Will Hoge tried. He really did.
Two years ago, when the singer-songwriter released his tenth studio album, Small Town Dreams, he decided to – against his better instincts, perhaps – give mainstream country success a go. After all, Eli Young Band’s version of his “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” went to Number One in 2012 and earned scores of award nominations, and Hoge even placed his track “Strong” in a Chevy commercial. There was momentum. Maybe, just maybe, he could play the game.
“The fear of success can be almost as paralyzing as the fear of failure,” Hoge tells Rolling Stone Country, sitting at a table at an East Nashville coffee shop not too far from his home. In front of him sit a bottle of Pellegrino, a Coke, a water, a muffin and a pack of gum: he likes his options, clearly. There’s a small notebook, too, just in case. “I don’t want to be one of those artists who has a fear of having success. And I felt like there was this opportunity, and I wanted to try and see if my square peg fit into the round hole. It doesn’t.”
Hoge laughs. Thing is, Small Town Dreams could have been the gateway to country success – for someone else. Songs like “Middle of America” and “Little Bitty Dreams” tackle the beauty of small-town life with respect for its simplicity – his characters prioritize love over reckless ambition and the glow of high school football lights over big city lights – but they’re smart, too. They hurt, they cry, they question the world around them. As catchy as they are nuanced, those tracks are Billboard chart material: as long as you’re willing to say yes to all the right people, at all the right times.
And Hoge did say yes, occasionally. He took the songs to country radio, and wore his “best Sunday suit and combed my hair nice.” It worked: he scored a slot as “the next big thing” for a powerful radio conglomerate based in New York, and came back to town with his band, rejoicing. It was a huge get for an independent artist, not to mention a liberal one who once put out an EP called Modern American Protest Music and has tattoos and a five o’clock shadow, the kind of you get not from perfect pruning but from just having better things to do than shave. Until it wasn’t.
“We left New York and came home kinda celebrating,” he says. But then the phone rang the next day. It was the radio folks, and they’d been threatened by a major label in town to release that slot to one of their artists, or suffer the consequences. “They said, ‘we love you, we love the record, but we have to add this to the program or else.’ The label had said, we’re pulling all our artists from your next festival if you don’t do this. As a grown man that has done this for a long time, you don’t get a lot of ‘welcome to the record biz’ moments. But that one was blindsiding.”
Things started to come apart from there. He fired his band, left his publishing deal: he was burned out from being on the road too long, and lost a bit of the spark that got him excited about making music in the first place. Where he found it again was right in his own backyard. Or close enough.
“My kids started a band and they rehearsed in my garage,” he says of his sons, ten and six. “It brought me back to this whole place. They can barely play any chords, and our neighbor plays drums. But it was joyous and fun, and a full circle moment. That [joy and fun] was what I was missing. I was like, ‘OK, I need to focus on that.’ And I went into full writing mode again.”
What was born from that revelation is Anchors, eleven self-produced tracks that are rooted in that youthful jubilance but tell the stories of grown men and women who have seen, loved, moved on and made amends. Like the first single, “Little Bit of Rust,” a Sheryl Crow-duet premiering exclusively at Rolling Stone Country, they’re songs that acknowledge life’s misdeeds and imperfections: they’re about adults who struggle and fight, not thirty-year-olds who linger in extended adolescence, pretending romance still bubbles as easily as it did back on the bleachers.
“Ain’t nothing we can’t fix, ain’t no broken trust. Ain’t no great divide between the two of us,” Hoge and Crow sing in unison on the roots rocker, with mandolin and fiddle courtesy of Fats Kaplin. “Just the heavy hands of time, kinda wear away the shine. But don’t worry, it’s just a little bit of rust.
Hoge had originally thought about including the track on Small Town Dreams, but put it aside, and went in search of the perfect female counterpart when he decided to give it another life. A song about mature love needed a mature voice – one that had been through relationships and back again. Crow, a friend of Hoge’s and his family (their kids play together), immediately said yes.
“Sheryl has been someone whose work I have loved ever since her first record,” says Hoge. “She is one the best singers, musicians and producers I have been around. I called her and asked if she would sing on it, and she didn’t bat an eye. I didn’t want to sing it with some eighteen year old, I wanted it to be a grown woman. And she’s just the best. It cuts to the core of what the record is about. It talks about things being difficult, but they are in the trenches working it out together.”
Anchors is about that duality – an anchor itself both weighs things down and keeps them grounded, and Hoge explores the comfort and crush of small towns, the freedom and limits of love, the knowledge that comes from aging at the expense of vital years. The one thing that he does not address, however, is anything political. Hoge is openly anti-Trump on his social media accounts, and Modern American Protest Songs included biting tracks like “Ballad of Trayvon Martin.” It’s not that he hasn’t been thinking about it all, or writing even more modern protest songs. He has.
“There are a bunch of those brewing constantly,” he says, “but after the election – and still – every day you turn on the news it’s something else further beyond the pale. I’m too mad to sing those songs at this point. I don’t want to put those songs out in anger. I needed to see if I could still feel human.”
Songs like the acoustic-led country weeper “Angels Wings” and the Tom Petty-esque closer “Young As We Will Ever Be,” that contemplates the constant drip of time, are all dedicated to that which makes us human. Good with bad, pain with pleasure, the glory of some at the price of many. If writing music about that makes him an eternal square peg, then so be it.
“I don’t want to have to go and try to write a hit song for what is popular on the charts,” says Hoge. “I do want to wake up and try to write great songs. Full stop.”