Will Hoge grew up a stone’s throw from Nashville, a clear shot down I-65 to Franklin that in pre-growth-spurt Nashville probably took under 30 minutes. It would be neatly journalistic to call it the perfect metaphor: just close enough to the glitz and glamour of Music Row to make it feel attainable, just far enough to cast a shadow of just how high that mountain climb would be. In reality, a young Hoge picked up a slightly different lesson: “I realized I never wanted to be a star.”
“Still don’t,” he elaborates, single-digit-weeks away from the release of his newest album Anchors. “The thing that was great about growing up here was that you realized you could be an artist or a musician and just a normal human being.” Hoge is engaged and at ease, sitting in the late morning sunlight at a coffee shop in East Nashville where he’s clearly a regular, catching up with the man at the register before grabbing a table by a window. “Growing up, you’d see Vince Gill on an awards show on a Sunday night but then a Tuesday night he’d be back at the cheerleading competition watching his daughter,” he continues. The Tennessee native sees it even more clearly now that he has children of his own: maybe in another city, they’d be the odd ones out, but in Nashville it’s standard to have a family member on tour as an artist, musician, technician, etc. “The normalcy of what this life is in Nashville is a really inspiring thing.”
Hoge knows: he’s had a taste of stardom, when his song “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” topped charts as recorded by the Eli Young Band and earned him a Grammy nod for Best Country Song. His last album, produced by the hook-master-crafter Marshall Altman, was as radio-ready as Hoge has ever been. “There’s no question that that leads to more people coming to your show,” he says of radio success. “But as we did some of that and kind of got on that mainstream radar, [I] started to really realize [that if] there’s 12 thousand people in front of you, [there are] maybe three thousand of them that really know every word or are paying attention.” He cites Eric Church, whose fan base hangs on every lyric of every album cut, as the gold standard to which up and coming artists should aspire, and contrasts with artists who have a few radio singles and have to keep the crowd engaged with covers in between. “I don’t know,” he says of the latter. “That doesn’t sound very interesting.”
Hoge loves politics; this is abundantly clear if you follow him on social media, have browsed his YouTube channel, or know his songs like “Still A Southern Man” or “Jesus Came to Tennessee.” Though he can – and does – talk at length about the state of American politics, his latest record is devoid of any political subtext, perhaps surprising in a climate that seems at an ever-heightening state of vocalized tension.
“It’s always the moment to speak out politically,” Hoge shares. “I’m never very shy about that. When to do it on a record is not a political statement, it just makes sense for that record.” With Anchors, the focus lay elsewhere: different dynamics of relationships, leaving political commentary aside. “I just felt like I couldn’t talk about it right now, and be productive,” Hoge continues, referencing the heated political climate at the end of last year. That’s not to say he hasn’t written those songs – “they’ll come out when the time is right,” he says – the time just wasn’t now, on Anchors.
Instead, the album takes a multi-faceted look at the way people interact: carnality on “This Ain’t An Original Sin,” redemption on “Angel’s Wings,” loss on “Cold Night In Santa Fe.” Anchors isn’t a concept record – nor did Hoge intend it to be – but there’s certainly a common thread throughout. “I felt like it did kind of paint a real world picture of what adults go through in relationships, not kids – not just ‘I love you and this is awesome’ and not just ‘f*ck you, you pissed me off and I’m leaving’ – but those deeper layers,” he says.
Relationships are hard work, a theme Hoge was very intentional about acknowledging in the music. “I feel fortunate,” he says. “My wife and I work really hard to have a great relationship, but it’s a job, we have to talk to each other about things, we have to talk to individual counselors, co-counselors. It’s work, and that’s not a bad thing.” Though his songs come both from personal experience and observing the world, he notes, “I had a lot of rough roads before here, and those memories don’t go away either. You’re able to mine some of that.”
Hoge tapped into personal experience for one of the most haunting songs on the record, “This Grand Charade” – that is, sort of. “I laugh, because as every record [I make] starts to take shape [my wife] will ask me, ‘is this the one where you’re gonna write a really happy song about you and I?’ And I always laugh and say, ‘of course it is,’” Hoge shares with a chuckle. At the time, he and his wife had just built a modest new home in East Nashville from the ground up, exactly how they wanted: their own rooms for the kids, a great backyard, a great porch.
“I was sitting on that porch, she came to kiss me goodnight [and] go inside, and I had this moment of sheer happiness,” he says. “I had my guitar, and I wrote the first two lines of that song: you go to bed early, and darling I stay up late. My thought was it was gonna be this sort of sweet John Prine-ish, kind of funny about relationships, something good in the bad in all those things, and it was just f*cking terrible.” Hoge kept the melody and the music and re-wrote. And re-wrote. “It was always terrible,” he laughs. “Then finally one night something happened that turned it dark and that whole song came up.”
The song is an emotional gust that’ll knock the wind out of its listeners: raw, quavering, honest. It’s a similar emotional color to “When I Can Afford To Lose” or “Through Missing You,” a song written for and inspired by friend Ed Tarkington’s book “Only Love Can Break Your Heart.” “I wrote two really happy lines,” Hoge continues, laughing. “Ten records from now I’ll have a whole song about it.”
Anchors is available August 11 via Thirty Tigers.