When Joe Purdy decided to write a social justice album, he knew that he was making an important decision for his career. Frankly, he didn’t know what direction it would take, but he knew it was worth saying something meaningful with his music. He’s a man with a presence that would make Pete Seeger proud. His music, his image, and his countenance present authenticity from the top of his hat to the soles of his boots. Joe Purdy, the humble self-described Arkansas “hillbilly,” brought forth a gut-wrenching and powerful album in 2016 called Who Will Be Next. We took some time at the Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland, Ohio to talk with him about the album, the politics that inspired it, and life as a working indie musician in this same divisive world.
From the opening lines of the album and the live set touring the album, it’s obvious that Purdy is displeased with the current state of politics in America. This is not surprising, as most of the people in the audience seem to agree with him. But in our interview, Purdy revealed a heart that is convicted toward justice. He acknowledges that there are things he just doesn’t have to deal with as a white man in America. His empathy for disenfrancised and discriminated populations drips from his lips in heartfelt words as well as thoughtful, poetic lyrics.
When I asked about the impact of the album, Purdy took a few moments before acknowledging that it is reshaping his fanbase a little. There were some “tried and true” fans who followed him because of some early career success rooted in marquee television placements. But this true folk singer style, calling out injustice and speaking truth to power – the calling card of the Who Will Be Next album – has not resonated with all of Purdy’s fanbase. Now that it’s changing, though, Purdy notes that the mood of his live shows has morphed. He seldom has the buffoonery of people shouting out in the midst of his placid listening room sessions; instead, the people sit and listen to his critical commentary. They applaud his solutions and laugh at his jokes. It seems that he’s happy with the change.
One of the consistent themes of Purdy’s presence and performance is his commentary about growing up in Arkansas and the family that influenced him. From his father’s music to his mother’s instruction, it’s clear that these messages of truth and justice come from a deep and abiding place. In fact, Purdy tells a wonderful story about how he wrote the whole album and before recording it he played it for his mother. She thought it was too mean and that people wouldn’t hear the truth behind his words. As a result he rewrote the entire album. That kind of gritty genuineness is what makes Purdy’s faithful fans flock to hear him sing all over the country.
When it comes to his message and his writing, Purdy explained that he usually tries to write in a way that is “timeless” and not particular to a specific era. But this album just “came out that way” with a sound rooted in Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Townes Van Zandt far more than the hand-clapping hipster folk that is common today. Knowing that it was going to be a tough album with hard-hitting social commentary, Purdy explained that he wanted to make sure that “no one could punch a hole through it,” making reference to Bob Dylan’s “Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” and the social impact that iconic track had.
Of note to the readers of this site, Purdy believes in recording with an old fashioned style. In fact, his musical influences are still from an analog era that can feel “real” when listening. There’s no studio magic here. What you see and hear is what you get with Purdy, in the most beautiful and sincere way. He shys away from modern recordings, instead filling his ears (and evidently his spirit) with icons like Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, and Guy Clark. The way that Purdy’s lines tell stories that express human empathy shows that his hobo, cowboy, and rambling songs are no act. They are the expression of the way he sees and experiences the world.
Some might listen to Purdy’s work and think it’s a bit too sad or sullen, but there is hope in his strings. It comes through, especially, on the last song on the album called “My Country.” I asked where he finds such hope in a divisive and disturbing time. He said, with the plaintive repose of a travelling folk singer, “hope lies in the folks that you meet.” The hope comes from the people who will get through no matter what. He told a story from the stage about a few of his friends who marched in the Women’s March in DC. It was evident that they inspired him. He told their story as if it was his own. People like this, Purdy argued, are the ones who will make sure that there will be an enduring message of America long after the current political crisis fades. This country has problems, he argued, but there is hope in the people.
Purdy’s onstage performance was as inspiring and satisfying as advertised. He walked out to applause and got the audience immediately singing along. “This is how folk works,” he snarked, as he moved to the chorus of the opening song. Between his deep and sometimes convicting music, Purdy allowed some light hearted stage banter to keep the people laughing and having fun. But what comes across more than anything from Purdy’s underrated guitar playing, comfortable stage presence, and evident love for his “old dog Charley,” is that he wants to speak truth. “Nothing is fine,” he joked sardonically, “and that’s exactly what I’m here to talk about.”
I highly recommend that you make a point to go out and hear Joe Purdy and his sweet 1954 Gibson guitar “Maybelle” as they sing some sad American songs. Not only will you hear some incredible fresh folk music, you’ll hear an amalgamation of tracks drawn from the legacy of the Lomax recordings through the 20th century folk and country classics. Joe Purdy’s performance is not part of the “folk revival” personified with Mumford and Sons or Lumineers in recent years; instead, Purdy carries a significant social weight and series of political convictions that urge us all to be more focused on democracy, equality, acceptance, and a desire to “all just get along” as Americans without hate or fear directing our lives.
Photo credit: IG joepurdyofficial