You'd have a tough time finding a harder-working artist on the club circuit these days than Chicago-via-Chapel Hill indie troubadour Joe Pug. When he plays at Local 506 next week, it will be his fourth visit to Chapel Hill in 13 months. The first was opening for Justin Townes Earle at The ArtsCenter; the last three have been as a headliner at 506. He's been on the road pretty much constantly the past year to promote Messenger, the full-length debut that followed his auspicious debut, the 2008 EP Nation of Heat.
"Indie troubadour" is perhaps a slightly awkward phrase, but it provides a closer cue to Pug's identity than the standard singer-songwriter tag. His acoustic-based music has that Guthrie-esque, hard-traveling spirit, sure, but he's also firmly planted in the modern DIY world. He self-released his first record and played hundreds of shows by himself before recruiting a backing band last year. The supporting musicians help him get a better handle on Messenger's somewhat more fleshed-out songs, but Pug admits he's still working out the details.
"Frankly, it's been tumultuous," he says. "Finding the magical combination of a band that can play well for two hours and then get along for the other 22 hours has been challenging. It would be easy to keep doing the solo show that I know like the back of my hand. That just doesn't excite me anymore, though."
This time around, he's touring with upright bassist Chris Merrill and electric guitarist Greg Tuohey. Pug has tentative plans to return to the studio this summer, again with a band. Performing with a band has affected how he approaches his next record. "Unfortunately it has," he says, intriguingly. "I put it like that because, writing my first record, I knew there would be no accompaniment and that the songs would have to stand on their own two feet. Hopefully I can resist the lazy impulse of saying to myself in the writing room, 'Nothing a guitar solo won't fix.'"
While awaiting those next sessions, Pug recorded a split single with Pennsylvania songwriter Timothy Showalter, aka Strand of Oaks, in which each artist covers one of the other's songs. The two are touring together as well. "After listening to his record, it just seemed obvious" to do the single, Pug says. "His music is beautiful without being precious. We feel fortunate to have him out on the road with us, because it won't be long before folks are opening for him."
The same might have been said of Pug during his college days at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill a few years back—that is, if he'd been playing music. Pug was a theater student as a Tar Heel, but he does have fond memories of checking out other musicians along Franklin Street, including one in particular.
"When I was attending Carolina, John Howie was playing semiweekly sets at the Cave," he recalls. "I think I attended every one. After I heard You Ruined Everything [by Howie's previous band, the Two Dollar Pistols], I fell in love with his voice, his songwriting sensibility, his poetry. I admire him deeply and aspire to what he's achieved as a writer."
That might be possible, as Pug has come a long way quickly since those dawning days. Last summer, for instance, he found himself living the dream on a festival stage in Vancouver, singing "The Weight" along with Levon Helm's band and Elvis Costello. That's heady company for a guy still in his mid-20s, but he has a wise way of looking at such things.
"It's always good to be in just a little bit more water than you're used to being in," he says, "and just barely keeping your mouth above it, taking in those breaths."