Will Hoge may be the hardest-working musician you've never heard of. A Nashville guitarist who traded his teaching dreams for songwriting, Hoge tried his hand in minor bands before getting noticed as a solo artist at the turn of the century. Despite not having his own hit song (and, oddly, watching as another band earned a No. 1 spot covering one of his tunes), Hoge has toured steadily for more than a decade, including regular stops in St. Louis. Hoge performs Friday, August 10, as part of the Open Highway Music Festival at Off Broadway.
We caught up with Hoge as he was driving through North Carolina, promoting last year's album, Number Seven, and previewing tracks from his upcoming eighth album, due at the end of this month or beginning of September.
Allison Babka: The festival in St. Louis and your booking company are called Open Highway, which is appropriate since you're known for touring almost constantly -- different from more mainstream musicians. What's the allure of the road?
Will Hoge: Well, the thing I like about that is I get to play for folks. I mean that's it. If I'm going to be away from my family, I just want to get out and play for people. There's something about a live show with the interaction among the onstage stuff and the audience and that sort of give and take -- there aren't a lot of mediums you get to experience that in. We love to get to do that every night.
What's it like playing the Grand Ole Opry? You grew up in Nashville, so that must have been amazing for you.
It was. I just got invited for the first time a little less than a year ago, and we've probably been back seven or eight times. It's cool. It's really as special of a musical experience as I'll ever have. I'm always flattered when I get to do it.
And you've gotten to play the Opry with Vince Gill. How is it working with others in such a great place?
It's great! Vince was the first one. He introduced us the first night and brought us back for an encore. We played an extra song, and he sat in with us. You know, it's like being coronated by the king. In a lot of ways, Vince is the next in line for that Grand Ole Opry throne, and he's deserving of all of that. To get him to anoint us that first night, he made it that much more special.
What else is special about Nashville?
Well, it's home, first and foremost. My family's been there for three generations, so that's special. But it's truly the best music town on the planet. There are so many varied forms of music and so many great players in every genre. It's still a great place to raise a family, it's affordable to live, there are great schools. I can't say enough good things about it.
What's your favorite place to play in Nashville? The Opry, Ryman Auditorium or Exit/In?
Ryman for sure. It's the best sounding room on the planet as far as I'm concerned. And there are ghosts there. So much great music has come through those halls that you can't not be moved when you're playing there. Hands down, that's my favorite venue for sure. Do you have any preferences on playing the smaller cavelike clubs compared to the big arenas?
The theaters are my favorites. We've done some bigger arena things, too, and those are fun because you get to play in front of 5 to 6,000 people. We also have some great nights in front of 200 people doing our own small club shows. But theaters, you know, the 1,000- to 2,000-seat theaters are really my favorite. It's where you can really do the most. You can do things that are incredibly quiet with no microphone, and people are in seats and it's quiet enough to translate. You can also do big bombastic loud stuff, and that still sounds good, too. But we don't care; anytime people show up, we'll play.
The last couple of shows I've seen, you've taken a break toward the end of the show to unplug, drop the mic, walk out into the audience and have everybody sing with you. What's that like?
It's cool! We sort of call that our Grand Ole Opry portion of the show because the Opry has this tradition that's based on acoustic music. So much of the music that we grew up listening to and we all still love was sort of founded around that sort of acoustic, communal campfire kind of music. So it's a cool thing for us to sort of come full circle at the end of the show with a little moment like that - especially when we've got this great fan base that allows us to do that. We're always excited to get to try it.
Are you ever afraid it will fall dead?
Oh shit, it's happened! We just keep on clappin' and playin'.
You've been on bills with a huge variety of artists, like Squeeze, Shinedown, Civil Wars and ZZ Top. Who have you had a blast performing with and getting to know?
The Shinedown guys are really high on that list. They were fantastic to tour with. Those guys have really become close friends, and I'm so proud of them with their new record that's out. They're just a band that we've learned so much from musically and work ethic-wise. I can't say enough good things about them. They're as high on the list as one can be. But we've been fortunate; most of the bands that we've toured with have been really good.
You'll be sharing the stage with Old Lights on your night of the Open Highway festival here, but the fest goes for four days. Who else are you excited about on that bill?
You know, my friend John Henry [of John Henry and the Engine] put the whole thing on. He's great, and I'm excited to see him. Ben Nichols of Lucero, that's a band I really like.
Who would be part of your own festival? Who would you get together and say "Let's jam and put on the best show ever?"
Living or dead? I'd like to see Led Zeppelin and Hank Williams on the show. I don't think anybody's livers could handle being on tour, so it'd have to be one night only in Nashville.
It seems like "Even If It Breaks Your Heart" from The Wreckage opened you up to a more mainstream audience. How did you feel about radio stations suddenly putting you into the rotation?
Well it's cool. You know, it was a No. 1 hit for a country band, the Eli Young Band, so it's cool to see. I do feel like it's broadened our audience a bit. It's certainly opened people's ears to what we've done musically. Even hearing the Eli Young version a lot, because they didn't stray a lot from our version. It's sort of reaffirming that we're doing something that people will respond to if they're given the opportunity to hear it.
Does that affirmation now affect the way you write songs or how you put an album together?
Not really. I feel like the only reason that worked is because had done it the way we wanted to do it anyway. So we'll just kind of keep continuing to do things the way we want to do it.
You're producing more and more, especially on last year's album Number Seven. How does it feel mastering your own work?
Well, it's an interesting challenge. It's a learning experience. It's one thing to critique a guitar player or bass player when you drop a track, but to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and say "That song's not good enough" is an acquired skill that I think I'm better at than I was before and hopefully will get even better at. I first saw you open for Midnight Oil back in 2001 several times, including at our own Mississippi Nights. What were you thinking about then as you were starting to get out and get noticed?
[Laughs] That was such an educational tour, because those guys were older, more worldly and experienced than myself and the band at that point. We learned how to tour and how to put on a show. It was truly like a graduate level course in rock and roll, which was great. We learned so much. I mean, I got kicked out of college, but that was like a collegiate rock and roll experience. That whole thing -- how to write songs, how to perform, how to tour, how to get along with the band -- all of those things got filled, and I'm still trying to get better at it all today. I mean, I learned so much from those guys. And they're still one of my favorite rock bands.
How did all of that come together, anyway?
We were all with the same booking agent at the time. The first time we got together, they literally said we want the smallest, easiest-to-work-with rock-and-roll band. I don't even think they'd heard our music. I think it was totally, "OK, two guitars, bass and drums are easy to set up and tear down quickly." I remember the first time we met them in California at the loading dock at the House of Blues, and between their Australian accents and our Southern accents, I don't think we understood each other for three days.
But then we did, like, three shows with them because of our small band configuration, and we hit it off so well personally. And musically, they really liked what we were doing, so they invited us back for the rest of the U.S. tour. And then they came back the following year and requested us again, and we did that whole tour. They're great guys still. I still see Bones, the bass player; he lives in Nashville now. Rob, the drummer, his daughter is in Nashville working on an album, and he got to be in town. I still see those guys occasionally, and it's just fantastic.
So you've been to St. Louis practically every year for a decade. What keeps you coming back?
We just honestly started to fall in love with it. We kind of developed a small group of friends there, and some friends have a tattoo place called the Ink Spot that's just north of town [in Troy], so we continually get tattooed when we come to St. Louis, which I'm sure none of our parents appreciate.
And the music seems to get better there. We've found the venues that we really like there, so it's an easy spot for us to come back to.
You've played practically every venue we have here.
Yeah, and we've liked the majority of them! Ha ha!
One memorable show for me was your seated Off Broadway performance in 2009 upon your return from your scooter accident. Can you talk about why that three-week tour was so special?
Some of it was just the ability to do it again. We honestly weren't ready to tour, because I was barely walking and was sort of having a hard time singing. But it was one of those moments where I needed to push myself to try even if it was uncomfortable, because I didn't want to get myself so far behind the eight ball with recovery. So we hand-picked a few markets where we felt it would be friendly waters for us to wade into, that they would understand what we were doing and how we were trying to do it.
Really it kind of inspired all of us again, because it did make us feel like we could still do this. It made us realize there was a group of people who really cared and wanted us to succeed and wanted us to get back on the horse, so we did.
And it seemed like you followed that quiet show the following year with a no-holds-barred kick-ass show.
Yeah, it was a good experience and it taught us some things musically. We learned a few tricks on how to play acoustically. We've always been such a loud rock band, so it was nice to scale it back and listen to things a little differently. Even the rock shows were affected by it afterward. We were able to do some things we hadn't done before.
So what can we expect from Friday's show?
I don't know. I guess we'll decide Friday morning. It will be different than what you've seen before, I'm sure. We'll just have to wait and see.
It's balls-hot here in St. Louis. How the hell are you going to get through it?
I don't know, but I won't be performing in shorts. Don't worry.
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