Robin Wheeler

November 8, 2012

Originally published at

"The whole reason I do this in the first place is because I feel like I have something to say.": An interview with Joe Pug

October 27 and 28, on the eve of Superstorm Sandy and in the shadow of the the construction at Ground Zero in Manhattan, Joe Pug took the stage at Pace University  to thank the man who created his job - Woody Guthrie.

Woody Guthrie's daughter Nora asked Pug's friend and frequent tour mate Justin Townes Earle to curate two nights of music from the current generation who are working in her father's spirit. Earle invited Pug, The Low Anthem and Deer Tick's John McCauley to represent the continuation of Guthrie's singer-songwriter legacy, punctuated with Guthrie biographer Joe Klein reading passages from his beloved "Woody Guthrie: A Life."

While most of the audience bought tickets to see Earle, the murmurings after the shows focused on Pug's impassioned performances. I kept hearing Pug's name attached to variations of "I'd never heard of him before tonight, but he was incredible!"

Not that Pug didn't have a fan base prior to the show. Justin's troubadour papa, Steve Earle, brought Pug to his son's attention, forging a pair of kindred songwriting spirits that includes shared tours and stories getting Woody Guthrie-themed rib cage tattoos in western Austalia.

Playing solo for both New York shows, the Austin resident/Chicago native spat out fiery takes of his social commentary - "I Do My Father's Drugs," "Nation of Heat" and "The Great Despiser." While most Guthrie tributes end with a sing-along of "This Land is Your Land," the new generation did it their way, joining voices on Earle's joyful and ominous  "Harlem River Blues" with enough power to make getting covered with dirty water seem like a good idea and not a harbinger of disaster to come.

Pug took time from his tour schedule a few weeks prior to the New York City shows to discuss Guthrie's legacy, songwriting, giving it away and what we can expect from him at Off Broadway on Monday, November 12.

Robin Wheeler: I want to talk to you about your upcoming St. Louis show, but I'm really interested in the two upcoming "In the Spirit of Woody Guthrie" shows you're doing with Justin Townes Earle in New York in at the end of [October]. How did you get involved in this, what will you be doing, and what are your thoughts on the whole thing.

Joe Pug: I got involved in it through Justin's invitation. He's always been a huge advocate for my music and he's really given me a hand up in a lot of ways. I first did a tour with him about three years ago where we did two months straight together on the road. We toured in Australia together. This is just the latest example of Justin helping me out, and helping me be a part of something that's very special. He invited me to this, and I just talked to him about it in more detail at Hardly Strictly. Basically, he's invited other artists who … not only … to say we owe a huge debt to Woody doesn't even describe it. He invented what our job is. It's just a way for us to come and explore that lineage, explore that influence, and pay tribute to him in his centennial year.  

What has Guthrie's influence been on you, besides creating your job?

I think Woody was the first person in American popular culture to complete a synthesis - which is very common now and we take it for granted. A synthesis of someone who is - in the most high-minded and esoteric ways possible - an artist, but also in some of the most pragmatic and basic ways, an entertainer. Again, we really take that for granted. Not only with singer/songwriters who are made to come on like your Bob Dylan or Steve Earle - the social parts. He was that, but this was also someone who was taking old songwriting tropes and putting them in an entertaining package. This was a guy who could keep a room spellbound. That's mastery. It's a mastery that he did for the first time in American popular culture.

You've been generous with your music, giving it away. It's a very Woody Guthrie act. Now that you've gotten a bit of a foothold in the music business, how has that evolved?

It's still one of the bedrock, founding principles of how I'd like to continue my career. It was the only major caveat we came to our record company with when we started negotiating, this needs to continue and it'll happen at any cost. If this can't continue once you've licensed the music, then we won't have a deal. We still give music away for free. Originally it was a program where we'd send people physical copies of the CDs. Considering the amount of requests it became unsustainable, because I'm on the road so much I wasn't able to send the stuff out. We still it on the website. There's songs from every one of my albums available for new listeners. You know, I just really think that, if you believe in what you're doing you should just trust that letting it out there for cultural effect will bring you whatever success you need. I've found that to be the case so far. My life and my career - I've been very lucky. I've been sustained by it.

I yell at musicians for giving away music, but it does work.

Pandora's Box has been opened and there's no way to stuff all that back in there. This is recorded music's new role and new worth in the world. Nothing me or anyone else playing songs these days is going to do about that one way or the other so you might as well roll with it and concentrate on the beautiful parts instead of what you think the derogatory parts are.

Have you had a chance to be in Austin much since you moved there last year, enough to have an influence on what you're writing and playing?

Yeah, yeah. One of the main reasons I moved down to Austin was to see the Texas music that I love so much. I got introduced to this guy's music - Harvey Thomas Young. We ended up covering one of his songs ["Deep Dark Wells"] on our most recent album ["The Great Despiser"]. And I've gotten into the music of Billy Joe Shaver since I've been down there. There's a guy named David Haley. There's been a lot of songwriters I wasn't familiar with before I moved to Texas, but now really think are influential in my writing.

What can we expect when you play St. Louis?

I'll probably sprinkle in a Woody cover or two, but mainly I'll be playing my own material. I'm going to specifically choose songs that I feel have a very direct, discernable line between their writing and Woody's.

Are you starting to look towards what you're going to do next?

Yeah. I've been writing. To me we put this album out and you start working on the next one. It's a very natural cycle. The whole reason I do this in the first place is because I feel like I have something to say. When you finish an album you feel really empty afterwards. We finished recording the last album around this time last year and I felt really empty at that point. But I've continued to write and I feel filled up again. I'm sure a new one won't be too far away.