/ To pay me back in kind.”

That’s lyrical gold, from his song “Exit,” from “The Flood in Color.” It reeks of sadness, and is just opaque enough that the listener isn’t quite sure where Pug is coming from. Regret? A broken relationship? Maybe from everywhere — pick your spot. It’s a poetic line, a literate line, one that suggests the self-flagellation runs very deep, indeed.

“I prefer to let it be a blank canvas for people to project their own feelings and ideas onto,” Pug says. “I think the songs of mine that I think are the best — and therefore are the songs that end up making albums that I actually put out — those tend to be ones that I don’t really have a good grasp of what they’re about.”

Pug grew up in Maryland, and studied playwriting at the University of North Carolina. Then, in a biographical note that seems to appear in every story about Pug, on the day before he was to start his senior year, he just left. He decided he didn’t want to write plays; he wanted to write songs. He got in his car and drove.

“I was 100 percent sure of where I was going,” he says. Chicago. “I really believed in myself. I knew how to make a living on a job site. I left on a Wednesday, by the following Monday I was already living in a rented room and working as a laborer for $15 an hour.”

Construction work isn’t exactly songwriting. But a lot of songwriters get their start that way.

“I knew that I had something inside of me that was beating creatively, that I was pretty sure some people would respond to,” he says.

And they have responded to it. After three or four years, Pug was able to put away the hammer and tour, and actually make money playing music. He moved to Texas — a state whose main industries are oil, barbecue, and songwriters. And the latter is fueled by what’s in front of the stage.

“I think it has to do with the audience,” Pug says. “And there is now, and there has been in the past, for many years, an audience that is hungry for this sort of troubadour style, these narrative songs. They’re hungry for lyrics that have been labored over, they’re hungry for kind of a rough-hewn poetry.

“And because of that, they go to bars and fill ’em up, and people can make livings in Texas, writing these beautiful songs and traveling around and doing it. And there’s not a music scene like that all over the U.S., and just not a tradition like that all over the place. It’s a very regional tradition. And you know, when there’s a demand for something, then you have many people showing up to fill that.”

click to enlarge across_the_universe_logo.jpg
By age 24, Pug was opening for Steve Earle, who has appeared on Pug’s last Friday of every month podcast, “The Working Songwriter.” Every month, Pug will talk to someone like Lee Ann Womack, Josh Ritter or Hayes Carll, and they’ll set straight all aspiring tunesmiths. Often the advice is what Pug calls “a meta-truth.” They all speak it.

Those conversations happen on the road, as well. Pug was backstage at a show, puffing away at a cigarette, when Earle came up to him.

“He’s telling me, like, ‘Don’t do that, man.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, Steve, I like cigarettes.’
“He’d say, ‘Well, I liked heroin, I had to give that up.’”

Pug plays Monday, February 17, 7 p.m. at Good Luck, 50 Anderson Street. Matthew Wright opens. Tickets ($30, plus a $3.60 fee) are available through Eventbrite at honestfolkpresents.com.

Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.

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