The lone ranger
Singer-songwriter Joe Pug may play with a full band, but this is still a one-man show
If the modern music industry can be compared to the frontier West—rough, uncharted but full of promise—then, surely, Joe Pug is its Lone Ranger.
In fact, although Pug employed a full band on his latest album, The Great Despiser—a departure from previous, stripped-down acoustic efforts—this remains, arguably, a one-man show.
A few years back, Pug, who opens for Joe Ely at Harlow’s Restaurant & Nightclub on Wednesday, relocated from Chicago to Austin, Texas, but not so he could hobnob in one of the country’s most well-known music cities.
“I spend most of my time on the road, and when I’m not, I’m usually at my house, writing—I’m not really a part of the Austin scene,” he says.
That’s intentional, he says.
“I don’t need to be inspired [by other musicians]—I get inspirations from albums and books,” he says. “I just need a quiet house where I can get my thoughts together.”
Still, Pug fits in nicely in the Live Music Capital of the World with music that falls squarely into the Americana vein, echoing the sounds and themes of iconic artists such as Bob Dylan, John Prine and Steve Earle. These are guitar-based songs that rely as much on Pug’s throaty, despondent voice and introspective lyrics as they do on his deceptively simple song structures.
Pug first picked up a guitar as a teen, but eventually, music gave way to an interest in theater—which he studied in college before dropping out the day before he was set to start his senior year.
College, he says, just didn’t feel necessary anymore.
“Nothing against the people who teach, but I wanted to be a writer who was writing from my own point of view and telling my own story,” he says. “No one can teach you that, you just have to go ahead and do it.”
And so living alone in Chicago, he turned to songwriting.
“You can’t do a play by yourself, you can’t do a movie by yourself, but you can sit down and write an album alone,” he says.
That was in the mid-2000s, and in the years since, Pug’s also quit his day job as a carpenter to devote himself to music. In 2010, he signed to the indie label Lightning Rod Records, which released his debut album The Messenger in 2010.
The evolution from that disc to his latest, Pug says, is subtle.
“I’ve gotten better at being able to channel melodies and [song] meters from a place that’s a little more unconscious, a little less premeditated,” he says. “I’ve become better at being able to get myself out of the way.”
He’s also logged numerous touring miles, headlining intimate venues as well as opening on larger stages for the likes of John Hiatt.
It’s those smaller shows however, that best epitomize Pug’s independent streak. On one solo tour, for example, the singer circumvented traditional methods by offering fans direct ticket-purchasing options with no or low-cost service fees.
“I got tired of going to shows myself and having them tell me it was a $20 ticket only to have $26 show up on my credit card,” he says. “It’s bullshit.”
Although he hasn’t had time lately to expand or refine the service, Pug says it’s just one example of how the music industry is changing.
“You hear a lot of artists and record labels piss and moan about the state of the music business, but I feel lucky to be a part of it,” he says.
And with various digital platforms serving to democratize the process, he adds, now is the time to take advantage of the freedoms that the medium still provides.
“It’s like the wild Wild West, [but] 10 years from now, the Internet is going to be … more codified,” he says. “To be here now in this historical transition allows artists to get their hands on the reins before it changes and those doors are closed to us.”