Will Hoge fans can thank the Lonely Man, the name of his sons Liam and George’s first band, for pulling the Nashville rocker out of a creative funk.
Without them, Hoge’s latest album Anchors, his 11th full-length collection, probably wouldn’t exist.
Hoge was fresh off a successful tour to support 2015’s Small Town Dreams, and he had a few songs left over that needed a home. But at the time, Hoge was burnt out by the struggles that sometimes come with being in the music industry, and he found himself at a loss of what do to next.
“There was fighting in the band that everybody deals with at times,” Hoge tells CMT.com. “So I let everybody go, and I went out on my own and kind of started wanting to write songs again. But I was at a point where I didn’t even know what I wanted to do anymore.”
That’s a big statement coming from a music creator who has writing songs about everyday life down to a fine art. It’s hard to imagine such a prolific music maker ever having a bad day at the office. But that happens occasionally.
For our CMT.com interview, Hoge sits at an East Nashville coffee shop on a July afternoon and picks at a blueberry muffin as he shares the story behind how Anchors came to be. He and Eric Paslay are the Grammy-nominated songwriters behind “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” which originally appeared on Hoge’s 2009 album The Wreckage and later became a No. 1 hit for Eli Young Band.
In 2008, Hoge survived getting hit by a 15-passenger van while driving his moped to get milk on his way home from the studio. On his forearm, Hoge has a tattoo of a scooter in a circle with a slash through it as a reminder to never ride one ever again.
After letting his band go, Hoge toured independently for a year with just a guitar and a keyboard.
“In the middle of not knowing what I wanted to do, I hated everything I was writing,” Hoge said of the time following Small Town Dreams. “I didn’t like the boots I was in, but my songs started with [the Lonely Man] and their rehearsals in my garage.”
George was 6 at the time, and he was the singer. Liam was 9, and he played guitar. And they had recruited a neighborhood friend to play drums.
“I was really depressed one day in my bedroom, thinking about all this, and they started playing,” Hoge recalls. “I watched from the bedroom window and it was like a portal back to the time when you’re not thinking about touring companies or LLCs or insurance for employees. You just want to write songs and play music. I wasn’t that young when I started a band. I was 16 or 17 when I got my first guitar and wanted to write songs and wanted to do this professionally. Seeing them really over the next couple of days helped me re-center what I wanted to do and I wrote that song, ’17.'”
The coming-of-age acoustic rocker was the first song Hoge had written in a while that he really felt good about, and he added it to his list of songs for a potential album.
“I put ’Young As You Will Ever Be’ on the list and then over the next few weeks, the rest of the songs started coming,” he said. “I went back to making myself write by myself every day.”
The result is Hoge’s strongest material to date. Sheryl Crow is the Bonnie Bramlett to his Delaney on the lead single “Little Bit of Rust,” which was co-written with James LeBlanc (Gary Allan’s “Learning How to Bend,” Kenny Chesney’s “I Remember”).
Hoge partnered with hit-maker Adam Hood (Little Big Town’s “Front Porch Thing,” Frankie Ballard’s “Grandpa’s Farm”) to write the acoustic ballad “Angel Wings.” He co-wrote “Baby’s Eyes” with Brendan Benson (the Raconteurs and Ashley Monroe’s “Mayflowers”). “Young As You Will Ever Be” was co-written with Dylan Altman (Jason Aldean’s “Take a Little Ride,” Tim McGraw’s “Watch the Wind Blow By”).
Hoge will tour Anchors through January 2018. On Sept. 15, he will perform at the Rhythm and Roots Reunion in Bristol, Tennessee.
CMT.com: What made “Anchors” the perfect title songs for this collection?
Hoge: “Anchors” is sort of a double-edged thing. It can be something that holds you and keeps you rooted in things that are important. Anchors can also be something that tethers you to the ghosts and demons from the past that you want to shake but can’t.
If there’s a theme in the record, there are real-life moments and a lot of them aren’t one of those two things. But there are little bits of both those things in everyday life. I thought it kind of encapsulated the whole record in one word.
Had you toured with Sheryl Crow before?
We’ve done random shows over the years. We got to know one another more through our kids. Her boys are the exact same age as mine. My wife Julia is good friends with Cass Bentley, Dierks’ wife. And then she’s friends with Sheryl, and so Julia had met them through the wives circle of friends.
The boys had a play date and we started seeing them more through that, and then we randomly started talking about different things. She had mentioned at one point that if I ever wanted to use her studio — and she’s got an incredible setup — I could use her place because that’s just the kind of woman that she is. She’s always trying to pull people forward and make great art. The studio didn’t make sense, but it did make sense to call and ask if she would sing on a song. She didn’t even seem to hesitate. She’s just so good.
As much your life informs your art, how much of what your fans go through every day — watching it on the news or seeing it play out at your shows — informs your music?
A ton. I feel like in a lot of ways, it’s a peer group. There are people who are older in the fan base and people who are younger. But I feel like the idea of trying to find love and hold a relationship together is really not any different than when you’re 60 or 18. Hopefully, you know more about it at 60 than you do 18.
But that’s pretty universal and timeless I think. It informs it quite a bit. I consider my fans to be an extended group of friends and family. It plays into it.
The thing I love about music now and making it is the same thing I loved about listening to it when I was a kid. There were moments when someone on a record conveyed exactly what I felt. And that could be something as benign as thinking a girl was pretty or something as heavy as social commentary. A great social commentary song is not more important as a great cruisin’-around-in-a-car-with-a girl song.
I always hope that the records I make will reach somebody in the same way records I loved reached me as a middle class white kid growing up in Franklin, Tennessee. What are the things that open your eyes to a bigger world than the 25 miles most of us spend our lives growing up in? I guess in some way I hope that what you do as an artist provides that same escapism for somebody else.
How do you not lose touch with the needs of your audience?
I think if you’re in tune with yourself and the universe at large, it’s not a hard thing to stay in touch with. This is where we get all [screwed] up with conservatism and what’s real America and what’s not.
We all want clean water, a safe place to raise a family, education for our kids, food. We all want to be able to put a little bit of money away, take your family on a vacation here and there and live a happy and healthy life. I mean, really and truly, that’s not a crazy concept. And that’s not hard for me to stay in touch with. That’s the same thing I struggle with every day in my own life, and so I think it’s a pretty universal thing if we can cut to that every time.
Going back to your kids playing in your garage, what kind of music were they playing and was it original or covers?
They have two original songs. One is called “Into Darkness,” which is a song about going into the darkness. And that one is kind of dark and brooding. Then the other one is like a Ramones kind of song called “George, You Are Under Arrest.” My youngest son’s name is George, and so that one makes me a little nervous. The chorus goes, “George, you are under arrest/George, you are under arrest/George, you are under/George, you are under/George, you are under arrest.” That’s really one of my favorite songs I’ve ever heard. Now George is going to do drum lessons because he really wants to get better and maybe sing and play drums.
Sounds like a Levon Helm in the making.
Liam wants to take trumpet lessons, so they can add that in, too. I don’t know what the hell the kind of band it’s going to be.