On the Road in America

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Punched by a cowgirl. Charged at by an elk. Singer-songwriter Joe Pug, who released his latest album, Windfall, this past March, has plenty of material for between-song anecdotes thanks to years of touring around the United States.

Here’s a look at the world through his unique lens:

Windfall is your third album. You took a break from touring a few years ago—did you miss anything about it during that time?

Singer-songwriter Joe Pug poses in front of Ideal Bar in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photograph by Sarah Coghill)
Pug poses in front of Ideal Bar in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photograph by Sarah Coghill)

I missed the guys in my band, who I like a great deal, and there is a certain momentum and rush you get being on the road, waking up in a new place every day, going to sleep in a new place every night.

It can become an addictive lifestyle in and of itself.

The idea of a musician touring around America often gets romanticized. What’s it actually like?

It is the fun version of being a traveling salesman.

Look, we’re not going to see the St. Louis arch or the Grand Canyon while we’re on the road. We’re driving the van ourselves, sound checking, selling merchandise after shows—it’s all work.

With that being said, you get to a point where you have a favorite restaurant in every city in the country and you have a favorite bar for a nightcap in every city in the country, and, frankly, you have friends in every city in the country.

What’s the best greasy spoon you’ve eaten at?

One of my favorite places to eat is Kramarczuk’s. It’s a cafeteria-style Polish food emporium that is legendary in Minneapolis, but not known too well outside of it. I always make a pilgrimage there.

And the ultimate American dive bar?

I lived [in Chicago] for many years, and still one of my favorite bars in the country is the Hideout. It’s in this industrial park in the middle of Chicago, [near] where the city keeps its dump trucks.

What helps you break the monotony of touring?

I never would have been a podcast person if it wasn’t for the fact that I rode in a van eight hours a day. We purposefully do not have a sound system in the van; everyone likes to listen to [their] headphones.

There’s a famous quote, I think it’s [Jean-Paul] Sartre, that says, “Hell is other people.” And a good buddy of mine, a songwriter named Josh T. Pearson, he changed that to be, “Hell is other people’s music.”

What are some of your favorite podcasts?

[Right now] I’m listening to…This American Life, Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, Sam Harris’ Waking Up, Bill Burr’s Monday Morning, and, of course, Marc Maron’s [WTF].

Do you have a favorite stretch of road?

A drive we accidentally did between Boise, Idaho, and Pullman, Washington, where we took scenic Idaho 55, which winds along the Payette River.

As we drove north, the beauty—the absolute natural splendor—was so impressive at every turn. We drove over one crest and saw a vista that made everyone in the van start spontaneously applauding.

It’s not one of my favorite drives in the country, it is my favorite drive in the country, absolutely. And we always go out of our way [to go to it]. I’ve probably done it five or six times now, both north and south, and it’s gorgeous.

What tour stop surprised you the most?

One time, after my band and I played in Portland, we had an offer from a place called Willamina, Oregon, to come and play the next day. It’s about two hours away. It was going to be a day off for us, but…money talks, [so we went].

If you were to just drive through Willamina without knowing what it was, it’s so small you might not even register it as a town. Around 2,000 people live in Willamina. There’s only one real structure on the main road in town and it is all-in-one: the [music] venue, a restaurant, hotel, and casino.

We were very skeptical, to say the least, about what we might find. The owners welcomed us in [and invited] the townspeople out to hear us. Then, they basically opened up the restaurant bar for everyone and we took out [our] instruments and played. Everyone spilled up into the hotel afterward, and we continued to play.

It was a magical little experience, and an example of what I expected tour life would be like. It’s a lot less that than it is other things, so I really treasure those moments where it lives up to my original dream of it.

Do your fans seem to have a lot in common—besides liking your music—across the U.S.? 

I write about certain ideas or mindsets and…people who identify with that outlook on lifeyoung, old, male, femalecome to shows. It’s sort of a tribe all across the country that responds to that message. So they tend to be, in a certain way, cut from the same cloth.

What’s been your most memorable performance so far?

[In 2012,] we got to open for one of my heroes, Levon Helm, at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor a couple of weeks before he died.

Just before the set, his road manager asked me if I would like to say hello, so I got to go back and shake his hand briefly and then go out and support the show for him. It was a beautiful thing—we played, then we watched Levon’s set, and then we sang “The Weight” with him.

The show ended pretty early and me and the band were just outside the Michigan Theater in our van and were just speechless. We had driven all the way from Austin, Texas, just to play that show because we wanted to do it so bad. It was about a 20-hour drive, and I think we would have done a drive twice as long to do it. It was an amazing day.

Hannah Sheinberg is the departments editor at National Geographic Traveler. Follow Hannah on Twitter @h_sheinberg.

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