It’s the Thursday before the July 4th and, unsurprisingly, Joe Purdy is on the road.
For more than nine years now, Purdy has rolled along America’s highways like a tumble weed, gathering memories and stories from whichever town he blows through. The setting last Thursday, the banks of the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York, was familiar territory for the songwriter. That scene served as the inspiration for early album Julie Blue, the disc that ushered Purdy into mainstream consciousness when he landed track “Wash Away” on ABC’s “Lost.”
Recalling that album, the fourth of 11 he’s written since 2001, it all seems so far away now.
“I’ve lived a lot of lives,” he says.
The most recent of those lives is spotlighted on Purdy’s latest release, 4th of July. Of course what you’ll find under the floodlights is a drab and gritty, but wholly human, portrait of Americana.
In one of his earlier lives, Purdy merrily chirped of the charmed streets of New York City (Only Four Seasons). He told of his travels in Europe (Paris in the Morning) and wrote of romance around the world ( … just about every album). Often the only burden born by the song’s protagonist was the weight of a heavy heart.
Things are different on 4th of July, where characters seemingly shuffle along, shoulders slumped, weighed down by ragged trench coats, and problems of a world far less perfect than the one Purdy has previously shown us.
“I’m living in Arkansas again, the real world, as they call it, and I’m seeing real people have real problems. People don’t buy things, they have to build them. Things break and they have to fix them. People lose their jobs and their families are in real trouble. I’ve lived through a couple of really hard winters after making that move from California. And this album has a lot of stories about the challenges of it and the great parts of it,” Purdy says. “There are just too many stories to be told to be writing love songs all over a record.”
And so the album starts with the aptly-named “Hard Times” and includes tunes that touch on long winters and a longing for better days (“Diamond State”), has-been pitchers (“Ballplayer”) and odes to tough-as-nails women (“Kerosene”).
Already an independent artist, Purdy’s latest album defines the term. Not only did he do his own recording work, but — aside from female vocals provided by Garrison Starr — he is the only performer on the album, even providing each part of the barbershop harmonies on the album opener.
He learned the drums (from a Levon Helm YouTube video), upright bass, lap steel and more during the album’s creation. Then he had to pass his own final exam of recording each part in the same take since he was the only engineer. It made for some long nights to say the least.
“I worked from the time the sun came up to, well, the time the sun came up again,” Purdy says. “It’s the closest to crazy I’ve ever come.”
But for all the obsessing, the album’s songs never feel excessive. In typical Purdy fashion, they’re simple, straightforward packages, just like the characters that populate them. These are tales of the hardworking, sometimes suffering people Purdy has witnessed these past years — himself among them.
Where Purdy’s music goes after 4th of July is anyone’s guess. Like that aforementioned tumbleweed, wherever the wind blows him next, and what he’ll collect along the way, will likely influence him as much as any preconceived direction he has. While he already has another two albums worth of music in the queue, he’s just as likely to take yet another tack and pursue yet another musical life. Just another reason why Purdy is one of the most intriguing songwriters you’ll find today.
• For more on Joe Purdy, visit www.joepurdy.com.