Joe Pug and Anna Tivel at the Cat’s Cradle

Sometime around 2010 someone gave me a seven-song EP called Nation of Heat by a Chicago singer/songwriter named Joe Pug. It was very much unlike most of the acoustic music I had been hearing during that time period; it was thought-provoking, deep and literate. And much like Dylan, a bit obscure: several songs called “Hymns” and some devastating comments on American life in “I Take My Father’s Drugs” and “Nation of Heat.” It was a full-throated true folk collection of songs.

Joe Pug 📸: Rick Davidson

Shortly after that he released a full album, Messenger, that cemented his place in the growing indie-folk movement.  He tours primarily in the North and Midwest, but I got an opportunity to see him at the Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill, which was interesting, as he left UNC/Chapel Hill in his senior year of college to move to Chicago, where his career started. He worked open mic nights, and before long his true folk-inspired songs were being compared to his influences: Dylan, Springsteen, and Zevon. His most formative experience was opening for Steve Earle on his Townes Van Zandt tribute tour, which he says had a profound effect on his ability to perform as a singer/songwriter.

Joe Pug 📸: Rick Davidson

For five years Pug has hosted a podcast called The Working Songwriter, with more than 200 interviews with writers. He’s a no-holds barred writer. His songs echo sadness, joy, guilt, and loss. That first album, Nation of Heat, was critically acclaimed and, as an example of his literary roots, was inspired by Walt Whitman. He switches seamlessly from guitar to piano, with classic folk-style harp accompaniment. One of his best known songs, “Hymn 101,” is a song that needs unraveling, like most of his works. Set against the background of a religious song, it’s much more than that.

And I’ve come to roam the forest past the village
With a dozen lazy horses in my cart.
I’ve come here to get high
To do more than just get by
I’ve come to test the timber of my heart.
Oh I’ve come to test the timber of my heart.

And I’ve come to be untroubled in my seeking.
And I’ve come to see that nothing is for naught.
I’ve come to reach out blind
To reach forward and behind
For the more I seek the more I’m sought
Yeah, the more I seek the more I’m sought.

“My Father’s Drugs” could have easily been a song of the ’60s folk movement. But his point is that the tradition of folk songs is not over but needs to be continued in today’s political environment.

When hunger strikes are fashion

And freedom is routine
All in all the streets in Cleveland are named for Martin Luther King
You will see me at the protest
But you’ll notice that i drag
I burn my father’s flag

So when the party starts on Monday
And Christmas starts in June
When no one minds I’ve just arrived and I’ll be leaving soon
If I return with eyes half-opened
Don’t ask me where I was
I do my father’s drugs
I do my father’s drugs

He did his touching anti-war song “Bury Me Far From My Uniform” and then made things a little lighter with an ode to financial challenges for road musicians with “I Don’t Work in a Bank.” He noted he had lost two of his major influences and covered songs by John Prine and Justin Townes Earle.  The beautiful “Oh My Chesapeake” and “Nation of Heat” rounded out his set. His closing number took him away from the mic and into the crowd as he encouraged everyone to sing along with the Guy Lombardo chestnut “Enjoy Yourself, It’s Later Than You Think,” which remarkably seemed to be a perfect fit for his edgy writing.

His most recent release is an entire re-recording of “Nation of Heat” with an electric band, as opposed to the original simple acoustic rendering of his songs. He’s a real-life folk singer, electric or not, and his words are carefully wrought and insightful.

Blockin’ borders with smiles are immigrant sons
we measure loneliness and miles and misery in tons
There’s a straw-hatted man rowing away from the shore
Who says, “It’s a shame they don’t let you have slaves here anymore”
I’m the ugliest man that you’ll ever meet
I come from the nation of heat


Anna Tivel 📸: Rick Davidson

I was also drawn to the show because his opener was Anna Tivel, a Portland-based singer who is becoming known as one of the great young songwriters/storytellers, and she lived up to the buzz. Her set was an eye-opener. Sounding at times like a young Shawn Colvin, her quiet soft voice belies the strength of her lyrics. A true wordsmith, her songs resonate with insight; “Heroes,” from her most recent album Outsiders, paints a stark picture of a road musician and how tragic that life can be. “The Question” is a tender portrayal of transgender issues. “Astrovan” describes a relationship in emotions that everyone has felt but cannot express. She is a literary writer, delving into places many don’t, with great character development. She was a great complement to Pug, and it was a great evening for someone like me who loves great writing.



The Working Songwriter Podcast






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