There are moments where it would be real nice to sleep in your own bed," admits Will Hoge with a rapid-fire Southern drawl. "But that doesn't pay for shit, so I have to stay out here and work. No, we're fortunate to get to play music for a living. Every time I drive by some poor son of a bitch paving a road in 95-degree heat, I realize how lucky I am."
Although the Tennessee native's star is rising steadily on the heels of recent tours with the Black Crowes and My Morning Jacket, Hoge is well acquainted with the hassles of playing on the haven't-quite-made-it-yet circuit. Currently touring in support of his latest effort, Draw the Curtains, the rustic troubadour is on the road for more than 200 dates a year, delivering his slightly countrified blend of soul and Southern blues rock to an ever-growing fan base. In one recent blog entry, Hoge recounts an aborted show in which the venue's staff never arrived for a scheduled 4 p.m. load-in, pushing the act's sound check back until 7 p.m. Even if the sound guy had been on time, it wouldn't have mattered, because the P.A. didn't work at all. Such tales of road woe, however, are becoming rarer these days, says Hoge.
"When you're first starting out, you take every hand-me-down gig you can get, and you get used to it," he points out. "You get less and less of that over time, and more ability to say no. There's a certain point where it's going to affect the show, where people aren't going to be able to enjoy it, and where the audience would have a shitty experience if you went through with it. But that doesn't happen a whole lot anymore."
Despite the occasional annoyance, Hoge doesn't seem to be on the verge of having to post his resumé on Monster.com. Things are looking up for the Nashville-based singer/guitarist, who secured a new distribution deal with Ryko after releasing two records on Atlantic — 2001's Carousel and 2003's Blackbird on a Lonely Wire — that were critically acclaimed but didn't meet the label's grandiose sales expectations. When support from the label dried up, Hoge issued a series of releases on his own, including last year's The Man Who Killed Love, before securing his current partnership with Ryko. Speaking about the new alliance, he's sounds like an effusive little kid who made a friend on his first day at a new school.
"Ryko has turned out to be everything we had hoped Atlantic would be," says Hoge. "We always wanted a record label that would let us be ourselves and make the records we wanted to make, on a timely basis in which we wanted to make them. It's been a realistic record deal, not one of these negotiations with talk of limos and MTV and all this bullshit. Ryko is a bunch of music fans willing to work with us as musicians."
That notion — of artists creating art instead of factory drones churning out "product," which seemed to be the approach at Atlantic — is one that's far more appealing to Hoge.
"When you start making records, you have to just make records," Hoge explains. "You can't chase records. You can't chase after hit songs. We had more of that at Atlantic. Everybody started second-guessing what was going to work for so-and-so, this demographic or that demographic. You can't paint a picture thinking that way, or sculpt, or do any kind of art. It's nice to make a record and then figure out where you're going to take it."
To that end, Draw the Curtains was largely in the can before Hoge struck the Ryko deal, having been recorded with longtime Nashville compatriot Ken Coomer, the former stickman for Uncle Tupelo. But instead of the usual approach to making a record — calling in the band and trying to replicate the energy of a live show — Hoge and Coomer sat down and worked out minimalist versions of the songs first.
"This one started more organically," Hoge recalls, "with me playing guitar and Ken playing drums, stripped to the core of what the song is really about, rather than performance-driven. It was real constructive for the band to hear the songs stripped down like that and then start layering in more parts after, instead of trying to capture the moment between everybody."
Coomer also produced Blackbird on a Lonely Wire, Hoge's sophomore effort, so the phase that musicians normally go through in which they relinquish enough control of their material, allowing a new producer to monkey with their songs — much like entrusting their child to a stranger — was pretty much out of the way.
"There was just such a comfort level with him that it made it easy," Hoge notes. "It's like when two dogs meet: There's a lot of butt-sniffing involved the first time you work with someone. The hardest thing in working with a producer is that there's a lot of trust involved. You have to know if this guy is telling you to rework the bridge or something because it would make the song better, or because he wants to put his stamp on it. We got all that out of the way a long time ago, and we could just get down to work. And hopefully there will be less butt-sniffing next time around.
"That would make a good headline," adds Hoge with a chuckle. "'Will Hoge Sniffs Butts.' My mom will love that."
Grin-inducing headlines aside, Hoge and Coomer ended up with one of the richest, most diverse collections of songs that Hoge has put together thus far. The stripped-down approach allowed him to explore the songs in greater detail, building a more complete tapestry from the simple roots of each song. His live-performance swagger is still present on many of them; on "Midnight Parade," Hoge eerily evokes Van Morrison singing Bruce Springsteen's "Rosalita" with a healthy dose of fiddle and lap steel behind him. But the singer has also allowed himself to leave songs like "I'm Sorry Now" in a more naked final form, highlighting the pain that, though always present in his voice, is often masked by bombast.
"Writing slower, quieter songs is one of those things you like to be able to try as a songwriter," he confides. "I'm going to sound really pretentious here, but you want to expand your palette as much as possible. One of those things is to be able to do quiet stuff. We have a fiddle player with us now, and 'Sorry Now' is one of the songs that's become a lot of fun to play. From a live-show perspective, you want to be able to run the gamut between hard-rock songs and showcasing individual bandmembers."
But playing quieter songs has not come without challenges. In another blog entry, Hoge joked about naming his current tour with Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit the "Shut the Fuck Up" tour. But he's quick to point out that people are starting to catch on to the idea of actually listening.
"It's gotten less and less 'talky' at shows," he allows. "I don't think we realized it so much until this record, which has a quieter tone to it. Luckily, people have been pretty respectful. I guess when they're not, it stands out more. There's a person at every third or fourth show who is drunk and yakking to their friends, but people in the crowd generally get them to be quiet. I guess that's why they don't serve alcohol at the movies."
But again, he's not complaining. With a new album out on a new label, and embarking on yet another tour, Hoge seems downright giddy.
"I'm grateful I get to do this for a living," he reiterates. "If you stop to think about it, that's more than what 90 percent of musicians ever get to do. Again, I'm not paving roads. The fact that sometimes I have to sing through a shitty monitor isn't the worst thing in the world."
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