Arts Desk

Can Joe Pug Save Folk Music?

Social commentary, especially in music, is a tricky act: too blunt, audience rolls its eyes; too fine, audience scratches its head. "Whitman once explained that poetry's not supposed to confuse people," Joe Pug–local boy and folk icon-in-waiting–said in an interview last summer. At the same time, musicians that merely trot out talking points or shout buzz words while beating a defenseless instrument may be dismayed to find their art doesn't last.

Notwithstanding overeager proclamations from the occasional starry-eyed critic, folk has yet to find its next prophet. (Remember when it was supposed to be Conor Oberst?) Last year, the restless Greenbelt native Pug (last name shortened from Pugliese) dropped out of college and promptly yanked the sword out the stone. For a man of 23, Pug struck a remarkable balance between innuendo and clarity in his 2008 debut EP, Nation of Heat. He uses old tools (voice, guitar, harmonica), long verses, and one-line choruses, letting his lyrics stand on their own legs. His delivery is at once cocky and sincere, pressing notes to the roof of his mouth and spilling his melodies over the chord changes. Pug is a student of the old school, and his influences are pretty apparent–although in the interest of avoiding hypocrisy, I've promised myself not to use the "D" word until he puts out a proper album.

Pug doesn't sing protest songs, exactly. The EP's title track, "Nation of Heat," is a scattershot critique of the pressures and contradictions of American life, but it's more a portrait than a polemic. "Hymn 101," "Hymn 35," and "I Do My Father's Drugs," meanwhile, address not political questions but existential ones: Why have I come here? What am I? How can I define myself in contradistinction to my forebears? These are relevant questions for anyone, but especially for an anachronism like Pug. The answers he offers on Nation of Heat are full of passion and irreverence and confusion and the kind of chilling poetry that you feel right between your shoulderblades. But Pug's first full-length album–which is expected this year, despite his marathon touring schedule–will have some big questions of its own to answer: Can Joe Pug save folk for his generation? If so, will his generation notice?

Pug will be sharing a stage with alt.-country legend Steve Earle in Richmond and Charlottesville on June 6th and 9th. If you were like me and missed Pug when he came to the Black Cat the other week, I highly recommend that you make the trip–and I highly recommend that you give me a ride.

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  • Mars

    With all due respect, author, by the time that full-length drops, you'll hopefully have discovered significant DIFFERENCES between Pug and "D."

    Joe sings better: far, brilliantly better, with his own style that is deceptively simple and frighteningly vulnerable. What this guy does -- seemingly without forethought -- with an itty bitty grace note is intoxicating.

    Joe's lyrics are rich enough to give you food for thought until lines like, "It ain't rare to hear the streetlights call themselves Stars" are welling up in your mouth while you're in the grocery store check-out line. And while he says words shouldn't confuse people, he doesn't shy away from speaking the serious complexities of being human, being American, being young -- even though the majority of the population wouldn't "get" most of it if they accidentally landed face first into a bucket of it. Judging by his work, Joe is smart enough to know that. He writes it anyway.

    Joe is followed around by a crescendo of a mob that uses certain words over and over. One is "Intimate." It's rare to watch someone perform in a way that feels like he's completely alone exploring his innermost trials of the soul, while also repeatedly reaching out into the audience completely open, raw, like he's giving all of that moment to you for safe-keeping.

    Personally I think it's already his time to be the icon of a genre. Not really being into folk myself, I'm not sure what label works best.

    Back in the day, my mom owned every Dylan and Baez album, alongside half of what came out of Motown -- not that we were some kind of rare Black working class folk music household, but because those artists expressed a slice of an era our parents didn't dare leave for the newspapers or our Polaroid to save for us. And I don't know what I'd call THIS era either. But Joe Pug is no throwback -- he's one of the voices of this time that will be, and truly needs to be, remembered. Not so he can save the Folk genre, but because he's showing us some tools for saving ourselves.

  • Weeping Sore

    Pug's lyrics are timeless, and that's why he is so hard to pigeon-hole in a genre, style, or homage-to-D, let alone age group. What I like is that I can't tell whether the melody/harmony came first, or the words. They fit. They stick inside, profound ear-worms that keep meaning something different every time I listen. He's good.

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