In the beginning, all Joe Pug had was an acoustic guitar and a handful of songs. It reads like biblical history or a folk tale the singer-songwriter might’ve bellowed on his debut EP, Nation of Heat, but he actually lived it.
In 2007, Pug, then a 22-year-old recent college dropout, had little else to his name when he recorded the EP’s seven songs in Chicago. He sneaked in studio time when other artists canceled and laid down plaintive American ruminations in his smoky voice. Today, he calls the sparse collection “one step away” from a demo tape. “In fact, if I was going to do demos at that time, I don’t know how they would’ve been done any differently,” Pug says over the phone from his home in Maryland.
As such, he has since lived with a nagging thought: What if he recorded a full-band version of the EP, one he could count as definitive? Now equipped with a home studio where he doesn’t have to rely on no-shows—in an idyllic mid-Atlantic spot where birds chirp in the background during our call—Pug spent the better part of a year updating those hymns to make a “revisited” version of Nation of Heat, out this week. This time, though, he kept his trusty Guild in its case. “There’s no acoustic guitar on this album at all, very intentionally,” he says. “I didn’t want this record to be the original Nation of Heat with a rhythm section quietly mixed in the background. This needed to be an entirely new thing.”
That’s a powerful stance to take, given Nation of Heat’s reputation. After he self-released it in the late 2000s, the EP slingshotted Pug’s career. He opened for Americana legend Steve Earle, who became a mentor, and eventually released five full-length albums, sounding older and wiser on each. The new Nation of Heat still plays like a travelogue through a cracking empire, though its narrator brims with youthful optimism. Pug balances every line about shifty street lamps claiming to be stars with first-person bravado: “I’d rather be nobody’s man than somebody’s child”; “I am Dakota thunder raging”; “I’ve come to test the timbre of my heart.”
Like the weary pilgrims trudging wintry roads he sings about, Nation of Heat | Revisited breaks new ground even as it retreads an old path. Defiant folk staple “I Do My Father’s Drugs” retains its harmonica and little else, adding a technicolor synth intro played by Derry deBorja of Jason Isbell’s 400 Unit band. Opener “Hymn #101,” meanwhile, remains his signature song (with nearly 10 million streams on Spotify alone). That’s why it was the logical place where Pug began the work. Unlike Taylor Swift’s ambitious plan to re-record her biggest pop albums in order to regain control of her catalog, Pug’s idea was simpler. “A lot of it has to do with being an independent artist,” he says. “I own all my masters at this point. I own all of my publishing, so I’m really in a position where I can do whatever I want with it.”
What he wanted was a patchwork, and modern technological ease made that possible. Pug enlisted more than a dozen musicians to record parts remotely and simply plugged in what worked best from the comfort of his home studio. He found inspiration in how different groups in the 1960s recorded their respective takes on the same popular tunes. “You don’t have to be precious with songs,” he says.
To that end, Pug didn’t overthink the updated versions. He left the work to his collaborators and focused his own energy on how everything actually sounded, rather than how it felt, or even the particulars of how it came together. “I used to get hung up a lot on process when I was younger,” he says. “I’d be like, ‘Well, the only way you can get a good vibe is to have a bunch of people in a room.’ I’ve just really found that process matters so little and the only thing that matters is what’s coming out of speaker left and speaker right.”
He first got to work updating “Hymn #101,” figuring if he could nail it, the success would justify the entire project. Galloping drums and lonesome slide guitar enliven the moody folk ballad in its new iteration and lend it a fresh coat of paint. For additional pep, he called in background vocal assistance from none other than The Killers frontman Brandon Flowers. Pug had opened for him on a solo tour, and Pug’s harmonica and guitar also made their way to several tracks on The Killers’ 2021 album Pressure Machine. Flowers sent his contributions from Utah, recorded between his own sessions (and time with his family). “He’s always working,” Pug says, grateful the timing aligned.
Where Pug’s performance on the original Nation of Heat carries life-or-death stakes, for the revisited batch, he leaned into the weariness that set in during the interceding years. Heartbreak ode “Call It What You Will” becomes the country crier it was destined to be, and “Speak Plainly, Diana,” which also saw a rollicking alt-country take on his 2010 album Messenger, settles into a Springsteenian mood thanks to Pug’s piano. He doesn’t have to shout the ending line of “Nobody’s Child” to punctuate it with drama; he can simply sing the words and let them hang as the instruments wrap up underneath.
There is drama, though, inherent to the enterprise of revisiting his younger self’s headspace. “Nation of Heat is about being a young person on the precipice of adulthood and worrying about your own inadequacies and whether you’d be up to the challenge,” Pug says, “and being excited about the great adventure you’re about to go on.” Put simply, he made peace with the fading of his youth long ago—he’s a father now, and he’s got responsibilities.
But the EP’s other main theme, best encapsulated by the critique of older generations in “I Do My Father’s Drugs,” is a bit easier to reassess for the nearly 40-year-old artist. “It’s easy to think when you’re in your early 20s that, for the first time in human history—tens of thousands of years of human history—specifically you and your generation have got it figured,” he says. “That leads you to be able to make some pretty broad and sweeping declarations at that time, and that’s a beautiful thing. I think that’s the way that youth works. But as you get older, you do realize that you’re really not any different from generations who have come before you.”
Pug’s observations about the titular nation, from the unmistakably young point of view, still alternately inspire (“There’s no bravery in bayonets”) and sting (“We got two-dollar soldiers and ten-dollar words”). He’s been reciting those lyrics during live performances for 15 years; he actually knows how to sing them now. Recording their new versions was a matter of technicality over meaning or emotion. Pug simply appreciated laying down vocal takes via a nice microphone—and, unlike during those clandestine Chicago sessions, not having to rely on his acoustic guitar. “It was a real treat,” he says. “I’m just able to sing a lot better than I used to.”
Patrick Hosken is a writer and editor based in New York State. Find him on Twitter and Substack at mediumrotation.substack.com.
Listen to Joe Pug’s 2009 Daytrotter session below.