by: Thomas D. Mooney
Will Hoge has street cred with just about everyone. He’s cool amongst Nashville chart toppers, Texas ramblers, southern songwriters, and just about everyone in between. Which really, shouldn’t be as much of a surprise; those folks get all along just fine. It’s just the audiences, for whatever reason, feel there’s something that makes them different.
He may not know it, but he’s walking a line few have been able to do. Hoge has been able to break into each fanbase where they all feel he’s theirs.
For example: Eli Young Band made his (and Eric Paslay’s) “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” a Billboard topping hit and a Grammy nominated song, with the help of Wade Bowen, “Another Song Nobody Will Hear” topped the Texas Regional Radio Report Charts back in April, and all the while making records that sound like a combination of The Boss, The Hold Steady, Ray LaMontagne, and Chris Knight.
We caught up with Hoge earlier this week to talk about his new record, Never Give In, songwriting, the state of country music, and American protest music. Hoge will be playing The Blue Light tonight, September 6.
New Slang: Here in about a month or so, you’ll be releasing a new record, Never Give In (Oct. 15). It’ll be your eighth full-length record. You’ve written a bunch of material in your career. With that, how do you keep songwriting fresh and a challenge?
Will Hoge: I don’t know if it’s ever anything that’s real intentional. I think that part of it is, as your life changes, there’s constantly new things to write about. It’s one of my favorite things. Growing up and seeing different parts of the world, it’s a constant change. But, there’s not a big process to keep it fresh. It’s kind of a big mystery to me and I feel like I don’t want to figure it out because it’ll make it harder to do.
NS: Yeah. It could be one of those things where if you ever did figure it all out, you’d lose it and never be able to write again.
WH: Yeah [laughs]. I won’t work too hard to find out where it comes from.
NS: What do you think will be something people notice is different on this record that you haven’t done previously?
WH: I feel like this one, it has some really great story songs on it. I feel with each record, I’m getting better at getting to the core of each song. I think this one is a continuation of that process. We’ve really taken these pieces of music that were written with me and an acoustic guitar or a piano and really gotten to the core of that with the band. I’m excited for people to hear it.
NS: What was the most difficult song to write or finish? Was there anything really challenging?
WH: Not really. The writing process wasn’t. There wasn’t anything that became super challenging I think. Everything came very naturally. The recording process was another thing. We did it with basically two recording bands. A couple of those (songs) we kicked around bunches of different versions. Like really rock versions of a song and then a real country version and maybe a mid-tempo version. There were a couple of those that were kind of interesting to wrangle. But we got everything done with what worked best.
NS: For you, how do you ultimately decide which version ends up on the record?
WH: It totally just comes to a gut decision. As the producer and the artist, I guess I have two perspectives on it. As an artist, I can get behind all of the versions. I’m proud of them all. But it depends on how the rest of the record feels. And at the end of the day, what makes the song the most believable. There’s a song on the record called “Daddy Was a Gamblin’ Man.” We had a more up-tempo, not hard rock, but real rocking version of it and it was really cool. It had a great feel to it. But we went back, because at the core, it’s really a country song story-wise. So we went back and did a more “country” version. They generally feel like one or the other right off the bat and this one just felt better country. So that’s the version on the record.
NS: Do you like having those options though? Like obviously, that song, on the record is the more country version, but do you like to go from time to time and switch it up during the live performances?
WH: Yeah. That’s really one of the most fortunate things I have. Being able to have done this for 15 years and having such a great core fanbase, we can do those kind of things live. Or we can take a real rock song off an old record and break it down and do it acoustic and people still respond to it. That’s one of the things we enjoy as players, but also think fans enjoy seeing at a show. If you’re just going to play the record exactly how it is, they can save their 20 bucks and stay at home and just listen to the CD.
NS: I like that with bands. I guess I generally feel that albums should be viewed as photographs of a certain time. They should just be the blueprints of the songs and you can change them if you feel the need over time.
WH: Oh yeah. I agree.
NS: It’s a very Bob Dylan kind of thing. Which leads me to my next question actually. I guess for the last six months or so, I’ve been hooked on this question after reading it in a Dylan interview and have in turn, began asking different songwriters it. Basically, Dylan was saying in an interview that the most difficult part of songwriting for himself was taking that initial inspiration, that first spark, that feeling or idea–whatever it is that makes him sit down and begin writing–taking that and making sure it ends up in the final version of the song. How true is that for you?
WH: I think that is one of the challenges. You get that initial spark or idea, maybe three chords or four chords, the melody, or maybe one great line. But you know, it’s hard. You can come up with one great line, but that doesn’t mean it’s something somebody will want to hear. Can you make one great line into two verses and two choruses and a bridge? Or whatever it is. Yeah. That is the challenge. Taking that initial idea and turning it into a full-blown bonfire. Yeah, that’s a constant challenge.
NS: Yeah. So with you, as time has gone on, you’ve been getting called country more and more. And it’s not one of those things where you “went country.” It’s more one of those things where the country genre has kind of expanded. With that though, there’s been all these different articles and lists written about how you’re this songwriter, this artist, who can “save country music.” How does that effect you? What do you think when you hear these things?
WH: Well one, that’s a huge compliment. I realize why people say things like that. They’re being complimentary. I know some people have sent me articles about being like one of seven songwriters who could potentially save country music. That’s supposed to be flattering. It’s a long-winded way of saying they like what I do. And I truly appreciate that. But, I’d be one to say that country music doesn’t even need saving. It is what it is. And you know, I grew up in Nashville. I’ve heard these conversations literally my whole life. There’s always an artist in country music that goes more towards a pop sound or a rock sound. And then traditionalists will say that it’s not country. A few years will go by and it’ll swing back the other way and someone will come along and “save country music” whether that person is Dwight Yoakum or Alan Jackson or whoever over time. There’s no artist who is going to save country music. It’s the consumers. If people continue to buy the stuff they buy, it’ll stay the same. I don’t know. That’s something I don’t sit around and pine over. I just want to continue writing great songs and making great records. I’m incredibly honored and grateful that the country genre has embraced me though. It’s a genre that means so much to me as a native Nashvillian and as an artist. It’s a true American art form. So even to be a footnote in the history of that, it means a lot, but it doesn’t change the way I feel. Like I said, just trying to write great songs and great records and play great shows.
NS: Yeah. I guess for me, I’m not an expert by any means, but I’m sure you can go back to the “very beginning” and go through they years in which somebody said it needed saving because it wasn’t what it was previously.
WH: Oh yeah. And we played the Opry one night, which is always such an honor to play. And Larry Gatlin of The Gatlin Brothers was the host. He made a little speech as we were being introduced and said, “When we came out 20, 25 years ago on the Grand Ole Opry, people were taken back because we were different from what had come before.” It’s always something that’ll be considered different because they haven’t heard it before. Which is true. Then again, you can sit and complain or you can go out and make great songs.
NS: You’ve had some of your songs covered by other artists that have received commercial and critical success. Do you ever fear that someone will take a song of yours and change it in a way that’ll make you cringe or anything?
WH: No, I don’t think so. It’s always been flattering–and it’s not like it’s happened so many times like I’m Carole King and have hundreds of songs recorded by others. Nonetheless, it’s been flattering. One because they’d even take the time and pay any attention to it. And so far, they’ve all been pretty faithful renditions of the songs. No, so it’s never been anything I’m taken aback by or upset with and I can’t imagine it happening in the future.
NS: Last year, you released an EP of songs, Modern American Protest Music. In the past, you’ve obviously written some songs that are more political or social commentary that end up on records and everything. But this is obviously a set of seven songs that are all political. I have to say that’s very fearless as a songwriter. I think it’s great that you’re, in a way, putting yourself out there and not afraid of people taking shots at you. I guess though, how did you decide to do this collection of songs?
WH: We done it before in 2004 called The America EP, which was a similar thing. This one, it sort of arose the same way. They were a batch of songs that were timely and needed to put out. I didn’t want to wait and try and put those songs on a record in the future because I felt the timing of them would have been off. So we went in and recorded them and put them on an EP. And there’s obviously people from management and people who shepherd me through my career, there’s no one who’s going to say, “You know what’s a brilliant idea to really further you career? You should put out an EP of politically or socio-economically tinged songs.” You’re going to tick somebody off. But I’ve always looked at it, with my fanbase, it’s more of a friendship than a fan and artist thing. I think what fans enjoy about what I do is that it bears an honesty. And these songs are honestly how I felt about certain things or my perspective on things. I don’t expect everyone to have the same opinion as me, but I liked to say that with my fans, 99% of them, even the ones who would say they didn’t agree with me, they’d say they respected what I was doing. I mean, there’s going to be people who don’t like songs on all records. This record we put out on Oct. 15, there’s going to be songs that somebody is going to hear and say “eh, that’s not my favorite song.” But I don’t think they’re going to feel differently about me as an artist. I feel it’s something that I have to do as an artist, as a writer, to challenge myself and as a human being. And to challenge my fanbase for that matter. If I can make someone who goes to a show or buys that record, to go to the water cooler at their job and just to take some time out of their day to listen to someone else’s thoughts on something, then it’s a tiny little victory for everybody. And vice versa. I don’t put out a record like that just to hear people tell me how great I am or how much they agree with everything I say. It’s a great opportunity for me to hear somebody say, ‘well, I feel about this totally different because of x, y, and z.” It helps me think too. There’s just so few issues that are that black and white I think. I hope that’s what the record shows the most. The ability to come to the middle.
NS: Yeah. First off, I’m more liberal leaning so I do agree more with these songs. But even if they were the more right-wing, I’d say it’s an overall good thing that you’re being genuine as an artist and songwriter. I don’t think we should expect everyone to have the same human experience, but like you’re saying, to at least think and compromise. And when it comes down to it, part of being an artist is to make people think.
WH: Yeah. I think so. I’m glad you agree–not that you agree with these songs. The liberal leaning or right-wing aspects, that doesn’t matter as much as all of us being willing to listen and to throw our opinions out, not to hope to be right, but to know there’s a debate to be had. That you can learn about things as well.
NS: Yeah. Now I’m going to get you out of here on this last question. While getting ready for this interview, I saw one you had in which you mentioned that you felt Buddy Holly was really the inventor of punk music. I think that’s pretty spot on.
WH: Yeah. Listen to those records. Buddy was an incredible producer as well and did some really lush string arrangements as well, but those early, early songs, it’s a guitar and it’s an amp, a drummer, and a bass player. It just had this real raw quality that I feel was a real predecessor to the Ramones and even all the way up to Green Day. Sonically the records change as recording has gotten better, but it’s not filled with all these big, fancy solos. The band seems to chug through these quick, three-minute songs. I hope that’s coming across as big a compliment as I mean it. As a singer, as a guitar player, and as an arranger, just amazing. I’m sure there’s some people who are going to say punk started with the Ramones, but for me, punk will have always started with Buddy Holly.
NS: Yeah. I feel with anything really, there’s always going to be somebody arguing that this artist did it before this other one and they should get more of the credit. You’re always going to get that. Even in this conversation, someone will read this and say “No, [insert name here] did it before Holly.” But, like I said, I think starting with Holly is really spot on.
WH: Oh yeah. He stole that one part from this guy who did it here.
NS: Yeah. But that’s just music.