Will Hoge grew up 30 minutes south of Nashville, which more or less makes him a Music City native — a rarity in a town that tends to import most of its musicians from other pockets of the country. When he began playing solo gigs in the late Nineties, though, Hoge learned that local roots don't always guarantee a local following.
"This town was still very traditional back then," he remembers. "The country scene wouldn't touch my music with a 10-foot pole. In some ways, I just spun in circles for a while, because I was making music that was too rock for country and too country for rock. A smarter artist would have decided to focus on one of those two things. . .but I liked both."
Today, Hoge is sitting in a conference room inside the Terrazzo building, a 14-story high-rise that stretches above Nashville's former railroad yard. This neighborhood used to be a no-man's land. Things have changed over the last 10 years, with luxury condos and cold-pressed juice shops now lining the streets. Thanks to a decade-long growth spurt and some serious gentrification, Nashville isn't so traditional anymore, which is good news for people like Hoge.
"At some point, country music became more inclusive," he says. "'People bust on country all the time — 'this bro-country thing, it's so bad, blah blah blah' — but there's a part of me that can't say that, because I feel like those artists have broadened the tent so much that it's given me a place to go. I don't have to do anything different. I still write my songs. I still do what I do. I haven't changed my formula at all, but all of a sudden, people are letting me go to that party."
Rooted in the heartland rock & roll of Bob Seger and John Mellencamp, Hoge's Small Town Dreams, released today, takes a theme that's familiar to country fans — life in Middle America — and sets it to a soundtrack of Telecaster power chords and rasped vocals. It's a record that lives in the gray area between genres. The songs pack the poppy punch of Top 40 radio, but Hoge sings them with the grit and a grizzle of a road vet who spent decades in dive bars and rock clubs, worrying not about how many A&R agents were in the audience, but how many CDs he needed to sell to cover gasoline costs for the following day.
Produced by Marshall Altman (Frankie Ballard, Eric Paslay), Small Town Dreams was inspired heavily by Franklin, Tennessee, where Hoge grew up during the Seventies and Eighties. It was your typical, all-American childhood, filled with baseball, bicycles and book reports. Last year, two decades after leaving town for bigger things, he found himself heading back to the area for 10 days, looking for a place to crash while his Nashville house was under construction. He wound up staying at his childhood home.
His old cassette tapes were still on the shelves. His first guitar — a cheap, beat-up Kingston, which he bought from a friend's father for $25 — was still in the closet. Hoge, who likens those days in Franklin to "going back the laboratory where you first starting experimenting," spent his time sifting through the relics of his teenaged past and driving through town. When he headed back to Nashville less than two weeks later, his thoughts remained in Franklin — a town whose influence helped set the tone, texture and twang of the music he made once he left.
"When you visit a place after a 20-year absence," he says, "you see everything in perspective. It all looks smaller. I had a flood of all these old memories, and those things soaked themselves in and become part of the fabric. Later, when I was co-writing in Nashville, those memories started to come out in the songs. It wasn't a conscious thing, but I could see something growing. I could see an album taking shape."
Growth. That's what Small Town Dreams is all about. Franklin, described as a "sleepy, little, one-horse dot on the map" during the album's kickoff track, "Growing Up Around Here," has ballooned to a population of nearly 70,000, five times the number of residents who lived there during Hoge's childhood. Nashville has changed, too, with the country traditionalism of the late 20th century giving way to a hybridized genre that borrows its production from pop and its swagger from rock & roll. Small Town Dreams addresses those changes, tipping its hat to the past while still pushing ahead.
"If my goal was to come into the country world and compete with Miranda Lambert or Eric Church, I'd be out of luck," says Hoge, whose own label, Cumberland Recordings, is releasing the album. "Those people are my friends and I love them, but they have things at their disposal that I don't: funds, major labels, people who're willing to spend $300,000 just to promote a single. I could make 10 records for that amount of money. If I compare my success to theirs, I'm gonna lose every time. It's just sheer mathematical differences. But if I stay relative to my own situation and say, 'OK, we made this last record and sold this amount, so let's try to sell this amount with the new one,' then I can sleep at night. I can see it getting bigger and better."