“Will Hoge didn’t really need to release a new album in 2018. His most recent, Anchors, came out last August, reaching No. 6 on Billboard Heatseekers and the Top 20 on the Indie chart. He’d toured the United States and Europe, and could’ve settled in from there. But there was something he couldn’t stop thinking about: his children.
Border police. Political corruption. Anti-intellectualism. Poverty. Gun control. A broken education system. Indifference to others’ suffering. Each of these things weighed on Hoge, and he confronts them all head-on in My American Dream, which will come with a copy of the U.S. Constitution printed with the lyrics in both the LP and CD (out October 5th on Edlo/Thirty Tigers).
“Those things kept me up at night — and this record was less expensive than therapy,” he says, laughing. “Silence couldn’t be a part of my deal anymore.” and Hoge dealt with his fears the only way he knows how, by making music. The result is the fiercest, angriest, and most heartfelt collection of songs he’s released. Eight songs of rabble-rousing political commentary that turns a critical eye on the crisis of conscience and culture threatening to tear apart his country, the album is Hoge’s impassioned portrait of what he holds dear — and what we all might risk losing.
“My kids and their future, that’s the biggest thing for me. My boys are 11 and 7, they’re happy and healthy kids, and I feel lucky for that every day,” says Hoge, who’s wife is a teacher at the same school that their sons attend in Nashville, Tennessee. “Every morning at 7 o’clock, everything I care about in the world goes to one building. It takes one knucklehead with a gun going into that one building to ruin all that for me.”
The first song that Hoge completed was inspired directly by the specter of school shootings and the inept response of politicians: “Thoughts & Prayers” (released as a single and named as one of the Top 25 Songs of 2017 by Rolling Stone Country) is an acoustic ballad in which he asks, “Why don’t you do your job up there? Keep your thoughts and prayers.” “Sadly, it seems that “thoughts and prayers” is America’s new slogan” says RS. It’s a raw, fiery song with just Hoge and his guitar, belting out his frustrations in the recording booth. Production wise, It’s a stark contrast to the straight, no-holds-barred rock and roll of the rest of the album, though the inextinguishable spirit remains the same throughout and the urgency of the music comes through in every note.
Hoge drives home the sentiment on the searing album opener “Gilded Walls”.
“Well another group of kids in high school dead
But you’re still at your golf course teeing off at nine
People marching in the streets trying to find a little peace
You sit around spouting more bullsh*t online”
Listen to the thumping beat of “Nikki’s a Republican Now” or the crunchy solidarity of “Stupid Kids” and it’s clear Hoge feels the release of cranking the amps up to 11. Hoge credits the big rock sound on My American Dream, to the red hot playing of his touring band and the intense angst caused by what’s happening in our country. With Will in the producers chair, he along with Thom Donavan (lead guitar), Chris Griffiths (bass) and Allen Jones (drums) hunkered down in Studio B at Nashville’s historic Sound Emporium and knocked out the entire album in just 3 days. He then enlisted long time trusted collaborator and Grammy Award winning engineer, Ray Kennedy, to handle the final mixes.
Hoge has never been afraid to wade into political territory, like with 2004’s The America EP (“Bible Vs. Gun,” “Hey Mr. President (Anyone But You)”) or 2012’s Modern American Protest Music (“Ballad of Trayvon Martin,” “Jesus Came to Tennessee”) and the point of this new material is to continue to push Hoge — and his listeners — even further outside of the comfort zone. That meant coming to terms with parts of his own past that he wasn’t proud of. When speaking about the song “Still a Southern Man”, Hoge notes “I grew up in a town where the high school mascot, the Franklin Rebels, had a rebel flag. I was the guy that brought the rebel flag to football games. I thought it was awesome because it was our school,” he remembers. “I was a dumb, small-town, sheltered kid. It never entered my mind that this was racist because I wasn’t racist, so how could this be wrong? I never considered the dark history, It was just a mascot to me, I realized later It was a long, awful nightmare to many others.”
More often than not, though, Hoge puts himself in someone else’s shoes, be it the homeless heartland worker who watched his job prospects head overseas on “My American Dream” or the Mexican immigrant crossing the border to provide for his family on “Illegal Line.” At their core, both songs are about empathy. “At the end of the day, that’s really what folks are after, is just to be treated with some respect. Paired back to back, “My American Dream” and “Illegal Line” form the emotional core of the album, with the latter song taking on all the more significance in light of the heartbreaking separation of families so tragically revealed in the 24-hour news cycle.
He’s grateful for the commercial success and Grammy nominations that songs such as “Even if It Breaks Your Heart” “Middle of America” and “Strong” have received, but even more important than the commercial success is the freedom to stand up for his convictions and put them into his music when the time calls for it. ”If I’m going to alienate folks then I guess it’s doing its job. If they aren’t willing to be challenged, if they don’t like the songs, then don’t buy the record. It’s that simple.”
What’s more, Hoge isn’t the type to talk the talk without walking the walk. He’s an avid activist, lending his time and resources to raise awareness and money for Believe in Service (a Nashville based PAC who supports candidates in 8 key Senate races) and is a member of Everytown for Gun Safety’s Music Council, a part of the Creative Council, founded and chaired by Julianne Moore. His social media pages are a microcosm of sorts for the wider conversations taking place in the world today, as he challenges his fans to not shy away from the important questions that need to be asked.
With My American Dream, Hoge hopes that others will follow his lead, see the world through someone else’s eyes, and maybe — just maybe — begin to fix the mess we’re living in.
The Band of Heathens
We were on the road somewhere in New England in early 2017, when the topic of conversation drifted toward the troubled social climate in the country. We all shared a sadness that bordered on despair at the relentless stream of unsettling news of corruption, social injustice, and an overall lack of moral decency. We related similar experiences with how divisiveness was affecting those around us, how families were being torn apart over political and social issues. Eventually the weight of it all left us feeling quite solemn and the conversation trailed off -- we returned to our thoughts and personal reflection as we rolled up the interstate. After a long period of silence, we felt like we needed to lighten the mood, and nothing heals the soul quite like music…
Trevor went to an obscure and out-of-print Ray Charles album that he had ripped from vinyl to mp3 to listen to on the road, A Message From The People...how appropriate. Some of us were vaguely familiar with the context of this record -- that it was released in the early 70’s (April ’72) during a time of great social upheaval in America. Nixon, Vietnam, race riots, protests in almost every major city…the country had fallen on some hard times. Just by glancing at the LP's artwork it’s easy to deduce that Ray had a message in mind when he made this record. The cover is a painting of Ray in a reflective pose next to a group of children with different ethnicities. They all sit beneath a Mt. Rushmore-like image with the faces of Bobby Kennedy, Abe Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr. and JFK. With the first notes of the opening track “Lift Every Voice And Sing”, Ray had our undivided attention. Often referred to as the Black National Anthem, Ray’s genius is in full flight from the get-go, singing with incredible jubilation and hope, hitting us like a ton of bricks. It seemed like Ray had picked up where our conversation had trailed off just moments before…we were really LISTENING. The second track, “Seems Like I Gotta Do Wrong”, he sings with such a powerful sentiment of loneliness and helplessness -- the plight of many in society who are forgotten or ignored. We remained silent, intently listening and reflecting on the meaning of every word he sang. Halfway through the record a couple of us were in tears. The messages in each song that Ray had carefully selected back in 1972 rang as true today as they did during the turbulent times they were initially released. In these moments, Ray’s voice became the voice of an elder -- a true master was speaking to us from the past. There is sorrow, protest, and anger but also resolve, hope, and deliverance. On the final track of the record, Ray saved for us his most powerful message and the perfect coda; the definitive version of “America The Beautiful” is absolutely glorious. It is quite simply the apotheosis of soul. “America! God done shed his grace on thee! He crowned thy good, he told me he would, with brotherhood from sea to shining sea!”
Just like that, the masterpiece that is A Message From The People came to an end. Breaking the ensuing silence, Gordy turned around and said, “What if we covered this album? People really need to hear these songs again.” The idea was hatched right then and there.
Fast forward almost a year later. In December 2017 we were working as a backing band on a variety of projects for other artists being produced by Gordy. The sessions took place at the Finishing School, a studio built by close friend, producer, and musical collaborator, George Reiff, who tragically succumbed cancer in May ’17 after a 10-month fight. The studio had been dark since George’s passing. With the blessing of the Reiff family, the lights were turned back on and we went to work for a few weeks. The final four days of session time were blocked off for us to work on something of our own. A few weeks prior to the sessions it was collectively decided that we would use that time to take a shot at recording some of A Message From The People. Working alongside our close friend (and George’s right-hand-man in the studio) Steve Christensen, there was a palpable vibration in the air. It was somber but also very peaceful. Our expectations were tempered, as we knew that doing any Ray Charles record justice was going to be a real challenge -- let alone one with such lush arrangements. On top of that, we were working in a new bass player, Jesse Wilson. These sessions would be the first time we had worked with him in a studio environment (which can be a crucible for some). In spite of all that, the collective mentality, while unspoken, seemed to be “let’s give this a shot, this could be cool, there’s no pressure here.” To our amazement, after four days, we had finished the record. In between takes we frequently reminisced about George and were even visited at the studio by some of George’s close friends and family. Feeling confident that what we had accomplished was going to be worthy of a release, we unanimously agreed that it would be dedicated to the memory of George and that proceeds would go to a charitable organization that focused on social justice.
Going forward, our hope is that our performance of these songs has sufficient merit to carry the listener to the musical feeling that we strived to infuse in these recordings -- a spirit of brotherhood, hope and understanding, liberty, and justice for all.