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Though you'd never know it from the preponderance of current country singles that extol the wonders of hooking up in the bed of a truck, country has historically been one of the more grown-up genres in popular music. Its singers have sung about spouses, offspring, parents and grandparents, and its audiences haven't found that to be a turnoff at all. In fact, they've identified with it.
Hoge, who grew up in Franklin, says he always embraced "the idea of country music being story songs and these songs of real-life perspective, not just about happy puppy love. In great country music, you could talk about God and death and love and everything. So that was always super-attractive to me as a fan. And then as a writer I think I always wanted that to be there, but when you're 22 and just don't have a care in the world, there's only so much of that that you can dig into. I mean, I [was] much more worried about girls and cars at 22 than I was sociopolitical stuff."
Now that Hoge is a family man, and sounding like one, it's not much of a stretch to envision him in a country context. What really got him pondering the possibility was "Even If It Breaks Your Heart." He was still in pretty bad shape when he co-wrote the song with Eric Paslay. Hoge had to get a ride to the writing appointment, lug his guitar in on a walker, and crank out the tune in the 45-minute window before physical therapy. But he was only too happy to put the result on The Wreckage.
Says Hoge, "For years in my career, I'd always heard people say, 'His live show is so great, and his records are good, but he just hasn't had that song, that song that will translate to really a mass audience.' ... It felt different recording it. We really felt great about it. I mean, we put it out as a single. And it just didn't do anything. Nobody cared."
Nobody, that is, except the Eli Young Band. The heartland country-pop act cut it for last year's album Life at Best, and it became a career breakthrough for both the band and the song's co-author. It went to No. 1 on the Billboard country chart earlier this year and snagged a CMA nomination. What bodes especially well for Hoge's crossover potential is that EYB barely even changed his arrangement, sticking with the mid-tempo rock pulse and the jangly, ringing chords on the chorus.
"It sounds silly," says Hoge, "but it was almost like this light-bulb moment: 'Wow, this really could work. I don't have to do anything different. I'm making the same music that I would make for a Will Hoge record, but all of a sudden all of these folks are gonna allow me to be me.'"
Another way to look at it is that as his self-presentation has evolved, mainstream country has more or less met him halfway; it's thrown open its doors to rock influences ranging from Springsteen, Seger and Mellencamp to Nickelback. Hoge notes with amusement that he and his band have even out-countried some country acts with whom they've share a bill.
Anyone who's driven down Music Row has seen the way publishers boast about their No. 1's by hanging glossy banners with song titles and songwriters' photos. Since Hoge didn't have a publisher, he certainly wasn't expecting one of those professionally printed beasts for "Even If It Breaks Your Heart."
And yet he came home one day to find a huge banner in his front yard, a surprise from his manager, Jordan Powell. Emblazoned across it was a jolt of well-earned survivor's pride: "Will Hoge congratulates himself on the #1 single." It also bore a goofy shot of his very surprised-looking face.
His tweet about it went viral. The many people rooting for him got a kick out of it. Even his U.K. fans found it downright hilarious. That said, the next time Hoge earns a No. 1 banner — and considering Lady Antebellum just cut one of his songs, that could happen sooner rather than later — it'll go in front of the BMG Chrysalis office on Music Square East, since he recently signed a co-publishing deal with them.
It's been a heady year for Hoge all around. He put in his political two cents in September with the Modern American Protest Music EP — just in time, too, because depicting a gay-friendly Jesus and advocating for Trayvon Martin's innocence wouldn't exactly be career boosters for an act gaining mainstream country traction — and he's working on a new album that he and Powell plan to shop around.
"I don't like the 'second chance' term," says Hoge, when asked if he feels like this is his. "But I'm willing to admit that you have these windows of opportunity in this business. You never know when they're gonna come, and they come fast, and you never know how long that window's open. I've done it long enough that I can see looking back that there were windows, some of them I stepped through, some of them I didn't, and they slammed in my foot.
"But I do feel like there's a big window of opportunity right now. ... From the years of doing this and from the accident — from perspective — I'm able to not put pressure on myself to get through that window, but understand and appreciate how lucky I am that any of these windows still open."
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