The last time I interviewed Joe Purdy was in the “before times.” It was before the pandemic. It was before a political shift in the United States. It was before so many things that now characterize our world. Life seemed simpler then and Purdy, using his prophetic voice as a songwriter, warned listeners of many of the things to come. I did not have ears to hear the prophecies at the time, but I sure did like his sad songs. Now, in the “after times,” it seems almost quaint the way that first interview went. It was at a venue. It was in person. There was real music and real instruments and real beer flowing.
Of course the world is reopening by the mid-summer of 2022. I don’t mean to be so hyperbolic about the times. But they are not a-changin’. They have changed. That difference in our world shaped a recent phone conversation I had with Purdy about his songwriting and work for the past few years. Earlier this year, Purdy released a breakup album Coyote that has some remarkably sad songs on it that feel like they’re taking us back to his roots as a songwriter. However, in the process of writing for that album, Purdy wrote several more songs, some of which make up a series of albums called Desert Outtakes. Volume I is Folk-Slinger and Volume II is Gussie Blues. I don’t have the time or space to review them all here, but trust me when I say all three of these albums are folk music bliss and well worth your time. I invite you to listen to the albums for yourselves. Some of my questions highlight my favorites from the albums, but they’re literally all good. I haven’t skipped a song yet and I’ve been spinning these for weeks.
Our conversation started with a bit of good old fashioned commiseration; we talked about the country, the music industry, and how difficult it is to make it. But one of the central themes of Purdy’s life in the past several years, since we last spoke about his record Who Will Be Next in 2016, was a move from Los Angeles to New Mexico. This desert context shapes much of Purdy’s experience as a songwriter. The lonesomeness of being off in the desert writing and recording on his own permeates these recordings. He utilized minimal production to bring the sounds of guitar, voice, and harmonica straight to tape. He admitted they feel slow, even to him. But for anyone who has ever sat around a campfire and listened to old folk songs, the tempo feels just right. It’s a storytelling, emotional style and it works perfectly for these heartfelt albums. It recaptures a certain longing and sincerity that is essential to the “sad cowboy song” style that has become a bit of a calling card to Purdy’s thoroughly western folk music.
But these three albums aren’t intended to make us feel bad for Purdy. They are his own expression of the emotions he went through with a breakup, especially on the album Coyote. It has one of the best songs I’ve heard in 2022 and one of my new favorites from Purdy, “My loving arms.” It’s a track with all the trappings of a good love song, expressions of love and desire, all captured in a swaying cowboy lullaby style. It’s also achingly sincere and equally sad. When I told him how much I liked the song, he said “bless you” several times. He went on to explain that it was a song where he felt like he said what he needed to say. In other music, especially in the past, he would use a songwriting “crutch” like a bit of humor or a clever trick to take the pressure off. With “My loving arms” there is no such crutch and the song is an expression of genuine feelings of love and then loss. It’s also an expression of “true unconditional love – when you want them to be happy above all else, even if they leave.” The final sentiment, “when you’re ready, I’m here” was something he reiterated. The authenticity of the song comes through with every listen, so hearing Purdy share about it personally was a wonderful treat.
I mentioned to Purdy that his songwriting reminds me of two of my favorites; Kris Kristofferson and John Prine. I said this because of the prescient observations of human society followed by sometimes silly or off-hand remarks. We talked a bit about the reception of those men in particular, who had kind of “cult following” status in their prime. Purdy said, “at all costs, do art for art’s sake.” It really feels true of Purdy’s career arch as well. That conversation melded nicely with one about religious imagery and the “prophetic voice.” It might be easy to think that because Coyote and the Desert Outtakes are not explicitly political that Purdy has stepped away from that set of concerns. However, an argument can be made that songs like “Hard to be a prophet” and “Nuclear bomb song” both continue in that vein. Similarly, and just as compelling, is that Purdy’s prophetic voice has shifted from the national narrative to more of a personal narrative. If we can’t save the nation, maybe we can save its people. Songs like “Reason and rhyme” are ostensibly about wandering and playing music, but maybe the larger message is about appreciating the simple things in life like playing the guitar and not having somewhere to go.
The folk tradition has never taken itself too seriously, though. So as a modern standard-bearer of a timeless musical style, Purdy makes sure to include some comedic relief as well. “Heartbreak in the key of Roger Miller” and “Happy Birthday Woody Guthrie” both provide some sense of that comedic relief as well. Purdy and I had a good time talking a little bit about these two icons of music history. There’s a significance to the sadness in both of their stories and how they used music to bring light and truth to the rest of us. Even in the midst of difficult, trying, fearful times, those men continued to use their art to bring direction and a sense of truth to the people. Purdy does something similar with these albums, with stories of heartbreak that listeners can relate to, but also clever turns of phrase that make us crack a smile or outright laugh while we let the music break up the monotony of our own tiresome lives.
Astute readers will know that Purdy’s 2016 album Who Will Be Next had a heavy social justice theme to it. When listening to these newer albums, I thought I sensed a bit of an apocalyptic theme. I wondered if Purdy saw these times “after” as being a bit of a rebuilding era. He gave a wonderful commentary on the importance of moving toward the middle. In our divisive political climate, there’s “no merit in introducing more violence and division,” he said. The aim is to take down the temp, find the middle ground, and unite around our shared humanity. It doesn’t matter who you voted for, we can all rally around a cowboy song about a lost love. That’s timeless.
One of the major themes of our conversation was about the music industry and this being Purdy’s attempt to “give it another go.” He even made the off-handed but clever remark, “like an old prize fighter.” I think that image is perfect for Purdy’s perseverance and overall ethos as an artist. If you’ve found yourself blessed by, encouraged by, or otherwise moved by his music, consider helping to support him by purchasing the music rather than merely streaming it. If you can make it out to a show, go see him perform live. His style is engaging, his lyrics keep you connected, and he likes to keep the old folk show alive with call-and-response singing between himself and the audience. Check out his tour dates here, go buy his music, and shake his hand. He’s the real deal.
Image courtesy: Joe Purdy IG