For the moment, Joe Pug has it figured out, career if not life: Just
write the songs that have to be written, play them for anybody who will
listen, tour as if you had no home. Oh, and give your music away. Which
isn’t to say he won’t be selling his debut full-length offering,
Messenger ( Released 2/16/2010 on Lightning Rod). But free is how he
came to make it, more or less.
It worked like this, for
Joe Pug anyhow: The day before his senior year as a playwright student
at the University of North Carolina, he sat down for a cup of coffee and
had the clearest thought of his life: I am profoundly unhappy here.
Then came the second clearest.
Pug packed up his belongings and
pointed his car towards Chicago. Working as a carpenter by day, the 23
year-old Pug spent nights playing the guitar he hadn’t picked up since
his teenage years. Using ideas originally slated for a play he was
writing called “Austin Fish,” Pug began creating the sublime lyrical
arrangements that would become the Nation of Heat EP.
were recorded fast and fervently at a Chicago studio where a friend
snuck him in to late night slots other musicians had canceled. He was
short on money, but his bare-boned sincerity didn’t require much more
than a microphone and it dripped off of each note he sang.
early rumblings of critical praise for the EP were confirmed when his
first headlining gig sold out Chicago’s storied Schubas Tavern in 2008.
As word spread, Pug struck upon an idea that would later prove to be one
of the most significant in his young career. He offered his existing
fans unlimited copies of a free 2-song sampler CD to pass along to their
friends. He sent the CDs out at his own expense, even covering the
postage. Inside each package was a personal note thanking the fan for
helping to spread the word. The response was overwhelming, and to date
he has sent out over 15,000 CDs to 50 states and 14 different countries.
Without access to radio, Pug managed to turn his fans into his very own
broadcast system. The offer still stands, and to this day it’s featured
prominently on www.joepugmusic.com.
“Look, in the end, I just trust my fans, and the nature of people in
general. I need to pay my bills like anyone else does. But I also don’t
think it’s right to ask someone to pay $15 when they don’t know what
they’re getting. So in a way by sending out these CDs, I’m wagering that
they’ll like my music, and that if they do they’ll come to shows, buy
CDs, and help me spread the word even further. And so far I’ve been
proven right. Without question, the more sampler CDs I send out, the
more music I sell.”
Nation of Heat took on a life of its own,
passing from friend to friend and iPod to iPod. The crowds swelled and
the media took notice. Tours with Steve Earle, M. Ward, and Josh Ritter
followed, as did invitations to Lollapalooza and the Newport Folk
Festival. He crisscrossed the country incessantly, traveling mostly
alone in his 1995 Plymouth Voyager with no stereo or air conditioning.
As the tours went on, he became closely linked to the burgeoning
indie-folk scene that was coalescing loosely around Pug and his young
contemporaries in bands such as The Low Anthem, Langhorne Slim, and
After over 200 shows, Pug took a brief respite
to record his full-length debut. If Nation of Heat heralded the arrival
of a talent to watch, Messenger assigns Pug a deserved spot among the
finest songwriters of his generation. From the opening notes of the
title track that leads off the record, it’s clear that the artist has no
intention of retreating to the comfortable or the familiar. While the
scathing war indictment “Bury Me Far (From My Uniform)” and the sparse,
poetic “Unsophisticated Heart” illustrate that Pug is still a master of
the guy-and-guitar song, it’s the supporting cast Pug brought on board
that truly brings out the record’s subtle beauty.
haunting, ethereal pedal steel guitar that sneaks delicately under “The
Sharpest Crown” to the barrelhouse rhythm section that propels “The Door
Is Always Open”, it’s clear that Pug is as comfortable exploring this
new territory as he is solo. “The first record, it was a breeze,” he
says. “Didn’t even know we were making it, just me and a guitar…the
songs completely unadorned. This one, it’s like that thing where there’s
an explosion and you realize how many options there are in the world.”