"Some people might have an aversion to castanets," deadpans Will Hoge, standing in the vocal booth at RCA's historic Studio A on 17th Avenue in Nashville. He, his band and producer Marshall Altman are beginning work on the follow-up to last year's exceptional Never Give In. The album, a mix of Stones swagger and stark confessionals, included Hoge's stirring ballad "Strong," heard frequently on TV as part of a Chevy truck ad campaign.
During a late-evening session in June, the track Hoge is tackling is decidedly more rock & roll than the country-tinged "Strong." A heartland anthem titled "Middle of America," the single — available on iTunes on Tuesday but streaming exclusively below at Rolling Stone Country — was written by Hoge and songwriters Jessi Alexander and Tommy Lee James just the day before. Though finished lyrically, its arrangement is still being fleshed out. Thus the discussion about castanets — they didn't make the cut.
"I wasn't expecting to write a song for me. We were just trying to write a great song and as it went on I started getting more and more attached to it. There's always that moment of, 'Do I want to keep this song for myself because I think it's really great, or do I want to send it to Blake Shelton and make a whole bunch of money off of it? Maybe he'll want it.' It’s a strange place to be, but I'm pragmatic enough to know that sometimes that's the right play," says Hoge, taking a break on a bench in the lobby of 30 Music Square West, the building that houses Studio A. (In the news recently, the venerable building was sold to a developer amid public outcry.)
Despite watching the Eli Young Band take his song "Even It Breaks Your Heart" to the top of the country charts — Hoge originally cut the track for his 2009 album The Wreckage — he decided to keep "Middle of America" for himself. Especially after sharing it with the producer Altman, with whom he's working for the first time.
"I sent it to Marshall and he emailed me four minutes after he got it. He said, 'Man, this song is special. This is something,'" says Hoge, who shared it with the rest of his team with similar results. "The only other time that this has happened to me, when I played something for a producer and then everybody lined up behind it, was with 'Even If It Breaks Your Heart.'"
With echoes of Mellencamp, both sonically and in its "Jack & Diane" depiction of small town life, "Middle of America" is both relatable and reassuring. "It'll be alright/it's just another night/in the middle of America," goes the chorus.
"All of those lyrics reflected all of our upbringings," Hoge says. Despite a glut of country songs about rural living that have made the small-town experience almost apocryphal, Hoge has lived in, toured and visited the very same place he sings about in "Middle of America." He's also well-acquainted with its archetypes.
"There's always somebody who's too drunk and there's always the frat guy and the jock and there's the guy that's staying home and the girl who's being broken up with. It's everywhere," he says.
To his eyes, they're people who are just trying to get by, raise their kids and, when necessary, self-medicate at the local bar.
"We wanted to convey the idea that [life] is a little screwed up and we all make mistakes, but it is what it is," he says.
Back in his vocal booth, Hoge and the band decide to try a slower arrangement. Altman agrees and enters the studio to direct the band, waving his arms like a conductor. More guitar here, a bass vamp there and a request for more bombastic Kiss-like drums — which prompts Hoge to ad lib, "It'll be alright/with Peter Criss tonight…"
Hoge, who produced his last three albums himself, was inspired to let go of the producer reins after hearing Eric Paslay's "Friday Night" and Frankie Ballard's "Helluva Life," both products of Altman, while he was driving his tour bus to a gig. Yes, Hoge often drives his own bus.
"I had a late night conversation to myself driving the bus and I was like, 'Man, I wish I could find somebody to help me make a record that will still be a great Will Hoge record but will also have some pop sensibility that works at radio,'" he recalls. "Because that's not something that I necessarily do naturally. I don't want it to be unnatural, but I wanted to push myself."
Sitting in the control room listening to yet another run-through of "Middle of America," it seems as if Hoge's vision is being realized. And he knows it too. He breaks into a grin from the booth when the song's final chord stops ringing.
"Let's get this band some beer," he says.