By Patrick Barcus
It’s mid-February, four degrees Fahrenheit…
…minus eleven with the wind chill. Pillars of ghostly snow are picked up by the breeze and dance a ring around the Putnam County Courthouse. I sit in my car, heater cranked, waiting. My phone rings. On the other end is Gus Moon. He tells me the venue he’s playing, which I am parked in front of, won’t open for an hour. He’s still on his way, winding through the snow-blind night toward Greencastle.
—–We set up camp down the street in Moore’s Bar, a time machine sort of place where the only thing that seems to change is the weather outside, but the locals like it that way. Gus Moon sits at a corner table surrounded by members of his new project, Trollkiller, who are in town to play some of the tunes from their new album, Gentle Now. Over the blare of “Walk This Way” on the jukebox, we have beers and try to shake off the chill.
—–Gus Moon is a gentle-eyed, soft-spoken thirty something raised not ten miles from where we sit, in northern Putnam County, Indiana, where Big Walnut Creek cuts through forests, jagged limestone cliffs, and black-dirt farmland. And tonight, like most other nights I’ve either sat around a table with him or traded licks on guitars, Gus Moon puts off a refreshing air of honesty and calm that seems to put others at ease. He’s polite to a fault, at times, another leftover from his local upbringing. Perhaps what makes Gus Moon stand out from the herd of other regional singer-songwriters is ability to be content. He shoots to kill with the narratives in his songs. But in life, Gus Moon is happy just to be in this little town tonight, at this little bar, at this little table, getting ready to play a little gathering space run by local college students.
In 2013, NUVO critic and illustrator, Wayne Bertsch…
…drew a comic-strip-like endorsement of Gus Moon, where Bertsch claimed that if “[Gus Moon] ever gets out of town and tours, I think he could really blow up. He certainly has the talent.” While it’s true that on this particular night Gus Moon is playing in his home town (he now lays his head in Lebanon, Indiana), he has definitely gotten out, as has his music. He plays regularly all over central and western Indiana, from Fishers to Terre Haute and all points between. He’s played gigs in Austin, Texas and there are plans in the works to take Trollkiller to Colorado this summer. But for all of his exposure, Gus Moon is more than fine with where he is. As he sings in the coda of “Waiting for the Sun,” Gus Moon ends up “right back where I began.”
An hour after a practice was set to start there was still no sign of Gus Moon. A bit concerned, we called. He was parked on the shoulder of the highway, furiously writing a song as the traffic whizzed by.
—–If success comes to Gus Moon in big fashion, great. If not, he’ll be just fine simply creating great songs. “I never think of ‘blowing up’ or making it,” Moon says. “Not really sure what that even means. I just want to make a few albums a year and tour to promote them. And not lose money. That’s the goal.” It’s a refreshing approach from someone with such obvious talent. Especially in a singer-songwriter world where so many are squandering originality to become the next Mumford and Sons, mindlessly banging on their kick drums and prattling on about platitudes, while they think about how many Facebook likes they’re generating. If Gus Moon “blows up,” it won’t be because he sounds like all the rage. He’s the real deal. All original.
—–As true to himself as Gus Moon can seem, when pick hits string and he pulls that first lyric up from his gut, he transforms. A Gus Moon show is as much a séance as it is a musical experience, as he melds personal experience, troubled characters, and often more-troubling narratives into many of his songs. He becomes the persona of the songs, like an actor might embody a role. It’s powerful. His mouth is a channel where several voices erupt, recalling the brokenness of their bad loves and the triumphs of their picking up the shards. Other songs are much more topically bright, but there’s always some sort of balance in his songs between the darkness and the light. A balance reflected in his voice. Just enough polish to know it’s been taken care of; just enough scratch to know it’s seen its share of heartache.
About a dozen miles north of Greencastle…
…out among the rolling terrain marked by corn stubble and grazing horses sits a non-descript pole barn, like any other you might expect to find on a lonely Hoosier back road. But there are no tractors or feed trucks hidden within. This is the musical lair of Gus Moon. “I like the city, but having the ability to come home to the country and properly breathe is something I appreciate as much as being able to do what I love and almost make a living,” he says.
—–Inside, he’s constructing a recording studio. I ask him how the progress is coming. “Six years and still moving like a snail. The studio is about to the point where I can record my next album.” He’ll get there. He’s been putting the place together as he goes, setting aside what cash he can for equipment. As he states in one of his songs, “I get paid in change.” But when it is done, he’ll have an Indiana version of Shang-ri-la. A place he can go for both sounds and solace. He’s made one LP to date, 2012’s Worn Out Shoes, and one EP, 2014’s Splendid Noise, to go along with Trollkiler’s recent release. But, the album he makes here may be his best yet, if his self-constructed comfort zone can repay all the blood he’s poured into it. I ask if he’s working on anything new. “Always,” he says. “I can’t wait to get the new stuff on an album. I have a clear direction I want it to be presented. For me, this is a hell of a feat.”
—–Indeed, making order out of chaos is the wheelhouse of the songwriter, and Gus Moon is no exception. When the muse comes knocking, you better get to the door before she’s on to her next suitor. “I’d rather not control it,” he says of songwriting. More like it controls him. “Sometimes songs scream ‘finish me!’ I have to listen.”
—–One instance in particular sticks out in my mind when thinking about Gus Moon’s process. In 2011, he spent much of the year playing and singing in my own sporadically-gigging band, as he tried to scratch together cash for recording equipment and time at other studios. An hour after a practice was set to start there was still no sign of Gus Moon. A bit concerned, we called. He was parked on the shoulder of the highway, furiously writing a song as the traffic whizzed by. Another half hour later, he showed up and played us the song, “Last Night’s Girl.” A great song, it made it on to Worn Out Shoes and remains a staple of his sets today. None of us even considered getting upset with him. He’s almost impossible not to like, and you have to love an artist who’s true to the moment of inspiration and to themselves, no matter what. Gus Moon is that artist. He’s equal parts genius, charisma, and humility. His songs are beautifully crafted, but he’d probably be the last to admit it.
Tonight, roughly two dozen souls…
…have braved the polar vortex to see Gus Moon and friends play a two hour set in a non-descript store front that is half amateur art gallery and half performance space. Most in the crowd are regulars at his Greencastle shows, fellow musicians and friends both old and new. As he meanders into a loose, play-what-we-feel-like set of old favorites and newer material, the crowd responds not with polite support, but real admiration. In fact, the storm outside may be a gift. Gone are the noisy patrons who chatter on in bars, despite the fact that they’re missing a genuine performer play some of the best original music in the state. Gone are the too vocal locals clamoring for a Skynyrd song because it’s all they’ll ever know. It’s just the handful of us and Gus Moon. And to hear him tell it, he couldn’t be happier to be strumming out the night in his frozen hometown. “I’m thankful for my county, my town, my upbringing. It’s made me who I am and most hours I’m pretty pleased with my being.” Looking around the room tonight, it seems that everyone here couldn’t agree more.