In June, as Will Hoge headed out of his East Nashville home for the first performance of a four-night run at a downtown club, his wife called out to him: "Promise me you won't jump off of anything," she pleaded.
Hoge laughed then as he laughs now at the memory, but his wife meant what she said. She knew how physical her husband can be when singing his soul-drenched heartland rock onstage. She also knew his body, held together by metal plates and screws, wasn't ready yet for that kind of strain.
Nine months earlier—on Aug. 20, 2008—Hoge guided his Yamaha scooter home when, at about 40 mph on Main Street, he skidded into a van that had turned directly into his path. He spent several days unconscious in the Vanderbilt trauma unit, only to wake to a nightmare.
Eight days after the accident, he detailed his injuries on his website: "100 stitches in my face.... My left eye was almost ripped out. My entire forehead looked like chopped ground beef. All my top teeth were drilled with lace holes and weaved in with some high-end metal dental floss. My nose is cut down the middle. My lips are cut, gashed, etc., from top to bottom on both sides. I've got random gashes up and down both arms. I've got a broken sternum. Ribs four, five, six and seven are smashed. My left side has a broken clavicle. Both of my shoulder blades are broken. I had a partially collapsed lung. Stomach to chest is covered in gashes. My right nipple is almost cut off. All my back is one bile-colored black bruise. My left leg is strained everywhere from the foot up. My right femur was a shattered compound fracture and the knee cap (is in) eight tiny pieces. There's now a rod where my femur was and a mess of screws, wires, etc., holding together my new knee cap."
As for those June shows at 12th & Porter, Hoge ended them feeling exultant—sore, tired, but having proven he could still rock the house and, perhaps more than ever, emotionally move an audience. The shows came after a series of acoustic warm-up performances, to which he arrived with a cane, which coincided with finishing his fifth studio album (the second for Rykodisc). Despite the pointed title, The Wreckage doesn't directly address his accident or recovery. Instead, the ordeal inspired him to write about inner turmoil, reflection, disappointment and, ultimately, about hope and triumph.
"I felt too close to it to really process it and write about it," Hoge says between dates on his first full U.S. tour in more than year, which has taken him from the Eastern Seaboard to the West Coast. "It's like getting married or having a child. Big events like that you need time to absorb."
Still, the recovery and extensive rehabilitation jerked Hoge off of an exhausting 10-year habit of more than 200 shows annually. Sitting alone with his acoustic guitar took him back to his beginnings, allowing him time he'd not afforded himself since he signed with Atlantic Records in 2002 and hopped on the nonstop machine that is the modern rock 'n' roll business.
"The road had become second nature to me," Hoge says. "It's all I did, and it consumed everything. I stopped having time to work on songs, and I'd never really become comfortable in the studio. This last year changed that. I found myself working on songs like I hadn't been able to do in a long time. That alone was real cathartic."
More than ever, his recovery tied him to his family, to his band members, and to his fans, and to the Nashville community. He praises the Vanderbilt staff, but also the outpouring of support he received. He singles out a letter from Hilary Williams, the daughter of Hank Williams Jr., who survived her own bout with pervasive, brutal injuries from a wreck that almost killed her and her sister, Holly Williams.
"Hilary wrote this very peaceful, thoughtful letter about how I'd get better," Hoge said. "She was still going through her rehabilitation, and what she wrote was so personal and spiritual, and she talked about gratitude and how she'd changed for the better. Things like that helped more than people could ever know."
Asked what those changes were, Hoge says, "I used to sit around and wish I could get back on the road. It's something entirely different to sit around and wish you could walk. You come to realize the pain will go away. But this new appreciation of life, of the people around me, of being able to do something you love—that stays with you."
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