Will Hoge, From Carousel Rocker To Protest Poet, Likes Where He’s Landed

Jul 22, 2020

When Will Hoge needed the industry to listen to his music, the biz had its head, shall we say, elsewhere. In the late 1990s, Hoge was earning a regional following and respect as an unpretentious rock and roll songwriter in the tradition of Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen. He was from Nashville and he wasn’t destined for country. But the rock and pop labels were cashing in on Korn, Blink-182 and Kid Rock. “If I had one conversation, I had 5,000 conversations about, ‘you need to sound more like any flavor of the week,’” Hoge says. “Here’s this thing that I do, and they would try to make it be something else, and I just was never gonna do that. It was like banging my head against the wall.”

Said banging was significantly relieved by the intervention of historic Atlantic Records. As Hoge recalls it, he made his way through the industry obstacle course at the tail end of the era when independent radio stations and bar-sized venues still had an impact on where the talent scouts looked for emerging acts. Via that non-linear process, the music company that launched Aretha Franklin and Led Zeppelin brought Hoge aboard, re-releasing his self-made debut album Carousel in 2001 to wide acclaim. That story will be front and center as Hoge takes to the web for a series in which he’ll revisit his recorded catalog with performance and recollections. It starts Thursday at 7 pm CT on Facebook, and he’s calling it How Did We End Up Here?

It’s a great question. Will Hoge, and the family, band members, team and fanbase that surround him, has lived one of the epic indie success stories of modern Music City. He’s a local lad who made a national name for himself, even if that major label relationship didn’t last long. Atlantic under-whelmed with its support of his sophomore album Blackbird On A Lonely Wire, and then when Hoge talked about releasing social protest music, the label balked and they found a way to amicably part ways. He’s steered his own ship since then through a stormy 21st century digital music revolution, emerging as a lifer who’s never compromised his bracing sound or spirit.

Hoge is a paradoxical cat, a crowd-pleaser whose political songwriting can polarize, a rock and roller happily raising a family in the nest of Nashville nice. While his renown was built being on the road for most of any given year, Hoge has secured a place in the pantheon of artists Nashville is proud to call hometown acts. He’s sung for his city through two tornadoes, an epic flood and now a pandemic. He’s like that rare pro athlete who spends his whole career in the same jersey. We’ll let you say and sing anything you want, Will Hoge. Just never leave us. Here’s an edited Q&A with Hoge from July 15.

WMOT: As I looked over your early years, your relationship with Dan Baird of the Georgia Satellites jumped out. What was the story there?

I'd always just been in bands and been the singer in bands. At some point, I decided that I was just going to do it myself and put together (my own) band. We were playing The End over on Elliston Place. And the rhythm section had worked with Dan some on another project and he came to a show. And of course, I was a huge fan. I wasn’t starstruck but maybe awestruck. Here's this guy that I have seen on MTV. I love his band's records. And he was real supportive of what I was doing. I was really hell bent on just trying to be on the road and playing. And you know, you're just at that point in your life, you're just young and stupid enough to call anybody and ask them to do anything. Okay, so Dan and I had swapped numbers, and I called him, and we'd had a conversation about production, and I wasn't ready for that. But I asked if he'd be a guitar player in my band. And, you know, I wouldn't make that call now to anybody, but I did it to damn Dan Baird, and he said yeah! He came and we rehearsed. It was very old school. (We) started working on the songs and he really became a mentor to me because he knew songs and he knew rock and roll performance like I wanted to do, and so his blessing really meant a lot to me. And I mean you know getting to be on stage with Dan that early at any point in our career is great but that early, it's a lot like having somebody come to you with the keys to a ‘59 Cadillac when you're 16 years old and just go here, drive it, do whatever you want. And he gave me the ability to just go on stage every night and do anything that I wanted and he was not fazed by it. He’s still one of my favorite people and favorite rock and rollers.

It’s been just over ten years since you recovered from a life-threatening scooter accident. What does that experience feel like now with hindsight?

There's times that it feels like it was 20 years ago. Also within the same day, something happens and it feels like it was yesterday, which is weird, you know. It's physical. It's emotional. There's things that just creep back in and you don't have a whole lot of control over that. But I think all in all, really a net positive. There was a big reset for me. I musically refocused on just the craft and why I want to do this. And there are a lot of lessons from that, that still play today, just in how I can focus in on songs and writing and being patient with things that I didn't do very well before. And same with my personal life. You know, there were lots of lessons as a dad. My oldest at the time was 16 months old. It was crazy. We got married in January. He had been born the previous April. The accident was in August. And so there was just a lot going on, at that point learning to be a husband, learning to be a dad and wrestling with those things too. There was just a lot of patience that came with it. And my appreciation for what I get to do for a living. I was always grateful, but I think after that, even more so. As difficult as this quarantine and pandemic stuff, the mental part of it, this would be a lot harder for me if we kind of hadn't had our own personal battle with some of this before, where it was like, okay, you can't work. What are you going to do? We've kind of seen this movie before. And so that's made it a little bit of an easier blow for us internally.

I noticed in the years since then you've been pretty prolific as a recording artist. You've made a lot more records in the time since then you had before - seven albums since 2009. What's going on there?

My natural inclination is to not put anything out you know, to really hold on to stuff. It's easy for me to be really fearful and not put music out there. I can talk myself into (thinking) this isn't good enough. You've got to redo this. I mean, I could go full Steely Dan and spend years and years making a record if left to my own devices. And so I've really tried to push myself to not be afraid of a wart or something in a record. I just enjoy the process. I love writing songs and working on records and as I've gotten more comfortable in the studio, wanting folks to hear that and getting over the fear of people not liking it. There's always going to be somebody that doesn't like it. But, you know, I also believe if I can just continue to put records out, you'll find that the audience can find your work a little easier.

You’ve kept up a steady pace of activist material, from 2012’s Modern American Protest Music to 2018’s My American Dream, where you directly talk about economic injustice, guns, racism. How have you approached that side of your work?

The first record like that – The America EP - was 2004. And that was really a turning point for me as an artist, because that was still during Atlantic, and after the big major label release, that was the next thing I wanted to do. And they said, you know, if you want to make records like this, we support you, and we agree with what you're saying. We just don't want to be a part of making records like that. And it was really interesting. It was a fairly amicable parting. They said you should take this record and go do your own thing and be the artist you want to be. And they let me go and that was all fine. But yeah, to continue to try to write those songs and use the platform that I have, however small or large that may be, I just think that that matters. I don't want to just be a rock and roll singer that sings rock and roll songs. I also don't want to just be a folkie that sings folk songs. So I have to clear the way with those records in my own head. And you know, what difference do they make in the world at large? I’m not near egotistical enough to think that they make a huge difference one way or the other. But for me, you know, it also leaves a bit of a roadmap I hope for my kids that years later, they can look and know where I stood on issues and hopefully give them the strength to stand up and use their own voices in their lives moving forward.

On My American Dream you wrote “Still A Southern Man” about changing your mind about the Confederate flag and monuments. I’m a North Carolinian who went through the same process and wrote about it recently. It’s hard to unwire some things.

My high school was the Franklin Rebels. I carried the Confederate flag to football games. And to me, it was pride in our school. And it was: we were rebels and we weren't gonna let anybody tell us what we were gonna do. And we hated Brentwood, because they were rich kids and we were the rebels because we were redneck poor kids. It just made total sense to me. And I remember that my friend came to me at one point when we were going to go to a football game in Memphis and her saying please don't bring the rebel flag to Memphis. And I remember saying to her why would I bring the rebel flag to Memphis? That would be so racist. So even as a 16 year old, you know, I understood the n-word and  being 1960s racist was not okay with me was never going to be okay. I wouldn't go to Memphis with a rebel flag and be rude to that city and the people of color at the school was that we were going to play. But it didn't dawn on 16-year-old me that this flag to all my friends of color that I've known since I was five years old, they are offended by this. Because it's not offensive to me didn't mean that it wasn't offensive to so many other people. And it's funny, that’s innocence and ignorance really and truly. And it took you know, a couple of years later as you get out of your own little bubble like you say, and you go, oh, wow, this is really screwed up that this is a thing that we're holding on to. And then you walk away from it and realize that it's okay to admit that you got something wrong and just be better.

On Tiny Little Movies you have “The Overthrow” which seems to relate to these concerns. Minds that don’t change may get swept away by history? It’s a rockin’ tune. I love it.

Yeah, thanks. It is. And that was born out of the kids leading these protests. I thought a lot about the youth movement because I do think that there's a culture of younger kids, they're not going to be more racist, or more homophobic. There's just there's so much love and positivity. At my oldest boy’s middle school, the students started a gay/straight alliance club where they go in and they meet once a week. And it's just people. They don't care. That ‘overthrow’ is just: indecency won't win. It may hang around longer than we want it to, but it'll lose every time and I'm so encouraged by those young folks and all the marches and protests. They keep getting younger and younger.

And perhaps on the other end of the spectrum of songs is a more personal assessment called “Maybe This Is OK,” about settling down some negativity and accepting things as they are?

It’s easy in this business to look at success as a line that you cross. Okay now I’m successful. And being able to pay your bills and doing this for a living, that’s a discernable line. But continued success in this business is the process. I think for a long time I got caught up in, like, I had to have these attainable things I could show somebody. And I missed out on a lot of the joy of doing this, worried constantly about how can I do more instead of just (remembering) how enjoyable it is to get to do this. And also there’s a fear for me that anything that goes well is immediately going to fall apart.  It’s a real mental trip for me. And so the remedy has been – there’s a lot of meditation and a lot of therapy. And I’ve had to realize the presence of something negative doesn’t negate everything else that’s really good. I know that sounds simple to a lot of people but it took me a bit to figure that out.