Will Hoge has been kicking around the Nashville music scene for about 15 years, building a grassroots following in his hometown and beyond. Growing up in nearby Franklin, Tenn., Hoge traded in his pursuit of teaching history and coaching basketball to be a rock ’n’ roll star instead.
Though his musical output has been consistently solid as a recording artist, and he’s landed some lucrative cuts with mainstream country artists, Hoge has never had a breakout hit of his own. However, a new single, “Strong,” could change that. The potent character study concludes his latest album, Never Give In.
CMT Edge: “Strong” has been a big song for you this year. What was the conversation you were having with your co-writers leading up to the writing of that song?
Hoge: My cousin Zach Crowell is one of the co-writers, so he had reached out saying they needed something that made it more rootsy and real. … I was the “rootsy/real” guy, I guess. And it was really this idea, or ideal, of our fathers and grandfathers and these men that we grew up admiring. Then, as fathers ourselves, we hope that our kids, years after we’re gone, will have those memories of the lessons learned through us. … It was a cool thing being that it’s such a family-oriented song to have family involved in the creative process.
Your song “Never Give In” is like an anthem. How does that fit into your body of work?
The song itself is an ode to, in some ways, my wife and our relationship. Just anyone that is able to maintain this relationship. The people in the song have maintained this relationship through all of the hardships and people falling apart around them. I love that personally.
Thinking of the body of work, it’s taken on an even bigger meaning for me and the band and the managers and the team around us and the fans that have been with us for so long. I think that idea of “Never Give In” is leading to this sort of Promised Land and something that keeps getting better. I want to think that’s reflected in everything we’re doing at this point.
Your wife pops up several times in the lyrics.
Yeah, which is good because, for years, I got a lot of grief about never writing anything that was positive about a relationship. I always tried to convince her that that was stuff I was mining from old relationships, but it was nice to have a record where there was at least a couple of nods of the cap at being healthy and positive.
At what point do you give her the CD and say, “Hey, listen to what I’ve written”?
I don’t usually let her hear anything too early. She’s got a good ear, and she can be critical and castrate me from the get-go before I’ve had a chance to let the song develop. I let her hear it once the songs were recorded and done. She had heard “A Different Man” really early on, an acoustic work tape of that. She was pretty adamant for me recording that one because she felt like it painted us in a good light, and I was glad to do it.
And it’s a good one to start the record.
Yeah, we had done a different version. … It was like this wimpy, watered-down Eagles song. It was really bad. I love this song and I want it to be special, and it was not special. It was awful. Finally, we took a break, and I pulled the band aside and said, “We need to go back and re-approach it. I want to record it like it’s the Who records in Nashville.” We went back in, and it’s all the first take. It changed the life of the song and, ultimately, probably the life of the record.
The first record you put out was Carousel, which you released independently in 2001. How did you get the resources together to do that?
I signed a publishing deal as a writer with a little company that was a division of Warner/Chappell here. That was part of the deal, that they would help me fund making a record. So we made that album. Shortly after it was put out, it was picked up by Atlantic, and that’s where that whole thing started.
At the time, there were not a lot of artists putting records out on their own. Was it strange to think, “I’m doing this on my own”?
It wasn’t for me. It’s always seemed real natural to me because it’s the only thing I’ve ever known. I never wanted to be the guy who was waiting on other people to tell me whether I could make records or not, because I always wanted to do this through touring and trying to build something that was long-lasting.
It’s funny now, 15 years later, to look back and realize for once in my life, I might have actually been ahead of the curve on something. That’s generally never said about me, but I feel like that’s proven really true with this mantra we’ve accepted and taken on.
And we’re back doing it now, putting out records on our own. It seems to be a better way for me to work. And maybe that’ll change at some point if somebody comes along and gives us better opportunities. I wouldn’t say I’d never do it again. It’s just nice to have these little moments that prove to you that it’s not crazy to think you can do it that way.
Did it cost a fortune back then?
No, it would be embarrassing to people, the amount of money that people spend to make records. I think we made Carousel for $15,000, which even for 1999 wasn’t a whole lot of money. And we don’t spend a whole lot more than that now.
When you had a budget for Atlantic, do you remember how much it was?
It was a lot more than that. We worked with John Shanks, who I really learned a lot from. He’s such a great guy, and he’s a really good producer and a phenomenal guitar player. I remember that he went and bought an expensive Porsche during our sessions. I remember thinking that at least the front fender of that should have like a Will Hoge plaque on it.
And then the heartbreaking thing, we were mixing that record [Blackbird on a Lonely Wire] at one point with Chris Lord-Alge doing some of the mixes. He was unbelievably expensive, like $5,000 a song. … We drove over, we dropped the tapes off — because we were still recording to tape — and we got back in the Porsche to speed back to the studio.
We had gotten four minutes away in L.A. traffic and the cell phone rang and it was Lord-Alge saying, “I got your mix finished. You wanna come back and get it?” We turn around and go back and listen to it and his mix is done. It was like, “We just paid him $5,000 for four minutes of work.” I mean, it sounds good, but I feel like maybe I’m getting ripped off. So I’ve been a little more conscious of my budgets since Blackbird. We won’t make those mistakes again.