Joe Pug at the Englert | Like Bob Dylan, He’s a Traveling Troubador

Joe Pug wants to get his music out: sign up for a free CD at his website!

Chicago singer-song-writer Joe Pug (born Joe Pugliese) is a musical troubadour who sees himself in the tradition of Bob Dylan and other folk artists that constantly travel and practice their craft. He is currently touring the United Kingdom, playing gigs in Belfast, Manchester, Dublin, London, and more, before returning to the United States in early October and playing 20 shows in 24 days, from Charlottesville, Virginia, to Los Angeles. Moreover, he does not plan to stop there, but hopes to criss-cross America back again in November. 

Pug will perform at the Englert Theatre in Iowa City on October 19, 2010, as part of the Intimate at the Englert series.

This will not be the first time Pug has played Iowa. Most recently, he opened for Justin Townes Earle at the Mill in Iowa City last spring and he hopes to come back to the Hawkeye State soon. “I love Bo Ramsey country,” he quips from Oxford, England. The show at the Englert will be the first time Pug performs in Iowa with a band.

Pug professes a deep affection for Iowa, but admits he is a little anxious about performing here. “As a writer, it’s a bit intimidating to cruise through [Raymond] Carver’s stomping ground,” he says in deference to Iowa City’s reputation as a literary center. However, Pug likes challenges. He has shared stages with some of folk rock’s greatest luminaries, including Justin Townes Earle’s father Steve Earle, the Band’s Levon Helm, Robert Randolph, and M. Ward. These experiences have helped Pug grow as an artist.

He particularly credits his time with Steve Earle as a learning experience. “The pairing with Steve was perfect,” he says. “It was a master’s class in performance. I got to watch his set every night for two months. And I’d like to think I stole a lot of good stuff from him!”

Critics have compared Pug to Steve Earle and Bob Dylan because these musicians all compose overtly literate lyrics. As National Public Radio’s Tamara Vallejos has pointed out, part of the pleasure of listening to Pug is to enjoy “lines that become more complex and compelling the more time you spend untangling their meanings.” His songwriting offers the rewards that one finds in good poetry and prose.

Part of this is due to Pug’s training as a dramatist. After three years as a playwrighting major at the University of North Carolina, Joe quit school to become a musician. He returned to his hometown of Chicago and started to turn his drama compositions into songs. He quickly recorded a sampler CD and started to hand them out free to fans and anyone who attended his shows. He extended the offer even more, starting a website and offering them gratis to anyone who asked—even paying the postage himself. He has sent over 15,000 CDs to people in all 50 states and more than a dozen countries. The offer can still be found on his website,

“That has been my primary means of building an audience. And it has worked great,” Pug says. “I don’t know any other way I could have done it.” He understands how hard it is for someone to pay $15 for a disc without knowing if the person will like it. This was his way of advertising himself and spreading the word.

The wager seems to have paid off. He recently put out his first full-length CD and he says sales have been good. He has no regrets about ditching his career as a dramaturge.

“Music gave me a purpose,” Pug said. “It’s a well so deep, you could never hope to exhuast it.” Although he has been prolifically writing since he changed professions, he is not worried about running out of material. “Music can never truly be mastered. So there’s never a dull moment. I am always learning, trying to improve.” His main aim is to write music that is “straightforward.” But that does not mean simplistic. His favorite albums of all time are Nirvana’s Nevermind and Bob Dylan’s Bringing it All Back Home. Pug’s goal is to combine the strengths of both records in his music.

Or to put in another way, Pug says if he could be any other musician than himself if would be either punk rocker Kurt Cobain or Americana folkie Gillian Welch. While in terms of musical styles, the artists could not be more different, in terms of emotional honesty the two share much in common. They both express raw, honest feelings in a clear and direct manner. And neither of the two shies away from the dark side of life.

When I ask if he sees life as a glass half empty or half full, Pug responds, “Completely full.” He’s no pessimist, but Pug believes at looking at the world realistically and finding the good that is out there. That’s why he continues to write new material, because there is always something new to see and something new to say.

And Pug strives to be honest, even when it’s embarrassing. “The first record I ever bought, sadly, was an Aerosmith record when I was ten,” he says. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. Pug may have higher aspirations now than to become a rock star, but there are far worse sins.

Without naming names, Pug confesses, “Whenever I meet songwriters that I look up to, I never fail to make an ass of myself. I turn into a stammering, sweaty fanboy. It’s awful.” But he says his goal is to keep on meeting his idols, and to keep on writing the truth about himself and the world as he sees it. For those who go to sit onstage with Pug and his band as they perform at the Englert Theatre, don’t be embarrassed to thank him for his music. He will consider it an honor.

Tickets to the October 19 concert are only available at the door. Audience members enter through the back alley entrance. Seating will be on stage only. For  more information, visit

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