By Brad Lopez
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As "She Don't Care," the first cut on Will Hoge's debut studio album Carousel, roars to life, it sounds very similar to something by those '80s rabble-rousers the Georgia Satellites -- with a much better singer. Hoge's sinus-headache-hangover verses give way to a full-throated Van Morrison wail of a chorus, as though he's springing the one-liner "I got a three-dollar shirt; she got fifty-five-dollar hair" from a jack-in-the-box hooked up to a Marshall stack. Recorded on the cheap, Carousel puts Hoge's urgent smirk of a voice so far up in the mix that it sounds like he swallowed the microphone and left it dangling down his gullet just above his diaphragm, where it bounces with every shout.
What Hoge has in his mouth right now, though, is Szechuan beef with broccoli. Trying to keep his chewing discreet, Hoge answers questions from a table tucked in a corner of a busy Chinese restaurant in New York City; he'sgetting ready to play a second show in as many days at the Jones Beach Amphitheater. Even through mouthfuls of spicy food, the singer's voice is gruffly forceful and vaguely Southern; he could be a skilled impressionist making a first, extra-hoarse try at Bill Clinton -- close to the mark but still recognizably someone else. He's talking about another set of grated tonsils, those of Rod Stewart -- whom Hoge and his band, also named Will Hoge, opened for on a series of dates last fall. Hoge explains why it wasn't until several shows into that tour that the band finally had a chance to meet the wild-haired rocker:
"He mostly hangs out with the models backstage. We pretty much got screwed on that deal." Hoge waits a beat, then adds, "Maybe 'screwed' isn't the word."
Hoge hasn't had time to chase women lately. He's been too busy making the late-night talk-show rounds, touring relentlessly and assuming a sort of second-wind status as a talented songwriter and the charismatic leader of a bona fide rock-and-roll band. Will Hoge appeals to older fans of musicians such as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and the melodic middle-of-the-road offerings of newer college-rock acts like the Gin Blossoms and the Wallflowers; the group carries the authenticity of the former while outshining the latter with more dynamic songwriting and musicianship.
Hoge began his career in Nashville, and after wowing fans at home with night after night of sweaty gigs, he issued All Night Long, a live disc that earned label attention. Holding to a do-it-yourself ethos, Hoge self-released his band's first studio effort, Carousel, in January 2001.
"We had some indie offers and different things," he says. "But we felt like it was important to try to maintain our sense of self and being able to do this not just the easy or fast way, but the right way."
That method, ironically, led Hoge to sign with a major label, Atlantic Records. Carousel so impressed the suits at Atlantic that they reissued the recording on their own imprint last fall and launched a campaign to promote it. As a result, Hoge's "new" work was suddenly garnering widespread attention nearly a year after it was released.
New listeners and critics alike cited a sonic resemblance to the Georgia Satellites, a theme that's recurred since the early days of Hoge's Nashville career. On Carousel, Hoge and his band come by that similarity honestly: The Satellites' Dan Baird plays guitar and sings backup on the disc. Until late 2000, Baird had been touring with Hoge, too, interrupting a steady slate of production jobs and his own solo career. Baird doesn't share writing or production credits for Carousel; it's a rare turn as a sideman for the in-demand guitarist.
"There was really no begging or pleading," Hoge says of his recruitment of Baird. And when it came time for Baird to work with his crack rhythm section, Hoge says, "Dan had experience in the studio, of course, so it was great having him involved. We really felt we had a figure we could turn to. He made [recording] easier.
"We toured our asses off with Dan for a year and a half," Hoge continues. "The album was coming out, and he knew we were in for more touring. The other three of us were kids in a candy store doing this for the first time, and he didn't try to curb our enthusiasm. He was never the bitter old guy."
Enter Brian Layson, Hoge's new guitar player, whom Baird approved before leaving the group. "We'd seen Brian play two or three weeks before Dan quit," Hoge explains. "The first thing Dan said when he backed out was, 'You need to call the guy from Macon.' So it was a real logical change."
Hoge used to be the guy coming and going from bands. At 26, the singer had already bummed around various Nashville outfits before hanging out his own songwriting shingle. "I'd always been just the singer or songwriter in a band, and that always bit me in the ass," Hoge says, laughing. "You do the work, and someone else screws it up. So I was hell-bent on not being in a band. But the minute you wish for that, a great band falls in your lap."