Singer-songwriter Will Hoge doesn’t make a political album every time he steps in a studio, but when he does, it’s the audio equivalent of a hand grenade.
“My American Dream,” released last year, is a case in point. From the gritty shuffle of opening track “Gilded Walls,” on which he rails against the 1% unworried about “clean air to breathe” or “the water that you’re drinking from a Michigan sink,” he comes out swinging. “Stupid Kids” is an incendiary rocker urging younger Americans to not “listen to what the old folks say,” and “Still a Southern Man” proudly proclaims his geographical identity outside the shadow of the Confederate flag: “Now I know it’s just a hammer driving nails in the coffin of a long dead land … .”
It is, he told The Daily Times recently, born of a head full of things to say and a heart full of concerns for the future his children will inherit. His shows, like the one he’ll play Saturday at The Shed Smokehouse and Juke Joint in Maryville, aren’t political rallies, and he’s not planning on hitting the campaign stump for this candidate or that one as the 2020 election draws closer. But he spent too many of his early years taming his voice for label executives and industry suits, and the older he gets, the more he’s determined to put those things out there without regard to radio play or popularity contests.
“After my major label debut (2003’s “Blackbird on a Lonely Wire”), the next record I wanted to make was the ‘America’ EP, but that’s not what Atlantic wanted,” Hoge said. “They said, ‘If you want to do it, we’ll let you go, and you can do what you want to do.’ That was a really important moment for me as an artist. It wasn’t contentious, and I wasn’t angry. It was just, ‘OK. This is what I have to do.’
“That was a really great lesson, because it’s an easy thing to get trapped when you start out in this business and be whatever the record label wants you to be, to chase that dream. I’m not going to be a political artist, and I’ve made a bunch of non-political records, but when I do, it’s when I feel like I need to say something. For me, I don’t have any illusions that I’m lending my voice to the greater good. I’m clearing my own mind and saying the things I need to say.”
Not that Hoge has ever shied away from speaking his mind. He planted his flag in Nashville in 1999 after moving there from Western Kentucky University, proceeding to grind it out on the club circuit, playing roughly 250 shows a year and growing a devoted fanbase. He started coming over to East Tennessee early on, bolstered by fellow musicians in the Knoxville-based band Gran Torino. Saturday’s show is a sort of homecoming for Hoge, who’s played there before, and the East Tennessee audiences always warm his heart, he said.
The entire state, he added, is beholden to music traditions that find a home in his songs: rock and soul from Memphis, classic country from Nashville, Old Time and mountain music in the east. From the outset, he painted from a diverse musical palette that included those sounds: He counted singer-songwriters like Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and Van Morrison among his influences.
From the early days of the band that carries his name, when Hoge started turning heads as a charismatic frontman belting out tunes while bent over a guitar, sweat pouring off his face in tandem with the waves of enthusiastic energy rolling off the stage and into the crowd, the influences have been obvious in Hoge’s heartfelt music.
“When you’re young, you’re just writing and telling your own story over and over, whether that’s love or your relationship or whatever that is,” he said. “But if you’re going to do this very long, you have to broaden your vision of what you’re telling this story about. You have to speak from someone else’s perspective, and traveling the country and the world, you start to see things that are just bigger than yourself, and you start to see there are so many great stories out there to learn from and to talk about and tell.”
The band’s first full-length, “Carousel,” was preceded by the live album “All Night Long.” “Blackbird on a Lonely Wire” followed, but after that brush with the majors, he’s kept his efforts on smaller, independent labels. His do-it-yourself ethic has come with some measure of mainstream success: In 2012, he signed a songwriting deal with BMG Nashville, and in 2013, the Eli Young Band’s cover of his song “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” received County Music Association, Academy of Country Music and Grammy awards nominations.
And for the most part, the fans he’s made along the way have stayed by his side. “My American Dream” may be his most accomplished work yet, a heady stew of Southern influences and a voice that sounds like Elvis Costello by way of the Cumberland Gap, serving the song in whatever capacity is called for. One thing he can count on, however, is that when he stands up to be counted on a record, he’s going to get some pushback.
“You get the stereotypical responses — ‘I don’t want to be preached to,’ or, ‘I don’t want to hear celebrities talk about their feelings, I just want you to sing!’” he said. “But honestly, what I’m more inspired by is the fact there are more people in the world that share the general idea that we need to treat one another better, take care of each other, that people can afford to take care of their families, get insurance and go to good quality schools. And sometimes, I’ll get people who say, ‘I never thought about it from this side before.’
“I think too many of us get to living in this echo chamber, and thinking everybody feels the way we do, and we don’t want to hear anything else. So when I get emails that say, ‘I never thought about it from an immigrant’s perspective or a black person’s perspective,’ those are the things that are way more inspiring. I might get a hundred people saying I should shut up and sing, but if I get one that says, ‘You made me think,’ or, ‘You made me talk to my parents or my coworkers,’ that’s the (stuff) that matters to me — one person opening their mind and willing to have that difficult conversation.”
And in these visceral days and partisan age, those conversations are more necessary than ever, he believes. His sons are 12 and 8 years old, and at one point, they were both students in the same elementary school where his wife was a public education counselor. And then the Parkland shootings occurred, and it shook him to his core.
“Everything I know and love was in one school building, and it just takes one crazy person, and that wasn’t lost on me,” he said. “And I say that as a responsible gun owner. It’s not anti-gun to not want people to get shot in schools or to want legislation to make it harder for people who shouldn’t have guns to not get guns.”
Again, he pointed out, his shows aren’t political rallies. But he doesn’t bury those songs in the setlist, either. He goes with whatever inspiration the muse provides, as he will later on this month when he and the boys gather to start working on the next Will Hoge album. Whether it includes any political leanings remains to be seen, but at this point in his life — as a man, as a father and as an American — he said he won’t avert his gaze from the hard truths that need to be spoken.
“When you have kids, you really start to just look at the future differently,” he said. “My boys are thinkers, like all kids are. They worry about the future, and they talk about things, because kids are way more intelligent than we give them credit for. They pick up on things like school shootings and climate change — things that may not affect their grandparents’ generation, because they may not make it that long. And I might, but my kids definitely will, and these things are going to affect them in the long term.”