Will Hoge

Wreck ‘n Roll

Southern gentleman. Photo by Andrew Southam.
Southern gentleman.
Photo by Andrew Southam.

The Wreckage (2009)
Draw The Curtains (2007)
The Man Who Killed Love (2006)
The America EP (2004)
Blackbird On A Lonely Wire (2003)
Carousel (2001)
And numerous official (though largely out of print) live releases
[most of the above are available directly from the willhoge.com store]


Will Hoge is one of the hardest working men in rock ‘n roll. He’s an independent artist from Tennessee and I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him play 13 times over the past 5 years in Philadelphia – 800 miles from Nashville (and I’ve probably missed one or two). He tours incessantly, almost obsessively. He’s written songs about his love of being on the road (“The Highway’s Home”, “Highway Wings”). His first official release as a solo artist was a live album (All Night Long), and he’s released several other live albums (usually titled unto themselves, and not just Live At… – i.e. Almost Alone, During The Before And After or the more recent Again Somewhere Tomorrow). It’s his work ethic and determination to win over fans via his live show that turned me from a casual fan into quite a devoted one.

I first heard Will on stage, naturally. He was opening for Marc Broussard at the TLA back in 2005. Marc’s album Carencro was big at the time and I hadn’t seen him play before, and I’m glad I made it early enough to see Will. I think I remember hearing his name or being suggested his album on a website where I had purchased a record from a “similar artist”, before that show (it may very well have been Mr. Broussard). I also think I listened to some clips and thought it wasn’t bad, but wasn’t blown away. Shortly after that show I bought his most recent release Blackbird On A Lonely Wire, which was released by Atlantic Records, who subsequently dropped him after it came out, becoming yet another major label that had no idea what they were doing with such a talented artist. But anyway… I listened to that CD a few times and heard some similarities (I thought) to Tom Petty in a couple songs. Incidentally, my then-girlfriend (now-wife) was a pretty big Petty fan, so I brought it along on a road trip in her car at some point and popped it in. She’s not easily impressed. I own almost 1300 CDs; she has about 40. After hearing it a couple more times, in my car and hers, she asked to borrow it. That’s usually the kicker when she’s getting into something – if she actually wants to hear it again. She studies lyrics and takes great pains to know the songs by heart. If she really likes something, she makes much effort. Yeah, that CD is still in her car (4 years later).

We went to see him play the next couple of times he was in Philly as the headliner, both at the North Star. I had fully ingested that album, bought his first one (Carousel) and the magnificent live album During The Before And After at those gigs, and really began to immerse myself into his music. The shows were great, but that’s not the nicest bar in the world, and I think you could tell Will wasn’t thrilled about it, either. I think at least one of those shows had Will’s set not even beginning until well after midnight. Ouch. But it was worth it. Will gives 100% at every single performance, as far as I can tell. His energy and soul really come through in these tunes. This is honest, sincere music. Musically, he runs the gamut from country to rock to folk to pop, acoustic and electric, though he mostly pretty much rocks (all with a bluesy, soulful, southern tinge). The underlying current through all of it is straight-up genuine and heartfelt songwriting. He does his best to make sure you can feel every word he’s singing. He’s got a semi-regular schtick where he’ll sing a song a capella (sans microphone) at some point during the show, or as the encore – so there’s absolutely nothing coming in between his voice and your ears. It’s not so much a gimmick because he really pulls it off well, and I can say from experience that it can be truly moving.

Will Hoge @ World Cafe Live - 6.22.06 | Philadelphia, PA
Will Hoge @ World Cafe Live - 6.22.06 | Philly, PA (click for more)

I’ve gotten some pretty good photos at a few different Will Hoge shows. I didn’t start taking them until he began playing World Cafe Live regularly (better lighting and access). He really gushed about the venue when he moved up to WCL from North Star (and has ventured around one or two other places that aren’t bad, but he apparently really loves WCL). He gives great faces, man.

OK, finally – the music. The rocker in me was really drawn to his harder stuff at first, and there are a couple of real gems on Blackbird…, namely “TV Set” and “All Night Long”. They seem to show up in the set less now that he’s got so much more material, but he will occasionally break them out, especially to end a show on a loud, raucous note. Check ’em out.

“TV Set” – That’s gotta be one of the sickest riff/grooves I’ve ever heard. If I could only play it, myself. Still haven’t figured out what the metaphors in the song mean, but I’m going with it.

“All Night Long” – Classic, muted, full-on rock guitar. Anthemic lyrics with a story about a girl basically saying “FU” to the world. Hell yeah.

Then again, there are always a couple of songs per record that have a real tender side to them, dare I say it. He’s not afraid to hit emotional high notes in a quieter, usually more acoustic song. On the same record as those two rockers above is this lovely little tune, “Someone Else’s Baby”. Here’s a live acoustic rendition, from the early live album Almost Alone, but the studio version isn’t any more electric. My wife adores this song.

“Someone Else’s Baby” (Live @ Smith’s Olde Bar – Atlanta, GA – 2.18.03)

With each subsequent album, he seems to branch out a bit. He put out an EP after Blackbird… that was difficult to track down and purchase, but luckily I found one (it is currently out of print, happy hunting!) The America EP came out a few months before Bush’s re-election in 2004 and was heavy on the politically-charged lyrics. He covered Dylan’s classic “The Times They Are A-Changin” and poured out the war-torn “Bible Vs. Gun”, a mournful lament reportedly based on an actual letter from a Civil War soldier, plus “Hey Mr. President (Anyone But You)”, which is the best plea to Rock The Vote that I’ve ever heard. He capped it with “America”, a rollicking, rocking, slightly angry song with a great drum groove and killer lead guitar line – also sung from a soldier’s point of view.

“America” – This live version from During The Before And After is even better than the EP version.

Will’s third record, The Man Who Killed Love, had some more R&B influences, included several horn arrangements, and is probably his most soulful. Next was Draw The Curtains, a decidedly somber affair, which seemed to pull more roots and country into the mix (and some more soul), with fiddle, organ, pedal steel guitar and even some gospel flourishes thrown in.

<i>The Wreckage</i> - September 29, 2009
The Wreckage - September 29, 2009

He’s come full circle with his latest record, The Wreckage, which is more of a return to roots rock ‘n roll, with lots of guitar and maybe only a smattering of keyboards here and there. It’s a bit simpler, and this is a good thing. I was honestly rather disappointed in the slower tones of the music on Draw The Curtains and only really thought a couple of the songs were all that great (contrary to Will’s own bio that called it a “unanimous high-water mark”. Sorry, Will). I liked The Man Who Killed Love quite a bit but thought it was a little too busy. I am fully floored by the full content of this new record, though – his second for the great indie label Rykodisc after self-releasing a couple prior albums (they’re the same people who now bring you Matt Duke). Based on song titles alone, you’d think it was depressing as hell – “Hard To Love”, “Long Gone”, “Even If It Breaks Your Heart”, “Favorite Waste of Time”, “Where Do We Go From Down” and the title track all point, at least superficially, to the negativity we all encounter sooner or later in life’s travels. It’s definitely not a super up-tempo record, but it’s not a complete downer at all. We get some real rockers like “Long Gone”, plus “Just Like Me” and “Favorite Waste Of Time”, along with some more contemplative (but still good) tunes.

World Cafe Live, 6.22.06 - Philadelphia, PA
World Cafe Live, 6.22.06 - Philadelphia, PA

And whereas America and other albums have showcased his ability to draw character sketches quite nicely, The Wreckage seems like a much more personal album – and something seems to have gone terribly awry. But we reap the benefits, because this is a kick-ass record. Most of the lyrics point to the end of a relationship, though they never seem to quite reach the boiling point – they’re often thoughtful, regretful, pensive. Rarely angry but sometimes celebratory. The hands-down best song on the album is “Even If It Breaks Your Heart”, which ironically breaks from the lyrical theme and deals directly with Will’s love of music and the dream of being a musician. I can kind of relate. It’s not exactly a rocking song, but it’s got emotion for days, and I belt out the “oh OHHH”s in the chorus every single time I hear it. It packs quite the wallop when the whole crowd is singing along at a show. And I love the chorus melody, especially when his voice drops down at the end of “guitar” in “…a beat up old guitar”. Lovely. Here’s a particularly nice live version:

“Even If It Breaks Your Heart”
11.10.09 @ KINK FM studios – Portland, OR

The Wreckage is more than just a metaphor, in this case. Will was in the middle of recording this album back in August of 2008 when he was blindsided by a large vehicle while riding a motor scooter home from the studio one night, and he paid a hefty price. By his own account, here’s what state he was in shortly after he regained his ability to write (or type):

“100 stitches in my face. I look like warmed death. My left eye was almost ripped out. My entire forehead looked like chopped ground beef. All my top teeth were drilled with lace holes and weaved in with some high end metal dental floss. My nose is cut down the middle. My lips are cut, gashed, etc from top to bottom on both sides. I’ve got random gashes up and down both arms. I’ve got a broken sternum. Ribs 4, 5, 6 and 7 are smashed on my left side. My left side has a broken clavicle. Both of my shoulder blades are broken. I had a partially collapsed lung. Stomach to chest is covered in gashes. My right nipple is almost cut off. All my back is one bile colored and black bruise. My left leg is strained everywhere from the foot up. My right femur was a shattered compound fracture and the knee cap 8 tiny pieces. There’s now a rod where my femur was and a mess of screws, wires. etc holding together my new knee cap.”

Jesus effin’ Christ! It took him a few weeks just to get out of the hospital, and many months of intense rehabilitation after that, not to mention countless surgeries mixed in, just to get back to some kind of normalcy. He said people kept asking him in the hospital – “I bet you can’t wait to get back to singing and playing, eh?” and he would think “hell, I’m trying to get back to walking!” He didn’t play the guitar for over 4 months. Not too long after that is when he wrote “Even If It Breaks Your Heart”, which he has said is about “falling back in love with rock n’ roll” after having to STOP playing music for the first time in the 12 years he’s been a working musician. He finally was well enough to get back on the road for some acoustic shows in April/May (though still not 100%), and then finished up the record after that. We know so much about this kind of stuff because, luckily for us, Will is an avid blogger! It’s not chock full of super personal stuff, but he’s not afraid to be brutally honest about a shitty club or a shitty show or politics or music. There are always tons of interesting nuggets about what life is like for a touring artist, good and bad. He’s funny. He’s smart. He’s sincere. It’s a great read. Like I said, it’s not intensely personal – hell, his Wikipedia page has his birth as “1973” – we don’t even know what month! No listing of wife or family, though we know from brief blog mentions that he became a father for the first time a couple years ago (it was news to me at the time after following him closely for a few years). He posts so much you’d think there would be a lot more information out there – he does a pretty good job of keeping his private life private, though in a recent interview he does mention “my wife”. I only bring this up because I said earlier that the new record sounds like a very personal album. At a show in Philly back in September, he mentioned something about his music being the perfect soundtrack for a divorce (after a story about trying to find a song of his that was suitable for a wedding). I thought I noticed he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring at the Free @ Noon show in October, too. I don’t mean to be nosey, I just know how much it sucks to be a divorced parent of a toddler. And I hope that’s not the case, but it sure sounds like his marriage was in the shitter after listening to this new album! Either way, dude can really write some painful, heartbreaking songs. And if it actually is NOT the case, then I’m even more impressed (and happy for him!) with Will’s songwriting and ability to create that level of believability.

During The Before And After, 2004.

During The Before And After was recorded at WorkPlay in Birmingham, Alabama on July 23, 2004. It was the first live album of Will’s that I got my hands on, and it’s a fantastic example of his powerful live show. It’s also tragically out of print, and is not for sale anywhere online that I can find. It was billed as a limited edition run and they’ve kept their word, painful as that may be. If it ever pops up online in digital form or on Amazon for less than $200, I highly suggest you snap it up. (An earlier live release, the acoustically delicious Almost Alone, is only going for merely $30) He’s gone on to release several other live albums. The only one really still in print (meaning on CD) is Again Somewhere Tomorrow, which is pretty good, too. Here’s a sample from my favorite, and a few other choice live cuts, including a few covers:

“Ain’t No Sunshine” (Bill Withers) – 7.23.04

“Ring of Fire” (June & Johnny Cash) – 1.22.05 [I think]

“Mess Around” (Ray Charles) – 7.17.04 [I Think]

“Southern Belle” (unreleased Hoge original) – 3.25.06

That’s a version of “Southern Belle” from another live release, Live In Charleston, which was an even more limited release than his other live albums – and I still can’t figure out how that song hasn’t made it onto a studio record yet. Great, fun tune. Will also released a cool bonus track on digital versions of The Wreckage, a nice song called “My Winter Coat”.

In addition to the new record’s simpler approach, Will’s current band also shows a return to a slightly smaller stage show – what had usually been a five-piece (or 6 or 7, with back-up singers or violinists), the band is now down to four. Where he always had a 2nd guitarist and keyboard player is now condensed into one guy who trades off on both (hell, even Will played piano on one tune the last show I saw). For some reason, he’s had a bit of a revolving door when it comes to his band. I’ve personally seen him play with 2 drummers, 4 guitarists & 2 bass players. I’d guess some of that is just the nature of the Nashville community, everybody playing with everybody else, coming and going when they can. Perhaps, as well, Will just tours so damn much that his cohorts can only take it for so long before they need to take a break from his relentless pace. I think I’ve heard him mention that maybe perhaps someone or two has been fired, also. Maybe he just gets restless and wants to spice things up. Most of the turnover seems to have happened on good terms, though, as many of those former band members have shown up at hometown shows (especially the month-long residency Will had at 12th & Porter in June) to sit-in and give respect. I also understand a lot of those guys were there to support Will during his hospital stay. I like a good horn section and back-up singers as much as anyone, but I also really like when you get down to the core of what you do, and I’m pretty happy with his current roster. I’m sure he’s glad that I approve. (sarcasm directed at my obnoxiousness).

The Man Who Killed Love (2006)

I’m also happy to see the new album’s cover art is a somewhat off-focus picture of Will. Looking at his body of work, at least on the covers, you notice that really only once has his mug been front and center (Draw The Curtains, and ok, the America EP, too). He mentioned something in his blog once about how uncomfortable he gets in front of the camera, and my only guess as to how that one happened at all is because it was his first release for Rykodisc and they insisted. I like artists that are happy to not put their face on every product they sell. I’ve always believed music should be timeless, and album covers with pictures of the artist immediately date it – fashion sense, facial hair, hairstyle, whatever. Every other album cover of his has been a work of art on its own, and he’s only otherwise appeared in blurry form or off to the side, if at all. I can dig that. He’s got a couple other quirks, too. Somewhere around the release of The Man Who Killed Love, I noticed this strange, squeaky noise that came out of his voice at the end of what seemed like almost every lyrical bar. It’s like when he stopped singing a line, when the last word ended, it had an upturn in it that had to sign off with a SQUONK. I don’t know how to describe it in words. Listen to this song and you’ll hear it a lot in the lead-up into the chorus (some in the verses, too). The most noticeable part is where he sings “please… hold on… a little bit…”. The chorus has some good ones, too.

“Woman Be Strong” – do you hear it?

Yeah, sometimes it’s extremely noticeable, sometimes it’s not. It got really heavy in that album and now I can’t NOT hear it, though it’s always been there if you go back and listen to the earlier stuff more closely. And his voice can sound really nasally at times, too, like there’s a raging sinus infection going on. Hmm. Also, Will chews gum every time he’s on stage! What the hell? How can you chew gum and sing like that?! It boggles the mind. I’ve only really seen one other singer do that regularly (Garen from Kill The Alarm), and I’ve seen tons of bands. I actually asked Will about it once and he said “I don’t know, I’ve just always done it” with a grin. Maybe it helps keep the mouth moist by constant saliva production? Who knows. Maybe that’s what’s causing the SQUONK!

Look, Ma – no mics! – 11.15.07 @ World Cafe Live – Philly, PA

[More photos from that show are here.]

Not coincidentally, this is my 2nd straight blog entry from a Nashville-based artist. Will’s actually from Tennesee, but Music City is a real magnet for talented songwiters lately who migrate there for its vibrant music scene (and who don’t make country music). I’ve gotten to know a ton of Nashville artists over the last few years, and a handful of them will undoubtedly pop up here in the future. Some of them you may recognize: Ben Folds, Andy Davis, The Massacoustics, Erin McCarley, Dave Barnes, Matthew Perryman Jones, Butterfly Boucher; and you already know about the genius of Gabe Dixon. That’s one hell of a line-up.

I’m also going to work on my frequency of blog posts… I realize I’m taking too much time telling you the entire musical history of every artist I profile. Eventually, single album reviews will appear and they will be shorter. Until then, I feel the need to let you know everything I know, in the hopes you’ll fall in love with them as much as I have. And, unfortunately, that takes some time.

Patience, grasshopper.

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