Joe // Warren, Ri.
A traveling musician talks about Instagram, meditation, and the sound of people playing together in a room.
He's talking to a couple of microphones when I arrive; I stand off to the side, since I'm not that kind of press. People on the steps of the theatre are staring at him from over the rim of their cigarettes and red solo cups, thinking that they're being subtle. As he turns, I manage to make eye contact and nod. He nods back, thanks the microphones, and comes forward to shake my hand.
It's rare that someone is exactly what you pictured, from a mere acquaintance with their body of work. But Joe is. He's tall, et itanky, and wears a coat with a big sheepskin collar. His voice is dry, resonant, and laconic.
"Are you going to the show?"
I tell him I learned about the show too late, and couldn't get a ticket.
"I think we can get you in."
He introduces me to the wrist-stamping lady as his guest.
A year and six months ago, I was testing out Instagram for the first time.
Taking pictures of interesting things, like...you know...old cars. Setting off a bird on a powerline with a miniaturizing effect. Musing over filters like they were a mood ring.
The appearance of names in the "like" field brought as much joy to me as seedlings bring a novice gardener. I looked up the provenance of every one...there were few enough...learning quickly that the more intriguing a name, the more likely it was somebody using Instagram to sell either porn or t-shirts.
But one day a remarkably clear name showed up, approving a photo of a VW bus that I'd posted. Already well-disposed to this person with the no-frills handle, I followed the name back to its Instagram profile.
It was like one of those old-fashioned kineographs, where you flip the pages and the scenes scroll through a man tripping over his hat. Only this was a scene-by-scene document of a journey through the oldest and most venerable of age-bleached American byways.
It was part cowboy saga, part Festival Express. It was heavy on the Steinbeck, with a little bit of Kerouac. You heard the voices of emphysematous waitresses, and smelled the ammoniac sting of a barroom after its early morning hose-down. You felt the grit of sweat, smoke and dirt against your skin. You saw bands performing from the stage wings, and saw yourself yourself singing along with lyrics you'd never before heard.
The header contained a link to a musician site. I clicked it, hoping that the music wouldn't be a letdown from the pictures.
I guess it's weird, at my age, to become a fan of someone's music by way of their Instagram account. But in my defense, Joe's photos aren't the carefully filtered stock-in-trade of social media, especially that of a musician. There's no candy-colored filter over the view he offers on the traveling musician's life. His photos make it look a little threadbare, sometimes grimly banal, frequently obscured by a fog of tonally variant shadows.
You get the idea that this is exactly what he loves about it.
"The big indicator to me that this is what I should be doing for a job," he tells me and everyone who asks him what made him start a music career at the age of 36--"is it's what I did during every vacation. Where people went on regular vacations, I would drive to Nashville and back, and play every single day.
"I didn't have to; nobody was waiting for me at these places, really. But that--the least relaxing vacation--was what I wanted to be doing."
As my friend Remy says, a singer/songwriter's music is only as appealing as they are, personally. If you don't care for them as people, you probably won't care what they have to sing about.
I suppose that's what makes musicians some of the most insufferable users of social media. Their livelihood depends, to a large degree, on people liking them. Poor things. So when they post tooly photos of themselves looking tragically hip, or spent with the effort of surviving their own existential depth, it's not like the rest of us amateurs trying to level up our social collateral. For them, it's part of an honest living.
Joe's use of social media proves that it can be done differently. For one thing, his self-promotion includes few images of himself. His Instagram is devoted to stark, evocative images of country roads and city exits, framed by rain-flecked windshields or the Elvis-costumed-as-Jesus bobblehead on his dash. There are regional curiosities like the world's biggest ball of yarn, and memorabilia from his idols that he stumbles upon in random places. There are talisman songs illuminated in the nighttime glow of his dashboard console.
They are uploaded in bursts of ten, or thirty, mostly at hours when you imagine he’s just set down his guitar case in some divey motel on the edge of town, after playing all night in a dark watering hole, in a part of town where people need to forget.
So they come to the show, and they listen, and I imagine they feel the same thing that the cowboys of suburbia, caught in the moral crossfire of a despicable job that yet affords their overpriced vintage clothes, feel from looking at Joe's Instagram reel: a lusty hope, an ambition both proud and wistful, for dust in their teeth, sun in their eyes, the nightime howling of wolves and wailing of trains.
People like Joe, and listen to his music, because he cares about the same thing they care about, and his pictures are a reminder that it's still out there. Personal as his photos are, they feel as if they could be your own, if you too got on the road.
I guess it's not that surprising--you'd expect a man who spent ten years teaching English to know a few things about telling a story.
In the unspoken tradition of many fine educators, Joe measured out the school term in vacation weeks, taking his Fender on a circuit of as many dive bars and music halls as he could fit in, before coming back to teach The Great Gatsby to another round of high schoolers. He made the best of it that anyone could, who would rather be doing something else. Along with American literature, he taught a roots music elective of his own invention. That class, his cool hair, and his rockstar alter ego made him a favorite with his students. Sometimes he'd look up from a show he was playing and see them watching, illegal beers in their hands.
Remembering it, he sounds like an aged Holden Caulfield:
"It shouldn't be your responsibility to care, when you see kids that you knew weren't 21 drinking at bars, because you're off the clock. But you do."
Joe picked up the guitar as a teenager, after watching a friend play "Walk This Way" on a silver Stratocaster in the school cafeteria. He hit adulthood at the same time that garage rock hit its late revival period. Providence, Rhode Island lay within a sort of Bermuda triangle for the garage rock scene--the club elite of New York City, the the college-town devotees of Boston, and the flourishing amateur scene of western Massaschusetts. Throughout the late 90s and into the new millennium, Joe played hard-driving, heavily distorted guitar in one band after another.
Here's where the details get dicey, and Joe seems resolved in leaving them that way. I don't imagine his taciturnity is calculated, but it is kind of genius. Fans love a mysterious past; the only clues to Joe's are a scant number of Google hits, and the lyrics of his songs. Their harsh allusions to addiction, unfaithfulness, bleak rage, and rejection are like his Instagram photos: stark, evocative, and more powerful because they are so easy to embroider.
Joe's fans eat up these hints the way kids lick sugar from a spoon, speculating on them with eager concern and imaginative eloquence.
Just yesterday I was the queen of ballroom dance / Now it's motor courts, heroin, and ambulances
He writes from a very specific place – that of a guy who has seen few highs and many lows. A bad-luck character who has plenty of times been asked to leave a pool hall, and other times been forcefully escorted. Maybe he flirted with the wrong girl? Maybe 2/5 of a straight flush tumbled out of his sleeve. (The Lo-Down)
You can bring her home to mother, but she's a nightmare in the sack / I know my dinner's on the table there, but I'm never going back
One hopes that Joe Fletcher hasn't lived the life he describes in these songs - but they're delivered with such intensity, passion and weary resignation that you can't help but believe these are his stories. (Visible Voice)
I'll steal you, I'll cheat you, I'll break your precious heart, I'll be in the next town before everything falls apart.
They’re the kids your mother cautioned you about, and though it’s a revisited motif within Americana, their sound and stage show embodies the danger and thrill of being their friend … along for the ride. I saw them open for New York gothic folk-rockers O’Death, and was drawn to their straightforward set and front man Joe Fletcher’s take-it-or-leave-it demeanor. (DigBoston)
Most musicians come to an interview with plenty to say, perhaps on account of that misunderstood thing they're supposed to have going on. Perversely, the more earnest they get in conversation, the less believable I find their artistic output. Maybe that's my own problem. Maybe it's not.
The fact that Joe lets his imagery speak for him makes for music, not to mention social media, that feels...dare one say it?...authentic. Not authentic™; rather, authentic to him.
"The way Instagram has helped me promote my band is insane. It happens to be something, unlike Facebook, that I really enjoy doing. I'm first and foremost taking these pictures and documenting things for me. There's no two ways about it. That's what makes it easy--I'd be doing this whether people were looking or not.
"It's become a way of scrapbooking my trip. I can't stop and write down everything I want to write down, and I can't remember every waitress or something, but I will sneak a picture.
"I was compiling a lot of them into one Facebook folder on the Wrong Reasons page today, and just looking back through the trip and things that happened three weeks ago, that I probably would have never remembered again. That is really valuable to me. Every once in a while I'll go back and look at one from a year ago, and it's just mind-blowing."
I scrolled through his Instagram feed while listening to his entire 2010 record "White Lighter."
Then I sent Joe an email.
I don't know what I had in mind, in doing so--maybe, with this project percolating in the back of my head, I wanted to test its strength for obtaining interviews with people I know only through their work.
To my utter astonishment, he wrote me back.
Let it be known that I'm a total sucker for the coolness inherent to musicians. Moreover, I acknowledge that social media follow a law of inverse proportion: the less esteem you offer, the more you accrue. Like anyone, I hate this system, but I recognize it; hell, I've tried to use it, myself.
So Joe's response to my email struck a chord somewhere between a kidney donation and a teen paging through Tiger Beat. My existence had been acknowledged, thoughtfully and kindly...
...and also articulately. No emoticons, or misspellings, or the other usual detritus that, right or wrong, fosters resentment in me toward a universe that would endow certain people with artistic power before they've mastered basic verbal communication.
I felt as if I'd stumbled upon a great secret. And, as is customary with great secrets, I wanted to tell everyone about it.
In 2002, Joe had joined a band newly formed from another's breakup. Despite the hype surrounding this new band's inception, Joe's attention was wandering to a new project taking shape in his mind. Since college, he'd been a fan of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Johnny Cash; as he read up on their lives and followed their music back to its roots, he found something that agreed with his life in a way that garage rock didn't.
"I wasn't happy in a lot of ways. And when you have this kind of monkey on your back, you can kind of put up with a lot of things, because they're not your primary problem. So you start to approach that, you start to realize that other things are contributing to making you an unhappy person.
"I just started to make changes, and one was leaving that band that I was in. Which was not a popular decision among my friends."
It's worth noting that Joe gets a lot more talkative on the subject of his friends, whom he speaks of as though everyone knows them. After a few minutes with his Instagram, you feel as if you do--they're like the cast of characters in a legend:
There is his Nashville brother-in-arms, Joshua Black Wilkins.
There is his mentor-of-sorts, Roy Book Binder, whom he plays with whenever their paths cross.
And, wherever pertinent, there are references to his beloved St. Louis Cardinals.
Various of these characters (with the exception of the Cardinals) poke their heads into the room where we're talking.
"That's Joci from the Low Anthem... And that's Jeff."
With a smirk I can hear, rather than see, he adds,
"That's probably going to keep happening."
It's happening because we're couched in the recording booth on the second floor of the Columbus Theatre, and the theatre is right in the middle of its "Revival" showcase, celebrating a reopening after years of dereliction. Nearly all the luminaries of Providence's now-prolific folk music scene are here: the Low Anthem, Brown Bird, Alec Redfearn, Vudu Sister, and plenty more.
I wasn't supposed to be here tonight--the show was sold out long before I got to Providence. At 4pm this afternoon, I was sitting in the Whole Foods on North Main, wondering if Joe would email me back
Having just learned about the show yesterday from my friends--who'd had tickets for ages--I was surprised that Joe wasn't on the bill of this local folk lovefest. But, as Instagram demonstrated, he had only just a few days ago finished his longest ever tour at the Hawthorne Theatre in Portland, OR. I'd heard from him, a few days ago, that he was on his way back, but he hadn't told me where or when we might be able to do the interview.
Around 3.30, I gave up the dream. He's not going to want to talk to some fan/would-be journalist at the end of a four-day driving spree following a seven-week tour. I'd blow me off, if I were him.
And then I got an email. He and his band were the surprise closer for Revival. They'd be getting back to Providence just in time for the show to start--he said I should meet him outside the theatre that night.
Within that year he spent alone, Joe says he practiced five songs over and over, until he felt ready to bring them out and find someone to sing them. In the midst of auditioning frontmen,as he was demonstrating the sound he wanted for the vocal, one of them finally asked why he didn't just sing the songs himself.
Given his restrained, cigarette-stained snarl, it's a good question.
The answer is surprisingly plebeian--he'd never tried it before.
"I had never sung, [beyond] very limited, shouting kind of rock-and-roll background vocals. It was demanding of me. There's a lot of words in my songs. But it really helped me to be doing something different than I was doing before.
"It was really hard for me to let go of the drugs and alcohol in relation to music--those things always went so hand in hand. But I'd never sung drunk before, I'd never sung on cocaine, or whatever it was. The times I thought about drinking before a show, I was like 'I can't do that, because I've never done that before.'
"It just became 'All right, this is this thing that I do.'"
A year later, in June 2005, the Wrong Reasons debuted under the neon auspices of Ralph's Diner in Worcester, Mass.
Joe frequently refers to the Wrong Reasons--with a smirk that you can hear better than see--as "the organization." It's hard, I suppose, to call something a band when you're the only consistent member. The lineup changed constantly, in the first several years, and when Joe went on the road, it was usually alone.
"It became confusing for people. I'm playing this solo set in Texas, and telling people 'My name's Joe Fletcher,' and at the merch table there's a CD that says 'Wrong Reasons' on it. They've never seen me in their life, and I'm trying to explain that I've got a band... People would still be asking me, no matter how many times on stage I said it.
"So that's when we changed the name, just because I knew I'd probably still be doing a lot of solo shows to support the second record."
There's another tell--did you catch it?--that even though "the organization" consists of only himself much of the time, Joe refers to it as "we." This may be explained by what he says next:
"It was weird then--drawing new t-shirt designs with your name on it...it's strange."
Joe says he was never ambitious for center stage; it seems he simply wanted to play his music with other people. Seven years into it, he enjoys being his own frontman, but it remains awkward to compare his songwriting chops to Nick Cave or his sound to Johnny Cash, even if it's just repeating other people's praise.
"Nobody's going to do that better than you can do it, once you get over that thing. I see people that really suck at it, and they pay the price for it. I feel like I did for a long time, and now I know a little bit more about how it works. You can do it in ways where it doesn't necessarily sound like it's you talking."
In 2011, Joe was about to leave on the farthest tour he'd ever taken, a three-week sojourn all the way down to Alabama, accompanied only by his mandolin player. But the night before they were to leave, the mandolinist backed out.
What could have been a crazy-making month in solitary confinement ended up being the beginning of a love affair with the road.
"You could stop on a whim. You saw the first Kentucky Fried Chicken? I'm like all right, I'm getting off the highway--I've always wanted to do that. I kept myself extremely entertained."*
Since then, traveling for him is anything but a liability of the musician's life.
"Just driving and seeing the landscapes change--how the midwest becomes the northwest--is fascinating. Just hopefully you have some time to spend places, and get to know the people.
"Charleston, South Carolina, where I went for the first time on this trip, it's beautiful. Really nice people. We played at this place, the Royal American, which I definitely suggest, especially if you like to take pictures. It's a great spot. And there's a place down the street, the Tattooed Moose, which I ate dinner in--it's also really good. At the show, I asked people what should I do in the morning? I try to talk to people, especially in places I've never been.
"I try to talk to friends of mine, like where did you play, what bands did you play with? I can usually get in touch with a band that might be willing to play with you. That way, hopefully they're known there, and they're going to draw some people.
"That did not happen in Salt Lake City this time. It was far and away the worst show of the trip. It was just mishandled. They got an opener at the last second; I should have been the opener. We played like six people, made eight dollars.
But, he adds,
"It's not all the one hour you're playing or how much money you're making. It's how I like to spend my time. "If I were independently wealthy, I've always said I would keep moving, like every month, for the rest of my life. Just to go get a feel for another place."
Last year, Joe collected his ten-year retirement, quit his teaching gig, and left Providence for the blue-collar rents of nearby Warren.
He's is now planning his third record, considering getting a booking agent, and thinking occasionally about what else there might be to accomplish, now that making a decent living as a musician is underway.
One goal is, possibly, to relocate to Nashville, where the climate (musical and meteorological) is warmer. Another is to meet Bob Dylan someday. ("I'd say I'd love to open for him, but I've seen a lot of people do that, and it seems like a pretty thankless position. Just because you're on tour with him, doesn't mean you're going to hang out with Bob.")
The only truly important thing for him is the one that never gets easier--putting out things that he stands by.
"I don't just whip them off, day by day. It's hard to come up with things that don't sound like things you've heard before...stories that you're going to be able to relate to, but from a different angle."
Knowing when he's hit the mark, he says, is purely intuitive.
"I can feel it. I really can just feel it. There are lines that I'll sing tonight that still drive me nuts. I'm pretty tough on myself, and will not let things go that other people say are okay if I know that this line does not measure up to the song."
The Low Anthem, headliners of the evening, are the first to announce Joe's surprise appearance. They invite him onstage to join their closing number. The crowd, I presume, is delighted--I hear a rise in the muffled applause on the other side of the wall. I've migrated from the main stage to the second floor, to grab a decent seat in the smaller performance space up here, along with the few other people who have been tipped off to the show-after-the-show.
The clapping on the other side of the wall dies down, and the upstairs room begins to fill. The doors in the wall open, and Joe walks in, flanked by guitarist Damien Puerini, bassist Joe Principe, and drummer "Handsome" Dave Hemingway--the committed lineup of The Wrong Reasons since 2010. This is the first show they've done together in three months.
There's no way to know if they're having a rough time of it. Despite the lateness of the hour, and the litany of bands that have preceded them, the crowd gets a rowdy second wind as the Wrong Reasons take the stage. It's hard to hear Joe's voice through the din of voices and foot-stomping that accompany him.
In the early, more rockabilly days of The Wrong Reasons, it was hard to get an audience to even sit through a show. Joe blames the cold weather of Providence for producing a chilly hesitation to songs that routinely bring Nashville audiences to their feet. But it might also have to do the terrifying anger in his vocal tone, back then, which makes it hard to catch the literate quality of his lyrics. Still, his first album "Bury Your Problems" is worth the listen, not least to hear Macbeth quoted in screamo. (I opine that Shakespeare would have dug it.)
These days, Joe sings with the insinuating reserve of Kris Kristofferson, breaking occasionally into a Nick Cave wail. He concedes that his second record is "less angry, but not necessarily any more content."
Audiences warm up a lot more quickly to Joe these days, in part because the zeitgeist favors his style of music, at the moment. Providence itself is now on the map as the hometown of fratty folksters Deer Tick. But even though his "operation" precedes them by nearly ten years, Joe is only just now catching up to the area's other bands, in terms of recognition. As recently as 2010, his application to the Newport Folk Festival was denied; he ended up attending it as a guitar tech for Brown Bird.
It should be noted that Joe didn't say any of this to me. (I looked it up for myself.) The last thing you'll find him doing is complaining about the musician's life--even the unmusical parts of it. He acknowledges that it's hard to keep apace of managing his band, booking and promoting shows, even drawing poster art, and still make time for writing new music and...you know, being an artist.
"I can be in a headspace where I'm out doing all these things, talking to all these people, and I'm just not, you know, I'm not available to turn it into something else."
It's a hard place to get to, Joe acknowledges, and while he acknowledges that there are certainly things he can do to bring it on, he hesitates in saying what they are.
"Just, like, not letting..."
"Staying calm, staying relaxed in a situation, not getting too tense or wrapped up in things that don't really matter. Just like mentally take care of myself, whether it's meditation or something. Just kind of keep you on an even keel... I don't know how to describe it."
I'm oddly reassured by his sudden self-consciousness. At the same time, I'm frustrated. Much as I try to go into these conversations open to anything, reticence is the hardest thing for me to accept. Especially when it's someone whose work I admire.
Music's unique ability to make us feel understood draws us toward the person who makes it. That's what I'm telling myself, as the silence begins to accrue. I can't think of what else to ask, and yet my questions aren't answered, and Joe displays a very un-musician-like tendency not to talk more than is necessary.
I was prepared to be ignored. But I wasn't prepared to encounter someone who, like anyone else, isn't quite sure how he manages to do what he does. Or doesn't know how to express it. Or doesn't care to try.
My ace is forced--I ask Joe if there's anything else I should ask him about, that I haven't yet.
He smiles self-deprecatingly, confessing,
"I would like to go and see some of the show."
Maybe the only way to make that kind of music that really reaches other people is to be less concerned with what you're doing, and how you're doing it, than with whatever it is.
In the year and few months since releasing White Lighter, The Wrong Reasons have been taking their genre in greater strides. Multiple Daytrotter sessions, a slot in Adam Duritz's Outlaw Roadshow, and an actual invitation to the Newport Folk Festival, not to mention longer tours--Joe credits all of this to the friends he's made, on the Internet and on the road.
"I'm really not doing anything different than I was doing three years ago. I mean, we're probably a better live band. I'm probably a slightly better solo performer than I was a couple years ago. but mainly it's just who's been noticing. The Newport Folk Festival wanting us to play...we could have played a very similar set three years ago; it's just a question of being brought to their attention. Just the right people caring.
"It's been a really good year. It's a really good record."
Get a teaser listen to a track from Joe's upcoming third release: