Heartstrings Interview

A Cup of Joe: An Interview with Joe Pug


One of our favorite places to visit while at Americanafest, was Crema—a cozy and bright Coffee shop, located slightly off the city of Nashville’s beaten path. If you’re ever in Nashville, make it a point to visit Crema and sample their “hand poured” (brewing technique) coffees. I recommend the Ngila Reserve with apricot. No need for dairy or soy or sugar. Sooooo good! This was the setting for our much anticipated interview with Joe Pug. Joe was gracious enough to delay his travels to his next performance (in Louisville) so that he could meet with us. By the way, Joe also takes his coffee black and we’re glad to have had time for a cup with Joe.

Lauren Jahoda: I was speaking with Gregory Alan Isakov just last week and your name came up. He mentioned how much he loves you. What great friends you are.

Joe Pug: Yeah, we are good buddies.

LJ: He seems like the sweetest guy ever.

JP: He is but he has a real wild streak too. We run into each other…we cross paths quite a bit and every time we do, we just end up staying up really late and drinking way too much and having to go to our respective gigs the next day (laughs).

LJ: Have you ever played a show together?

JP: We played, um, like this weird songwriter thing that was in Denver a year or two ago and that’s where we first kinda touched base. We’ve just run into each other a lot since then.

LJ: Yeah, you, him, the Tallest Man on Earth and Newport Folk Festival sealed the deal for me. I couldn’t escape the pull of this music after that.

JP: That’s great. That’s awesome.

LJ: When you and I met the other night, I had mentioned that I was at your show a few years ago at the Mercury Lounge when you had Anthony D’Amato open for you. I remembered after our conversation that Will Arnett attended that show. I’m sure you get musicians attending all the time. What was it like having him show up?

JP: Me and the whole band, we were all…I literally cannot think of a person we would rather have just randomly turn up at one of our shows. We all love him and all of his work. The Arrested Development stuff…that Blades of Glory movie…all that stuff, man. It was really cool. He just came back…he bought all of the merchandise we had. He left the club with his arms stuffed full of it (laughs).

LJ: Was he a fan before the show or did someone recommend that he go?

JP: A friend of his played some songs for him in California and then he was back in New York and he either lived or was staying near the Mercury Lounge and we were playin’ so he just stopped by (laughs). Yeah.

LJ: That’s so cool. What I love about what you do is that wherever you’re playing, you find someone within that area to open for you and provide them with such a great opportunity. At the Mercury show, you went on stage very late because you had two people open for you. It’s great that you give people the opportunity to get their songs out there.

JP: Yeah, yeah. That’s how it works. People gave me that hand up, so I give to other people too.

LJ: Yeah, reciprocation.

JP: Yeah.

LJ: I want to talk about your Dad a bit, if that’s okay.

JP: Yeah.

LJ: You said he was a musician, which I didn’t know when I met him a few years back at your show. Can you tell me about his music career?

JP: My Dad played all through his 20s and early 30s. He played in a regional band. They were called Sky Cop. They were really inspired by The Band. That was a major inspiration. He was a piano player…he is a piano player. He still… when he had me, he went to work as a carpenter. He did that for about 20 years and then when I went to college he went back to school, got his bachelor’s degree and became a 1st grade teacher. He’s an absolutely unique and inspiring individual. He’s like my, my, main role model. He’s a really cool guy.

LJ: When I met him, he was extremely nice. Very welcoming.

JP: Oh yeah. He has a sort of a quiet charisma about him that everyone gets to know.

LJ: I went to school to be an English teacher but I decided not to pursue that career. It’s so difficult to get a job doing that.

JP: It is. My wife-to-be is a teacher as well. She’s an English teacher. She plays music at night and does this during the day. My dad tells me it’s really difficult.

LJ: Most people don’t realize that you bring work home with you. That’s the thing. You live in Texas right?

JP: Yeah, we live Austin.

LJ: I haven’t been there yet. I’ve been wanting to go.

JP: It’s a great place.

LJ: It’s definitely on my list of places to go. I read that you left college just before your senior year. What led up to that decision?

JP: Yeah. It’s funny. When we were on the last tour, I was with the band, we were all in the van with this guy David Ramirez…

LJ: Oh we love him! We’re going to see him later tonight.

JP: He’s great.

LJ: Yeah. He’s special.

JP: He’s very special. In more ways than one. It was like the 4 or 5 of us in the van and we’re talkin’ and one of us was like, “Yeah, I dropped out of college…” and then another one said it and we realized that everyone in the van dropped out of college (laughs) and so then it got kind of quiet and I forget who said it…I think it was our guitar player Greg…he said “Yep and now we’re sitting in this van right now and this is pretty much where all our parents told us we would be if we dropped out of college (laughs).

LJ: (laughs) It seems like everyone is very content doing it.

JP: It’s the best. It’s… There’s no money in playing music anymore, so it’s about having a calling and you do it because you enjoy it and it’s the most meaningful way you can spend your short years on this earth.

LJ: Everyone I’ve spoken with says the same thing. It’s not about the money.

JP: Yeah.

LJ: What were you studying in college?

JP: Playwriting.

LJ: I knew it. I just finished my Master’s degree in English Literature, so I love the fact that you were/are into that.

JP: Oh cool.

LJ: Do you still write plays?

JP: Nah. I’m more of a…I have to really stick to one thing and concentrate on that. I’m not a very prolific creator in that way. If songs are what we are doing, I need to just slowly concentrate on songs.

LJ: I read somewhere that you said something along those lines – that you only had enough creative juice to get the songs out.

JP: Yeah. That’s pretty much it.

LJ: I had a couple of ideas with the playwriting thing (laughs). A friend and I were we’re tossing around the idea of you writing the music and lyrics for a play – that’s sort of the happy combination of the two (laughs).

JP: Musical theater. There ya go (laughs).

LJ: It seems like you are very much into poetry and literature. I read somewhere that you’re a big fan of Walt Whitman.

JP: Yeah.

LJ: We’re actually from Walt Whitman’s hometown in New York.

JP: Oh really?

LJ: You wouldn’t believe it but, there’s a huge mall there that’s called the Walt Whitman Mall, which is a complete contradiction to everything that was Walt Whitman (laughs).

JP: Sounds like a nightmare.

LJ: It’s a complete nightmare. What are you reading now?

JP: I just finished….I’m reading all non-fiction these days…and ah, I just finished Timothy Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name about the later era of the Civil Rights Movement, and now I’m started to read a book The Warmth Of Other Suns. It’s about the Great Migration. Black Americans coming up from the south up to the northeast and Midwest during the middle of the century. It’s really good stuff.

LJ: Yeah, I’ve delved pretty heavily into the Emmett Till story myself and it stays with me always. It changed me.

JP: It’s one of the most iconic and horrifying moments of our nation’s conscience. All those pictures were published in Jet Magazine, from his funeral.

LJ: His mother is the most brilliant woman in the world because, if it wasn’t for her, no one would know about it. She made sure to bring it to everyone’s attention.

LJ: We love your newsletter. It’s really refreshing to see and hear about what you’re doing.

JP: I like doing it. It’s really good because the type of music I play. … I think the best way to put it is that I would literally sit down and drink a beer with 95% of the people who come to our shows. Ya know what I mean?

LJ: Yeah.

JP: They are some really cool folks. It’s like a community. They really are. I really feel like I just travel around the country and there’re these people who have a similar world view as I do and we go to the same place and drink a bunch of beer and hang out. It’s a great thing.

LJ: It is. We keep coming back to this idea of the Americana ecosystem. Everyone finds and relies on each other. That’s why we love it here so much.

JP: Yeah.

LJ: Everyone is so embracing. It’s really nice.

JP: This festival is in a really good spot. It’s not too small and not too big right now. I don’t know how you keep something that way but this is definitely…I had a great time this weekend.

LJ: Is this your first time here at AmericanaFest?

JP: No. About 3 or 4 years ago we were nominated for somethin’, so we came, but even then it was a different vibe.

LJ: I know we’re short on time, and I just wanted to ask you… the hymn songs are my favorites, always have been… what’s the story behind naming them hymns?

JP: Well, I just think the reason I named those three songs that is because they are cut from the same cloth. I did one and then the other two just came.

LJ: Is the 101 some kind of reference to like a first course, as in school?

JP: Ya know, I don’t know. I had someone ask me once…His thought was.. are those the highways you were riding on when you wrote those songs? And I was like damn, I really wish that was the answer to that question (laughs).

LJ: That’s great! Just say “yes” (laughs). That’s exactly it (laughs). Seriously, they’re amazing, they’re stunning.

LJ: Well, I don’t want to keep you. I know you have to get going. Thanks so much for taking time out to meet with us. It really was a pleasure speaking with you

JP: Yeah. Well, it was great to meet you too.

LJ: Thanks Joe. So, where are you headed now?

JP: We’re going to Louisville right now.

LJ:  Well, good luck with everything.

JP: Thanks. You too. Take care.

My interview with Joe Pug was special to me. In speaking with him and with other artists at AmericanaFest, it was clear that they share a thriving brotherhood, a mutual admiration of each other’s craft, and a genuine appreciation of who they are as individuals, friends and fellow travelers upon the Americana trail. This Americana community has so much to offer to every fan, every venue, and every city or town that is fortunate enough to be embraced by it. It is self sustaining in the most wonderful way. It’s focus on the inherent worth of the music it brings, leaves no room for greed or pretense, and instead, creates bonds of friendship. And what more could anyone ask for… besides a great cup of Joe?


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