When Will Hoge was in high school, he used to proudly wave the Confederate flag at high school football games. At the time, it made perfect sense — his school's team was the Franklin Rebels, its mascot a rebel soldier. "It's something I've been surrounded with for years," says the Tennessee native over coffee. Back then, he bought in to the idea that the stars and bars represented a harmless heritage.
"In my 17-year-old innocent mind, it was exactly what I hear everybody saying now: It's this sign of independence for a rebel, a guy who is willing to take a stand for something and be his own man," Hoge continues. "In that symbol, you wanted it to go hand-in-hand, and it did for me for a long time."
Once the "Little Bitty Dreams" singer graduated and began touring the world, however, he increasingly saw things differently. The more miles he traveled and people he met, Hoge found it difficult to balance his identity as a proud Southerner with the flag's association with slavery, oppression and secession. As the debate over flying the flag reached fever pitch in the wake of the June 17th massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Hoge was compelled to work through his own conflict in the studio.
The result is "Still a Southern Man." Recorded in a single night at historic RCA Studio A in Nashville, the song is a ferocious bit of rock & roll, pushed along by slashing guitars and Hoge's defiant vocal. "There's an old flag waving overhead/and I used to think it meant one thing," he unashamedly admits in the opening verse, before offering his own stunning revelation: "Now I know it's just a hammer driving nails in the coffin of a long dead land." Listen to it below:
As the lyrics unfold, the fury of the singer-songwriter — who released the excellent album Small Town Dreams in April — only increases. By song's end, he's shouting a call-to-arms: "Take it down, I wanna take it down." Like Hoge, other artists have also raised their voices in asking flag supporters to reconsider their views. Patterson Hood of Southern rock titans Drive-By Truckers penned a recent op-ed in the New York Times in which he wrote it's "time to quit rallying around a flag that divides," and singer-songwriter Peter Mulvey titled a song "Take Down Your Flag" that has since been covered by artists including Ani DiFranco, Keb' Mo' and Jeff Daniels. Tom Petty, meanwhile, expressed remorse to Rolling Stone for using the flag during his 1985 Southern Accents Tour.
Even so, the removal of the flag (which was lowered at the South Carolina Statehouse for the last time on July 10th) wasn't Hoge's primary mission. His intentions with "Still a Southern Man" were closer to home and more personal.
"I was on Facebook watching idiots on parade . . . that really makes my blood boil."
"It's not about taking the flag down in South Carolina or taking [the stars and bars] off the flag in Mississippi. It's me telling my story in how I found my way in this," he says, pausing. "If I have any hope for the song, it's that there could be this 16-year-old Southern kid hearing it who has never been able to make sense of his place, and maybe it is something that can spur that along."
While Hoge experienced the beginnings of his enlightenment at the tail end of high school — when a classmate suggested it might not be the best idea to take the flag to a football game in Memphis — others, he contends, remain mired in ignorance. As the flag debate took off, especially on social media, where the "post first, think later" attitude rules, Hoge became agitated. "I was on Facebook watching idiots on parade, people who were just insensitive to the whole thing. And that really makes my blood boil," he says.
In the chorus to "Still a Southern Man," he makes his feelings known.
"I don't want your stars 'n' bars/or your blood on my damn hands/I'm looking away now, Dixie/'cause I've seen all I can stand," he sings. "But I'm still a Southern man."
Capturing that kind of dichotomy is something at which Hoge the songwriter, who received a 2013 Grammy nomination for "Even If It Breaks Your Heart," excels: the small-town dreams versus the stark reality, the family man versus the unrepentant rocker, the Southerner versus the symbol with a dark side.
"There are a lot of Southern white kids who aren't racist who see the rebel flag as being proud to be Southern," Hoge says. "And there are a lot of things to be proud of. But there are a few things on the 'don't be proud' side. Put the flag over there."