Dougie Poole Is Not Your Average Country Troubadour
Dougie Poole does not make the type of music you might expect to come out of the forested state of Maine. The cosmic country singer flaunts a bygone sound that seems like it could have emerged from the same smoky back rooms that birthed the legacies of artists like Townes Van Zandt, Gram Parsons, and Johnny Paycheck. With album titles like Wideass Highway and refrains such as “Now here I am, a red-blooded American cliché/ I was a Buddhist for a couple days” (from the aptly-titled The Freelancer’s Blues track “Buddhist For A Couple Days”), his persona lands somewhere in between the lackadaisical Angeleno cool of a Big Lebowski character and the weathered wisdom of a veteran trucker. But Poole doesn’t harbor much kinship towards the stereotypes that surround the dusty tropes his songwriting leans into.
“I don’t feel like a cowboy at all,” Poole tells me on a video call. “There’s all these sort of interwoven things about the story of country music, one of which is the story of Western cowboys — whether it’s Hollywood cowboys or being on the range or whatever. I don’t really know about it because it’s not really the sticking point for me in country.” Poole only started wearing a 10-gallon hat as an elemental signifier — it let people know he was different from the folk-y singer-songwriters he was adjacent to in the 2010s Brooklyn music scene. And he’s quick to counter my claim that country music is an inherently geographic medium. He references Canadians like Shania Twain and Hank Show to challenge my preconceived notions about the genre’s Southwestern heritage. For Poole, country is about the stories around us, no matter where we kick off our boots at the end of the day — a perspective exemplified by today’s warm and wistful new single “Nothing On This Earth Can Make Me Smile.”
Poole grew up in Midtown Manhattan. As a child, he learned the piano and says that his self-described “Ed Sullivan Show moment” happened when he saw a Comedy Central commercial for the Beatles’ 1 compilation CD. As a teenager, he picked up the guitar and fell further down the classic-rock rabbithole. He became obsessed with the Grateful Dead, who ultimately yielded the formative discovery of Merle Haggard. Later, when Poole went off to college in Rhode Island, he played in the psych-tinged noise act Cool World. Impacted by friendships with like-minded creatives (notably Andy and Edwin White of freak-pop stalwarts Tonstartssbandht), a scrappier, more attainable career in music started to seem possible. But in spite of his involvement with an ambitious corner of the DIY scene, Poole still found himself making country songs in his downtime.
It wasn’t until Poole moved back to New York City that he figured out how to use his Americana chops to complement a punk background. In 2016, he put out the lo-fi Olneyville System Special EP under his own name, which was followed by a collection of live “bootlegs,” captured at the Williamsburg bar Pete’s Candy Store. But he really found his footing with his aforementioned 2017 full-length debut Wideass Highway, which was followed by a Roy Orbinson-esque breakout feature on the track “Wild Motion” from Drugdealer’s 2019 album Raw Honey. By the time The Freelancer’s Blues dropped in 2020, Poole had firmly cemented his place as an answer to Orville Peck for the cool kids.
Finding comfort in the structure and constraints of timeless songwriting, Poole’s solo output is consistently familiar-but-enigmatic. It effortlessly blurs the lines between the absurd and the mundane, thanks to prominent lyrics about things like vaping at work and getting anxious while taking psychedelics with a romantic partner. The end result of this duality can be funny, but don’t get it twisted: Poole isn’t trying to write comedy music. Instead, he’s searching for brilliant ridiculousness in normalcy. “I feel like as musicians go, I’m fairly basic,” he says. “Lately I watch a lot of basketball and play video games, and I like to swim, and I like birds, and I look at my phone a lot.”
When I comment that an essence of fantasy still seems to emanate from his everyman pastimes, Poole’s answer suggests that there is some depth to these interests: “Deep down, I don’t really understand sports at all. What I like is drama and stories and, like, high-stakes things. It’s like Lord Of The Rings. All of that is just escaping from the surreal, scary stuff.” Poole says that he lets humor become a crutch for avoiding pain and sincerity. The wittiness that defines his verse often stems from fear and his tendency to turn away from the self-seriousness of others.
Poole’s latest full-length, The Rainbow Wheel Of Death, continues this streak of embracing the weirdness in familiarity. However, the music is comparably buttoned-up and refined this time around. After a stint working as an art handler, Poole is now a part-time coder, which forces him to spend much of his day staring at a screen. The album appropriately takes its name from the ominous technicolor ball that pops up on a computer monitor when it stalls. When asked about the influence that the Internet has had on his recent output, Poole says that it isn’t as overt as it may seem. He doesn’t see a barrier between our digital and corporeal worlds and inadvertently draws from the former space in his writing because he believes that coexisting with an online realm silently shapes the majority of contemporary media. (Poole also voluntarily points out how creepy this is.)
The Rainbow Wheel Of Death came to life speedily, but is ironically inspired by waiting, patience, and aging. At the start of the pandemic – when Poole realized he wouldn’t be able to tour for an extended period of time – he took up his current day job and stopped making music for a bit. He would occasionally book out-of-town Airbnbs and escape to write for a few days, but for the most part he shut down as an artist. Finally, post-vaccination, the spark returned. Poole took a couple months off to process the toll that COVID had taken on his life and register changes that had arisen during his time spent in solitude. The Rainbow Wheel Of Death is a byproduct of that rumination.
Where the production processes of Poole’s prior endeavors were tethered to generating textures in Ableton, this fresh batch of songs was written on a guitar without recording techniques in mind. Eventually, he hit up Frankie Cosmos collaborators-turned-Poole neighbors Katie Von Schleicher (Purple Mountains, New Pornographers, Neko Case) and Nate Mendelsohn (Market) to help flesh out those demos. The crew loaded up a bunch of gear and drove down to Von Schleicher’s childhood home in Pasadena, Maryland for a few days, accompanied by Poole’s backing band. They live-recorded all nine tracks, which Poole says allowed him a newfound ability to let go of control.
The album that emerged from those sessions is organic and heady. Single “High School Gym” finds Poole pondering his life’s trajectory over a synth-heavy, Springsteenian shuffle. “Nothing In This World Can Make Me Smile” and closer “I Hope My Baby Comes Home Soon” are equally stoic and subdued. “I hope it won’t be long/ I hope you do what you gotta do,” he sings over a sprawling, drippy instrumental on the latter cut. “I Lived My Whole Life Last Night” lands in between ‘70s radio pop and American primitivism. And the title track is a spirited outlier, carried by whirring sound effects, amber-tinted slide guitar, and a cheerily soulful melody. The sorrows of the modern age abound in Poole’s lyricism, his demeanor hesitant, weary, and critical. Even at his most mature, though, Poole remains affable — he’s still smiling, but on this album that metaphorical smirk is more coy than it is boisterous.
Once The Rainbow Wheel Of Death is out in the world, Poole’s ambitions are pretty modest. More than anything else, he wants to promote the record in a sustainable way. “It’s funny. I feel like my last record got enough recognition for me to realize that no amount of recognition is going to fill the void,” he says. Poole mostly wants to be able to pay his band well, rent a nice van, and stay in hotels. For him, the rewarding part of being a touring musician simply comes down to whether or not the music sounds good on stage.
Outlaw grit courses through Poole’s music, but he views himself as a standard indie rock musician more than some kind of New England-based Nashville hitmaker. “If I could make dance music, I would,” Poole says, confessing that he wouldn’t mind the ability to channel the trendy accessibility of pop stars like Charlie XCX and the late SOPHIE. Poole crafts rootsy music because it’s what he knows how to do well. Nonetheless, he gets excited when I admit that stumbling upon his stuff through the Spotify algorithm back in college was a big part of the reason I let myself fall in love with classic country records. Genre, geography, and lofty goals aside, Poole’s grip on unassuming poeticism already holds its own when compared to the work of the greats. The Rainbow Wheel Of Death evokes a Numero Group compilation – namely You’re Not From Around Here – repurposed for a generation of young people probing for lighthearted calm in the thick of societal turbulence and widespread malaise.
04/06 – New York, NY @ Baby’s All Right
04/07 – Philadelphia, PA @ Dolphin
04/08 – Washington, DC @ Comet
04/09 – Charlotte, NC @ Petra’s
04/10 – Atlanta, GA @ The Earl
04/11 – Nashville, TN @ Third Man
04/13 – Jackson, MS @ Hal and Mals
04/14 – New Orleans, LA @ Gasa Gasa
04/15 – Houston, TX @ Axelrad
04/16 – Dallas, TX @ Club Dada
04/17 – Austin, TX @ Antone’s
04/18 – San Antonio, TX @ Paper Tiger
04/20 – Tucson, AZ @ Club Congress – 420 fest
04/21 – San Diego, CA @ Soda Bar
04/22 – Costa Mesa, CA @ The Wayfarer
04/23 – Los Angeles, CA @ Lodge Room
04/24 – Oakland, CA @ Cafe Du Nord
04/25 – Sacramento @ Starlet Room
04/27 – Portland, OR @ Polaris Hall
04/28 – Vancouver, BC @ Cobalt
05/01 – Denver, CO @ Hi Dive
05/02 – Lawrence, KS @ The Bottleneck
05/04 – Minneapolis, MN @ First Ave Entry
05/05 – Chicago, IL @ The Empty Bottle
05/06 – Grand Rapids, MI @ Pyramid Scheme
05/07 – Fort Wayne, IN @ Brass Rail
05/08 – Bloomington, IN @ Blockhouse
05/09 – Columbus, OH @ Ace of Cups
05/10 – Cleveland, OH @ Mahall’s
05/11 – Pittsburgh, PA @ Club Cafe
05/13 – Burlington, VT @ Showcase Lounge
05/14 – East Haven, CT @ The Beeracks
05/16 – Boston, MA @ Crystal Ballroom
05/17 – Amherst, MA @ The Drake
The Rainbow Wheel Of Death is out 2/24 on Wharf Cat.