Jay Farrar and Joe Pug
Points of common interest
Who: Son Volt
When: 7:30pm Thurs., Oct. 17
Who: Joe Pug
When: 7pm Sun., Oct. 20
Where: Wild Buffalo, 208 W. Holly St.
Wednesday, October 16, 2019
At the surface, there doesn’t seem to be much overlap between Jay Farrar and Joe Pug other than the fact that they kind of exist under the very broad umbrella of alt-country, and both will perform at the Wild Buffalo in the coming days—Farrar with his band Son Volt on Thurs., Oct. 17 and Pug a few days later on Sun., Oct. 20. But scratch that surface just a tiny bit and some commonalities appear.
Probably chief among the similarities is that underneath the skin of the alt-country pioneer and the folk-rock singer-songwriter beats the heart of a punk rocker.
In Farrar’s case that meant stepping outside the strictures of country music to create a whole new sound that drew more from the music of Gram Parsons and Lyle Lovett than George Strait and George Jones. His band with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Uncle Tupelo, is credited with being the first alt-country band ever, spawning a sound that has become its own musical movement. With Son Volt, Farrar has continued to exist at the edges of alt-country’s elastic boundaries, following a musical path decidedly his own.
Pug’s punk sensibilities are written all over each of his full-length albums’ running times—his 2010 debut Messenger, 38 minutes; 2012’s The Great Despiser, 39 minutes; then came Windfall in 2015 at 36 minutes; and his latest album, The Flood in Color, released a few months ago, is his shortest yet at a highly economical 24 minutes. Two of the songs on The Flood in Color, “Here Again” and “The Stranger I’ve Been,” don’t even hit the two-minute mark. If that’s not a punk singer dressed in folk-rock clothing, I don’t know what is. Pug’s approach to self-promotion is also of a decidedly nonconformist bent. When he released his first EP, 2009’s Nation of Heat, he sent two-song samplers to anyone who requested them, eventually mailing out more than 20,000 free CDs, putting his music directly into the hands of fans before he’d ever toured through their towns.
As well, both musicians have spoken plainly about the less-than-desirable parts of their chosen profession with an honesty that’s rare in the music business. Uncle Tupelo is as legendary for breaking up on the heels of their excellent major-label debut album—the alt-country standard-setter Anodyne—and on the cusp of success as they are for being the founders of a genre of music. As the now-infamous story goes, Farrar and Tweedy feuded openly, engaging in shouting matches after shows and in the studio, eventually causing Farrar to leave the band on the grounds that it was no longer “fun.” As the leader of Son Volt, he’s disbanded and reformed the band a couple of times to suit his particular vision, and is not afraid to go solo when the situation calls for it.
Pug also had a crisis of musical faith that forced him to take a hard look at the life he’d chosen. After receiving critical acclaim for Nation of Heat and being tapped personally by Steve Earle to open a tour, Pug did what musicians who’d gotten a couple of decent breaks do—he went full-tilt into writing, recording and touring heavily. At a point where he’d never had more success, the musician came to grips with a hard truth: He was miserable. He couldn’t write, had no energy for performing and no longer got any joy from any part of the musical experience. So, in 2014, he walked away, putting his musical career on hold indefinitely. Ironically, it was realizing that he could leave it all behind that brought him back to music and back into the studio, where he recorded Windfall, the album that contained his finest song to date, “If Still it Can’t be Found.”
But all of that is peripheral to the biggest quality shared by Farrar and Pug, namely that both have earned no small amount of acclaim for their highly literate, deeply felt and often brutally honest songwriting. Farrar demonstrated his skills to great effect on Son Volt’s debut album Trace, which sat atop many of 1995’s year-end best-of roundups and is on every short list of the best alt-country albums ever. Farrar’s voice—deep and melancholy, yet laconic at the same time—sang such lines as “Can you deny/There’s nothing greater/Nothing more/Than the traveling hands of time?” from “Tear Stained Eye” to devastating effect. That voice gets political on Son Volt’s most recent Union, bringing his trademark world-weariness to our current political divide.
Pug, on the other hand, has a more narrative style as influenced by the authors he reveres—Walt Whitman, John Steinbeck, Raymond Carver—as it is by the musicians that move him. Add to that his theater training, and each of his songs becomes a tiny vignette or short story with an eye for the kind of details that makes his sentiments and characters relatable. With songs like “Burn and Shine,” he shows he can begin a verse evoking one sentiment—“Your sister was a looker she was tall and wild”—and finish it just a few lines later with a much starker piece of truth—“It takes the bottom of a bottle just to make her smile”—and the switch happens so quickly and deftly, you’re caught up in it before you know it.
Upon further reckoning, it would seem the Venn diagram that involves Farrar and Pug has quite a bit of overlap. But they only way to know for certain if that’s true is to see them both and judge for yourself.