A few nights before Will Hoge left for tour, he got out the iron and some letter decals, and started pressing T-shirts.
“One of them said ‘Nikes Over Nazis,'” he tells Rolling Stone, sitting at an East Nashville sandwich shop a few hours before his bus is supposed to hit the road. “I did another that said, ‘Will Trade Racists for Refugees,’ and, the other day, [artist and SiriusXM radio host] Mojo Nixon called me the ‘Tennessee Troublemaker,’ and that’s probably my favorite thing that anyone has ever said about me. So I made one that said that, too.”
The Tennessee Troublemaker: it’s appropriate for sure, as Hoge’s never been one to shirk a bit of mischief. For his first night of tour supporting his new LP, My American Dream, at Washington, D.C.’s City Winery, he’s pondering a particular shirt: another homemade garment that says “this town sucks.” He chuckles at the idea, digging into a salad. He’s never been one to keep his opinions to himself.
Hoge doesn’t mince words on My American Dream, the follow-up to 2017’s Anchors, which finds the Nashville-based singer-songwriter freed from any designs of mainstream Music Row success: success he tasted when a song he’d written, “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” ended up as a hit for Eli Young Band. But Hoge, who grew up in suburban Franklin, Tennessee, never really fit the mold for what a chart-topping country star looks like. In 2012, the same year that Eli Young Band scored that Number One, Hoge released Modern American Protest Music, which included tracks like the searing “Ballad of Trayvon Martin” (“Zimmerman goes free and the country cries, ’cause we’re still shackled by the hatred and the lies,” he sings).
But Hoge wasn’t planning to write My American Dream, or at least so soon after his last album. Everything changed, though, as he watched the implications of a Trump presidency reverberate even more potently and quickly than he expected — and angrily tried to digest the shallow “thoughts and prayers” continuously offered after mass shootings, including for the 58 concertgoers murdered at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas. Living in Nashville, he paid particular attention to how the country music community essentially refused to support a public discussion about gun culture and gun safety even after a tragedy hit so close to home.
“There is a whole subculture of people in this town who just are out to make a lot of money,” Hoge says. “And the NRA being the biggest problem in this discussion. There’s an unwillingness to even realize that it is an organization that doesn’t give a shit about the Second Amendment, they give a shit about selling more guns. And MS-13 is not coming to [Nashville suburb] Nolensville, but motherfuckers are worried that if they don’t have their AR-15, a Mexican gang is going to come ransack the entire community. It’s insane.”
Instead of sit on his frustrations and bite his tongue, he poured them into “Thoughts & Prayers,” a song that fights the meaningless gesturing head-on — Hoge spits the lyrics to a chilling acoustic guitar line. “There’s a mama crying ‘cause her baby won’t come home/ You tell a father that you’re sorry that his son is gone,” he sings. “While you sit and do nothing in that big white dome/ And just hope we all forget to care.”
After he wrote “Thoughts & Prayers,” Hoge realized he wasn’t done yet. He had a lot more fury, along with a stubborn sense of hope. So he kept writing, about the mythological promise of an America that now offers cages instead of open arms to immigrants (“The Illegal Line”); about the people left behind while the rich get richer (“My American Dream”); and the children who could change it all (“Stupid Kids”). My American Dream isn’t meant to placate everyone or take a neutral love-will-save-us approach to political writing. But Hoge is willing to alienate the few if it means advocating for the many.
“‘Oh, I don’t have to have an opinion on that.’ I bet you don’t, in your two-million dollar house flying on a private jet to your gig.”
“[Artists in mainstream country] love the songs where everyone is OK and everyone is happy in the end,” Hoge says. Indeed, the genre’s seen plenty of mildly “love-promoting” songs of late: Luke Bryan’s “Most People Are Good,” Carrie Underwood’s “Love Wins,” Kenny Chesney’s “Get Along.” None actually take a solid stance, and the trend irks him. He’s more interested in artists like Brothers Osborne, who have been extremely vocal about their beliefs on Twitter and even supported a Democratic candidate (“They’re great musicians and guys of conscience,” he says). “To not have to take a stand on something? That’s the biggest privilege in the world,” says Hoge. “‘Oh, I don’t have to have an opinion on that.’ I bet you don’t, in your two-million dollar house flying on a private jet to your gig.”
It’s the comfort of that private jet, or more commonly, a chart position, that can compel artists to remain silent. But Hoge is more concerned about the idea that artists shouldn’t have a point of view altogether — that they should “shut up and sing” or risk losing fans. “God forbid anyone will have written a song that has different views from what they see on Fox News,” Hoge says. “It shows the lack of critical thinking we do as a country.”
Hoge knows firsthand that changing an opinion isn’t impossible. Growing up outside of Nashville in the generally conservative Franklin, he used to proudly carry the Confederate Flag at his high-school football games (the team name was “The Rebels”). His parents were liberal, but, to him, the flag symbolized Southern pride and school pride. Later, as a songwriter, he admitted he was wrong and chronicled his change of heart in “Still a Southern Man,” a song originally released in 2015. “There’s a flag flyin’ over head and I used to think it meant one thing. Now I’ve grown up and seen the world and I know what it really means.”
There are plenty of people who refuse, however, to ever realize that their beliefs could be misinformed, dangerous or racist — a character whom Hoge brings to life in the My American Dream standout “Nikki’s a Republican Now.” The fictional Nikki is an amalgam of everyone on Facebook who shares “Trump Train” memes, thinks the media is fake and that football players take a knee because they hate the military and the flag. It’s exactly the kind of person who thinks artists like Hoge should shut up and sing.
Hoge’s not intimated by that kind of jargon. “The shut-up-and-sing crowd is losing,” he says. “The louder you have to tell people to shut up, and not record these kinds of songs, that’s when you know their argument is not real. If you are so worried that a mid-level Americana singer-songwriter is going to write a song that is going to fuck up your whole political world, then you are living in a house built on sand.”
Spend some time on Hoge’s Facebook page, and you’ll see fans from both sides. After watching Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Hoge posted a few thoughts online. “I hope my 2 sons one day have the strength shown today by Dr. Ford and never have the sense of entitlement being displayed by Judge Kavanaugh,” Hoge wrote. “I’m thankful you speak your mind,” one fan posted. “You are an idiot!” wrote another. He’s had plenty pledge they they’ll never listen to his music again.
None of that is derailing Hoge — in fact, sometimes he’ll hop in on the conversation and see if he can’t get people to discuss what it is they think they believe, and to challenge their sense of comfort. He wants My American Dream to do the same.
“I wanted the record to be disconcerting,” says Hoge, who will also open a string of dates for SoCal punk godfathers Social Distortion. “Maybe one day I’ll be able to say, ‘Let’s all get together and be happy.’ But there is an incredible amount of privilege to that.”
And if it all leaves Hoge on his own, he’s fine with that, too. He’s selling another shirt on the road. It reads, in block letters, “Will Hoge vs. All Y’all.”