“Where there are rules, there are rules to break,” says unique country musician Dougie Poole.
The singer-songwriter twists his genre in surprising ways. His breakout album, 2020’s The Freelancer’s Blues, took traditional country sounds but deployed them in a new context, a contemporary world of vaping at work and briefly experimenting with Buddhism. If Poole sounds like an outlaw but writes from somewhere far from Nashville, it’s not a schtick but a stellar use of old history.
“I always kind of liked it,” the New York-born, Rhode Island-educated Poole said of country music. “My parents liked folk music, pop – Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor. My dad’s from Appalachian Pennsylvania (Port Allegheny), so he had some predilection for it. I liked the Grateful Dead when I was a kid. I still do. Their whole thing was to smush together a bunch of kinds of American music. They do Marty Robbins and Merle Haggard. I don’t know – it’s everywhere. I think it’s as prevalent in American popular music as rock ‘n’ roll is or hip-hop or jazz.”
Country music drew Poole in partly because it’s “a musical tradition that places the words of a song in the foreground”. As someone who has studied writing, he found the storytelling nature of the genre appealing. He doesn’t simply look to classic Nashville for inspiration, though, as he recognizes sharp storytelling skills in an array of styles and even media.
After mentioning Merle Haggard as the “classic” example of a country storyteller, he explained, “There are also a million ways to tell a story. Joni Mitchell tells a great story, but it’s more impressionistic. When it comes to the kind of storytelling – that feels a little bit like puzzle-solving, like short story-writing or tv writing. I feel like TV writers are masters of both short-form storytelling and story arcs, but then also fitting a bunch of small arcs into a larger arc. Like Larry David… that’s kind of what I’m re-watching right now. I like old, like the stuff that was around. What do I watch over and over again? I watch Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Sopranos because that’s what was on when I was in high school. They’re both incredibly funny but also great storytelling and really layered character development. In Curb there’s also this whole Vaudeville thing he has going on with skinny Larry David and fat Jeff Garland.”
It makes sense that Poole would quickly bring up comedy since much of his own writing has a wry comic sensibility, usually used to provoke difficult emotions. “Buddhist for a Couple Days” plays with clichéd spiritual experimentation and churches that “turned my other cheeks away” but turns the laughter into mediation on romantic loss. The title track of the new album The Rainbow Wheel of Death takes its central image from the terminal icon that tells you your Mac is struggling. Using an almost silly trope, Poole spins a song of existential angst.
The musical part of the tradition speaks to Poole as deeply as the lyrical one. “There’s something deep down in my gut or DNA or something that really likes the sound of a steel guitar,” he said. “The only people who play that are real freaks. When I say ‘freaks,’ I mean it requires … an incredible amount of both manual and mental coordination to be able to manage all the pedals and keep your intonation good. The guy who plays with me now [Jack McLaughlin] is a freak. And I mean that in the most endearing way. He’s a virtuoso.”
Understanding not just the tradition but also elements like the structure, the forms, and the tropes allows Poole to work within a system while breaking the rules. Using “country” as a starting point, he can bring his own visions to life in idiosyncratic ways. That personalized view spoke to a cultural moment in The Freelancer’s Blues in a way that resonated with a broad audience, but Poole didn’t limit himself to repeating his methodology for that record as he made The Rainbow Wheel of Death.
“The last record I was really precious about it,” he said. “I wrote every part and really obsessed over every song.” The process left him “exhausted,” but he came to a realization after the album found success.
“What I really wanted was some kind of recognition and thought that … fill up the hole in my heart or whatever,” Poole explained. “I don’t know what I thought it would give me. Once I got a little press, I realized pretty quickly that it doesn’t really change anything. It changes things as far as you have access to more stuff, but the basic problems of creativity and reckoning with yourself: that sticks around.”
He did realize that artistic success “stopped feeling like something that I was chasing,” and as he speaks his voice suggests not relief but a maturing liberation. He considers the more collaborative process of the new record and smiles.
“As somebody who started this project alone and writes mostly alone …. a lot of the real joy of music and what collaboration and community can seem like it falls away a little bit, so it was nice to get in touch with that more on this record.”
While the whole process might have brought in a number of people (including co-producers Katie Von Schleicher and Nate Mendelsohn), the songs remain distinctly Poole’s. “High School Gym”, for example, tells of a dream in which Poole sees the people he’s lost in his old school gym, providing details on his dad’s brand of cigarettes and his grandmother’s robe.
Poole laughed about its origins, saying, “One thing that I maybe struggle with is abstraction. There’s not a ton in there. That’s a dream that I have about my actual gym from high school. It’d be cool if I could just come up with stuff like that without having that dream.”
“Nothing on This Earth Can Make Me Smile” dives into the hurt of a relationship, but Poole takes a more specific look. “The title and the song itself is hyperbole,” he said. “I think it’s about falling in love with somebody and kind of sharing the less appealing parts of yourself with them, the parts that aren’t as easy to love back.”
Poole himself, unless the singer in that song, finds all sorts of inducements to smile. He mentions TV shows like Curb, but also animals (he’s a birder – we agree that hawks can be hard to ID) and basketball (he’s a fan of the New York Knicks).
“I’m fairly tall, so a lot of people assume that I did [play],” he said, “but I didn’t get tall until much later in life. I’m generally sort of uncoordinated. I played some racquet sports, and now I swim a lot, but I’m not a natural athlete.”
He adds cooking to his list, adding for those who don’t like to cook, “I cook as an expression of love but also out of a feeling of necessity. It’s a good thing to know how to do, just from a survivalist perspective.”
Poole has plenty to talk about other than his music and, in fact, there’s no sense that this latest record was inevitable. When the pandemic began, he took on full-time work as a remote software engineer, mostly working on user interfaces.
“I lucked out,” he said. “I spent most of my 20s working as a tutor and then an art handler and then I did one of those coding things. I studied math in school, and I got lucky. I have a certain skill set that translates really well to something that’s in high demand, and you don’t have to go to a job. Even if I could be a musician full-time, I don’t know if I would want to. As long as I feel like I’m not working for somebody who’s really selling people out. Right now I work for weather scientists. As long as I’m not doing something really bad, which I’ve done – I’ve done e-commerce stuff and whatever – it’s a nice escape.”
Fortunately for fans, his label Wharf Cat Records eventually said that if he wanted to keep doing music, he should do another album. Poole took some time off from work, but with his new perspective, that new process set in.
Asked about breaking country’s rules, he said, “I don’t think about that so much anymore. The older I get, the more I just try to get out of my own way, to just sort of listen to whatever I’m telling myself the music should be.”
He added with a laugh, “I wasn’t trying too hard on this record.” That approach along with the shorter time to write helped him. “I can’t really dwell on every word,” he said of the writing process. “It was less deliberate and more letting things happen.”
In a sense, his art and his day job differ, with the engineering feeling “like doing crossword puzzles”. “It’s a lot easier than music stuff,” he said. “You have clear goals; you can punch just about anything into Google and have an answer pop up. It’s a break from creative work.”
Yet that part of Poole’s personality does come into his music, which brings us back to the grammar of genre. Understanding form and tradition – even rules – provides its own sort of freedom and opportunity. “That’s what’s compelling or freeing to me about country music,” Poole said. “The rules that it gives sort of relieve you of the blank slate.”