On a sweltering June evening five summers ago, a songwriter took the stage at Cincinnati's un-air-conditioned Memorial Hall as a complete unknown. His job, no pun intended, was to warm up a sold-out audience for a solo concert by Steve Earle.
By the end of the 40-minute set, the buzz had started. The artist seemingly no one in the house had heard of had left his mark.
His music was full of the conversational charm one would expect from an accomplished folk artist, but something else was at work. Songs like Nation of Heat, I Do My Father's Drugs and Bury Me Far (From My Uniform) had the kind of narrative flow and detail that made them seem like full-blown vignettes — theater pieces, for which the singer onstage was, in effect, as actor and narrator. No wonder Earle handpicked him as a tour opener.
That was the night the region was introduced to Joe Pug.
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Since then, in a critically championed career that has grown in short, incremental steps, the songsmith has been playing to larger audiences. Pug, 29, who lives in Austin, Texas, now makes his way to Lexington for his local debut and an impending stay that could figure highly in the opening of more ears to his story-rich songs.
"I wanted a particular venue to get my writing across as well as my ideas," said Pug, who performs Saturday at Willie's Locally Known. "For me, the singer-songwriter route just seemed to make the most sense. At least starting out, you could do it all by yourself. You didn't need a troupe of actors. You didn't need a band. You didn't need people running a camera. You would just do it yourself, basically."
The reference to "a troupe of actors" eludes to Pug's first crack at the stage. He acted in plays by Shakespeare and Moliere during high school in Maryland before studying acting, improv and eventually playwriting in college at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
"Studying theater in college definitely helped in the performance aspect of what I do now. The creative part of it, where you're generating material and writing songs and then performing those songs ... these are almost entirely different jobs. But theater definitely helped with the performance part."
There is a theatrical under current to some of Pug's best music. Theatrical, in this instance, doesn't mean artificial. It instead is a storytelling device that enforces the strong narrative tone of songs like A Gentle Few, one of the standout tunes from Pug's 2012 album, The Great Despiser.
"Before you throw the towel and turn your engines out, don't expect to spit all that you tasted from your mouth," Pug sings in the song. "After all you've seen, the most you'll hope to be is pretending to be a pretender."
"I just try to stay inspired in any way I can, songwriting-wise," Pug said. "I find that to be almost the entire job. I just have to figure out different ways to stay excited and inspired on a day-to-day basis."
Pug will be returning to Lexington in late March to document some of that inspiration. He will record his next album with local producer/musician Duane Lundy at his Shangri La studio.
"I put Joe up there with the big boys — Dylan and those guys — when it comes to lyrical writing," Lundy said. "He just reminds me of the classic American writer. If it wasn't music, he would be a great novelist. He's very dynamic in his performances, too. I'm thrilled to be working with somebody who gives you such an amazing perspective on the story in his songs."
Pug said, "We've been steadily making progress over the last five years. It moves a lot slower when you don't have a million bucks behind you. But I think your progress is truer progress in that case. It's progress that's not going to leave you the moment that the money dries up."