Will Hoge almost got the dream.
In 2015, the independent Nashville-based recording artist seemed poised to win the country music lottery. He and his band had been picked by a major radio conglomerate as a spotlight artist, to be introduced on a mass scale to radio listeners nationwide. Looking back now, Hoge says the slot was virtually a guarantee of a top 10 record in the country music sphere. “This is exactly what the program is for,” the radio group told him and his band: spotlighting new artists or independent acts and helping them find a home in the infamously commercialized world of country radio.
For Hoge, being picked as a next big thing was the realization of a long-held dream. He’d released his first record—as part of the band Spoonful—in 1997, before going solo with 2001’s Carousel. What followed was a series of well-liked and respected records that melded country, southern rock, and heartland rock into something that sounded like a twangier Springsteen. For 2003’s Blackbird on a Lonely Wire, Hoge got scooped up by Atlantic Records, but the album failed to take off and it was back to the independent musician game after that.
Still, Hoge kept trucking and was eventually rewarded for his persistence. In 2012, Eli Young Band recorded a version of “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” a song from Hoge’s 2009 record The Wreckage. The song was the opening track and second single from Eli Young Band’s Life at Best album, and it ultimately reached number one on the Billboard country chart. Suddenly armed with a number one song to his name, Hoge landed his 2013 track “Strong” in a widely syndicated ad campaign for Chevrolet Silverado. The song charted modestly on country radio, but it was enough to convince Hoge that if he really tried to play the game, he might just be able to make some magic happen.
“My thought was, ‘What if we really did present the most palatable version of myself and my sound?’ What would happen?” Hoge says. “Trying to think down the line and imagine myself being 90 years old and having grandkids running around, and I’m this old dude in the rocking chair, and they’re going ‘Remember when granddaddy was a musician?’ I didn’t want to have that moment and go ‘Man, if I had really taken a shot and tried to do something, God, what would have happened?’”
So Hoge took his shot. He convened a murderer’s row of Nashville songwriters and went to work on what would become his ninth record, 2015’s Small Town Dreams. The writing credits on the LP included names that any Nashville insider would recognize, like Hillary Lindsay (Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush”), Jessi Alexander (Miley Cyrus’s “The Climb”), Tommy Lee James (Reba McEntire’s “And Still”), and a pre-breakthrough Chris Stapleton. The songs certainly sounded like hits, from the Mellencamp stomp of “Middle of America” to the hometown hymn “Growing up Around Here.” “Better Than You,” another one of the album’s highlights, was as catchy as any song that charted on country radio in 2015.
The songs from Small Town Dreams were the ones that Hoge and his band played for the program directors and radio folks in New York when auditioning for the spotlight slot. “They loved it,” Hoge says, simply. The hooky, radio-friendly songs he’d been crafting for a year did exactly what they were supposed to: they hooked the people in country radio. And if they could do that, then surely they could hook country listeners as well.
Hoge never got to find out.
“By the time we got back home and off the plane, one of the big record label presidents had called [the radio company] and said ‘No, if you don’t give [the spotlight slot] to my artist, I’m pulling all my other artists from these things that you need them to do,’” Hoge recalls soberly. “It was a very realistic wake-up call as to what corporate radio and corporate record-making is all about. And that’s not a complaint. I don’t want to sound like I’m whining. I’m not whining. That’s just…that is this game. It’s always been this game. It’s been this game since the 50s.”
Just like that, the chances of Small Town Dreams gathering radio traction went kaput. The record peaked at number 15 on the country albums chart, while the lead single, “Middle of America,” only made it to 53 on the country airplay chart.
Two years after the fact, Hoge is philosophical about what happened. He’s not bitter or entitled. He doesn’t even harbor ill will toward the artist who stole his spotlight slot, proven by the simple fact that, when asked, he won’t disclose the person’s name.
“There’s no malice there,” he explains. “That’s exactly what you want your record label to do. Shit, if I had a big major label, billion-dollar record company behind me, I’d want them making that phone call too. You can’t play the game and then get mad at it because the rules work exactly how they’re supposed to.”
Still, it would be revisionist history to say that Hoge wasn’t shaken by what happened. He took a leap of faith and hit the ground, hard. Malice or not, the harsh turn of events stung him. He dismissed his band, left his publishing deal, and briefly considered giving up music entirely.
“There was a part where I really thought that it was maybe time for me to bow out,” Hoge says. “And that was what was really confusing, because it’s not like I have this other skill set of like, ‘Well you know, I was a brilliant mathematician when I was in college, I’ll just go get an engineering job.’ I’m a college dropout. I failed out of college. I don’t have this laundry list of things to fall back on. And I’ve done this for 20 years, so I don’t even know what the job market looks like.”
Hoge actually did spend a few days exploring the job market, to see what a life after music might look like. He researched truck driving jobs. He researched landscaping jobs. He looked at jobs where his lack of college degree wouldn’t be seen as a deal breaker. Trucking might even have been a decent fit, since Hoge has spent the better part of the past 20 years driving his band from town to town in a van. Such is life for an independent artist without a tour bus.
Ultimately, though, Hoge just had to find a way to fall back in love with being a musician, a songwriter, and a bandleader. Not so surprisingly, it was hearing the right song at the right time that lit the fire in his heart once more. But the song that did it wasn’t a country classic or a rock ‘n’ roll hymn about the transformative power of music. On the contrary, it was much closer to home than that.
“I was kind of in a funk in my bedroom one day. In this pitiful moment, I was thinking ‘I don’t know if I want to do this. I don’t know how I’m gonna do this,’” Hoge remembers. “And then I heard my sons. They were nine and six, I guess, at the time. They had started a band, and they were rehearsing in my garage. It’s just this three-piece thing: guitar, drums, and vocals. They were just making up songs. And they don’t really even know how to play or anything like that.
“But as I watched them, you know, they were writing. They have two original songs. They had this one called ‘George, You Are Under Arrest,’ that is one of my favorite songs. It sounds like The Ramones. It’s just got this chorus that says ‘George, you are under arrest’ over and over and over. It was great, man, and it made me kind of feel like I was a kid again.”
Hearing his sons tear through their songs with zero pretense or self-consciousness reminded Hoge of when he was 17 and learning to play his first guitar. It took him out of his funk and transported him back in time—back before the hit songs and big-name co-writes, and way before a radio conglomerate put the wind in his sails and then set those sails on fire. It reminded him of when he decided he wanted to play music in the first place.
The song that sprung first from that genesis moment was fittingly titled “17,” and it ended up as the penultimate number on Anchors, Hoge’s brand new tenth LP. The song is sunny, bracing, nostalgic, and hopeful. “I’m up here with this guitar just tryin’ to learn to play/Every song that I think might make you look my way,” Hoge sings in the first verse. Because what’s purer than playing music to impress a girl? “17” gets back to that purity, and the result is the most unencumbered Hoge has sounded in years.
Much of the rest of Anchors follows suit, winding back the clock to the days when Hoge’s music was more dusty roots rock than shiny radio country. By changing his writing process and reconfiguring the intentions behind it, Hoge found his way back to a mindset where good songs were just good songs—regardless of any perceived mainstream potential. The result is the least overtly mainstream Hoge has sounded since The Wreckage. It hearkens back to earlier LPs like Draw the Curtains and The Man That Killed Love, which had more grit and dirt in their DNA.
Still, even though Hoge steered clear of the Music Row sound, he took the lessons he learned on Music Row and applied them to his songwriting process. He admired the songwriters in Nashville who would go into work every day with the barest traces of an idea in their heads and then work those ideas until they were finished songs. So instead of waiting for inspiration to strike, Hoge treated the writing process like a day job.
“Over the next few weeks, I really just committed to waking up every day, and I’d send my kids to school, and my wife would go to work, and I would sit with the piano or the guitar all day and just work on songs. And that’s really where [this record] was born out of.”
“I don’t like, even for myself as an artist, the idea that ‘I’m just gonna write when I’m inspired,’” he adds. “That’s kind of just a cop-out. That’s not the way work works. You wake up and you do work. And some days it’s really easy, and some days it sucks, and that’s just part of it.”
Still, the inspiration that sparked “17” clearly carries through to the rest of Anchors, providing the backbone to a record that pairs the unbridled optimism of youth with the weathered resilience that comes from being older and wiser. The characters in “17,” “Young As We Will Ever Be,” and “This Ain’t an Original Sin” live like they are invincible. The characters in “The Reckoning,” “This Grand Charade,” and “Through Missing You” have seen enough to know that they’re not. The genius of Hoge’s writing, though, is that he doesn’t take a side. There’s value in knowing what it means to fail, but there’s also something to be said for taking chances because you’re too young to know what it feels like when they don’t work out. The title track splits the difference between the two perspectives, following a boy and a girl as they drive off into the sunset—“where no one really knows/If it’s saying, ‘Boy, keep driving’ or ‘Turn and go back home.’” As Hoge knows better than most, sometimes, you just gotta take a shot.
Today, with a new record in the can, a tour routed and ready to go, and his mainstream country phase a dot in the rearview mirror, Hoge seems comfortable and satisfied living in the now, playing by no one’s rules but his own.
“I’m gonna not worry about that call coming anymore,” he says, remarking again on his close shave with radio exposure and stardom. “I’m just gonna go and do the things that I know I need to do as an artist to satisfy my soul, and hopefully those things also feed my family and pay a band, but if they don’t, I will have Frank Sinatra-ed it ‘My Way,’ and I’ll deal with that as I go along.”