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Published: 2013/04/30
by Brian Robbins

Paul McHugh: Teching for the Truckers and Picking for Pilgrim

I’ve always wondered when watching the techs and roadies do their thing prior to a concert how many of those folks are wishing/thinking/hoping that their turn in the spotlight is coming. In particular, it’s interesting to watch the various approaches guitar techs take in their on-stage gear checks: some are seen but never heard, listening to themselves through ear monitors as they rip off a quick run up the neck or chop out a couple of chords before putting the axe in the on-stage rack.

It’s the others that I wonder about, though: the ones who get a reaction from the crowd when they walk onstage with “so-and-so’s Les Paul, man!” It can be a little awkward – especially if the tech resembles “so-and-so” at all: there’s the obvious rise and fall of crowd noise as if to say, “Oh – you ain’t him.” But then there’s the plugging-in of the recognized axe – and if the accompanying signature amp is live and audible, there’s that moment where the tech is simply giving the fresh strings one final yank, yet can’t help but give in to the raw power of that Les Paul roaring through that ’65 Fender Deluxe or whatever. What to do: a recognizable lick from that particular band’s arsenal? A tried-and-true I’ve-only-got-10-seconds-so-I’d-better-make-it-good riff that players save for showdowns in the guitar showroom? Whatever: the guitar tech fires off a run, letting loose a blast of familiar-sounding noise. There are always a few in the audience that react; maybe they lock eyes with the tech for a moment and there’s a look of, “Yeah, you and I both know this is pretty damn cool, but I got shit I gotta go do …” and the guitar is hung and the tech disappears into the blackness of the wings.

These are some of the things I’ve wondered about.

But after hearing the debut album from Pilgrim and talking with the band’s guitarist/vocalist/songwriter, I don’t wonder at all about Paul McHugh – who also happens to be the guitar tech for The Drive-By Truckers. McHugh’s in a good place: he loves his “day job” with the Truckers – and his “night job” ain’t too shabby, either.

Pilgrim’s new self-titled debut is something to be proud of – and so is the fact that the band created Pilgrim entirely on their own terms: Paul McHugh may be part of the Drive-By Truckers’ team, but his music stands solidly on its own hind legs.

The connection with the Drive-By Truckers comes from the natural cross-pollination of the Athens, GA music scene. Athens may indeed be this time around’s version of the late 60s/early 70s Bay Area vibe, when players freely drifted in and out of each other’s orbits in both live and studio settings. Trucker Patterson Hood was a fan and supporter of McHugh’s band Mother Jackson since their formation in 2001. Mother Jackson (self-described as “what it would sound like if AC/DC and The Stooges had grown up in Georgia”) opened for the Truckers; the bands’ members jammed together; they were all friends.

By the late 2000s, McHugh was the only original member of Mother Jackson and though he was still playing music, the setting was really morphing into something new. In the meantime, the Truckers were headed out on the road and needed a truck driver – was McHugh interested? Sure enough; and when there was an opening for a guitar tech during the summer of 2012, the Truckers turned to the talent they had at hand. Since then, Paul McHugh has been the man who’s made sure Cooley and Hood’s guitars sound like Cooley and Hood’s guitars.

Back home in Athens, McHugh’s main musical focus was a trio consisting of himself, bassist John “TJ” Lord Velez-Machado, and drummer Matt Hudgins. There was an undeniable synchronicity amongst the three – a band was born; an album was to follow.

Some of the tunes on Pilgrim were taking form back in the Mother Jackson days, says McHugh; others showed themselves once Pilgrim gelled as a band. McHugh is a firm believer in the Keith Richards school of thought that “the songs are all up there somewhere – sometimes we’re just the antenna.”

Consider “Hey Eli (Where You Going?)”, which introduced itself initially when McHugh picked up an old acoustic guitar at a friend’s house: “I just started playing and out came the first line: ‘Hey Eli, where you going/I’m going down to Mrs. Fisher’s well …’ I thought, ‘What was that?

“The next day, I’m walking down the sidewalk and I could hear the next verse – it just kept coming,” he says, laughing.

Other times the process is pure Beat: McHugh sometimes takes advantage of his dreamscapes, hitting the desk immediately after waking, setting a timer and “just letting it fly, writing as fast as I can – whatever comes into my head; a total stream-of-consciousness thing.” The Kerouacian approach might spawn focused song ideas with fully-formed scenes or lyrics; other times, he’ll borrow from William Burroughs’ playbook, cutting and pasting random sentences and thoughts to construct a scenario that blossoms into a song.

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