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Joe Pug's tenuous grasp on reality; stained glass with an edge

Feb 12, 2020
Originally published on February 12, 2020 9:40 am

Two questions into this phone interview, where 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."

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The interview resumes. Here's what happens when Pug's not home:

He tours. On Monday, Feb. 17, he's at the Good Luck restaurant. He plays songs from the albums and EPs he's been releasing since 2007. The latest, "The Flood in Color," came out last summer.

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.

"Those tend to be ones that are the best because I do have a tenuous grasp on them, because I am, I'm kind of, I'm writing from a frame of mind that's almost subliminal, that's not on the surface, that's a little bit deeper, and lower archetypal."

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. 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. Pug was able to put away the hammer and tour, actually make money playing music. After three or four years of that, 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."

Remember high-school economics class? Supply and demand.

"I was studying guys like Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Ray Wylie Hubbard, David Halley, Tex Thomas, like all these guys," Pug says. "Maybe what I took away from them was, all of them had a sense of dignity to 'em that I think is really important if you're going to carve out a middle-class career in the music business. And all of them had a commitment to process and working hard and writing all the time and writing constantly that I took away from them. Ultimately, anytime I would flirt with appropriating some part of their sound, it felt like exactly that, it felt like appropriation, and it didn't feel like my authentic voice.

"I learned some lessons from these guys, but I think my sound sounds different than what they've been putting out."

The process is like watching these songwriters through what Pug calls "a jagged prism," through which he'll see "something that resembles my own voice."

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. Veteran songwriters whose careers, Pug imagined, must have been a smooth, 45-degree upward angle to success.

But, no.

"Their progressions forward are always filled with digressions and standstills and tar pits that they fall into," Pug says. "It's been really helpful to hear that from people who I always just assumed, wow, everything just went that person's way, it was great and they immediately had a ton of fans and a lot of money and all that. That just hasn't been the case with anyone I talked to."

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 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 17, at Good Luck, 50 Anderson St. Matthew Wright opens. Tickets ($30, plus a $3.60 fee) are available at eventbrite.com.

Stained glass with an edge

There is a sense of otherworldly holiness to the intensely detailed, stained-glass images of Judith Schaechter. But this is not the kind of artistry and craftsmanship expected of a church setting. "The Path to Paradise: Judith Schaechter's Stained-Glass Art" opens Sunday, Feb. 16, at the Memorial Art Gallery, 500 University Ave. 

Her work features complex patterns of snakes, or disturbing figures seemingly overwhelmed by their surroundings. Schaechter produces light boxes, with images of challenging subject matter: "Murdered Animal" depicts what appears to be a panther, shot dead. A panel called "Immigration Policy" is a typical blend of beauty – flora and fauna – framing a sinking sailing ship.

The exhibit is accompanied by a diverse set of programs. Schaechter, who is from Philadelphia, talks about her work at 1 p.m. Feb. 16, with a 3 p.m. performance by the Rochester vocal group fivebyfive of four works commissioned especially for "The Path to Paradise." Fivebyfive also plans on touring with the music, and creating a documentary. Rochester's innovative dance troupe, Biodance, will be accompanied by projected images created by W. Michelle Harris for "Bridge to Paradise" on 7 p.m. Feb. 27 and 2 p.m. March 1. MAG curator Jessica Marten talks about the pieces, "Breaking Beauty: Judith Schaechter at MAG," at 7 p.m. March 5. "What Constitutes Art: ROC Tattoo Community" is a panel of local tattoo artists discussing art, with the $10 fee including admission to the museum, a little cheese and a tattoo demo at 6:30 p.m. April 9. Marten returns for another tour of the exhibition at 2 p.m. May 9.

Also of note, "Especially for Educators: Stained Glass and the Modern Art of Judith Schaechter" is at 4:30 p.m. Feb. 26. Chelsea Anderson, formerly with Rochester's Pike Stained Glass Studios, explains the creation of stained glass windows and leads a hands-on activity appropriate for a classroom. Registration and prepayment ($15) is through Anderson at cander35@mag.rochester.edu or (585) 276-8971.

Admission to these events (with the exception of the cost of the tattoo panel and the educators' event, both of which include admission to the museum collection) is the usual MAG charge of $15, $12 for seniors and $6 for college students with an ID and children ages 6 to 18.

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