Americana audiences tend to have long attention spans, which is one reason why it’s not the sort of genre that trails one-hit wonders in its wake. But even by Americana standards, Will Hoge is a particularly striking example of perseverance.
In the middle of recording his fourth album in 2008, the raw-throated roots-rocker had a near-death experience when a van collided with his motor scooter on his way home from the studio. With his crushed ribs and collapsed lung, it was the first time in his life he’d ever had to put so much thought and effort into breathing, much less singing. And it took several surgeries, months of rehab and stints using a wheelchair and a walker before he could literally stand on his own two feet again.
Just as soon as Hoge was physically able, he headed right back into the studio and returned to the live stage, completing albums four and five and touring to promote them, squeezing in an acoustic EP this year and recently starting work on his sixth full-length project. In other words, he’s pretty much the epitome of a lifer. But he admits it might’ve seemed more prudent, considering all that his body had been through, to not go back to such a physically demanding style of music.
Says Hoge, “Any reasonable person would have just gone, ‘Man, you know what? I’m gonna just get a desk job. I’m cashing it in.’ There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s just not who I am.”
For him, it wasn’t a question of whether he’d walk away from music so much as whether he’d have to let go of the most athletic aspects of his rock ‘n’ roll showmanship.
“I might just physically not be able to run across stage anymore,” he says, thinking back. “I might not be able to, in the middle of a guitar solo, dive on my knees over to the guitar player. I mean, there were certainly things that I realized would change, but it never entered my mind that maybe I should do something else. I think it did refocus me on the songwriting part of it because for that period of time when I couldn’t tour, I did focus more on songwriting again.”
Hoge dwelled on what he could do instead of sweating what he couldn’t control. The accident, he knew, would be prominently featured in the Wikipedia entry on his life and career — and every other Will Hoge bio, for that matter — forever after. He ensured that it wouldn’t be the punctuation mark.
“It is a definitely chapter-ender — or beginner — depending on which part [of my musical career] you enter on,” he says. “But I didn’t want to do interviews just about the accident. … The entertainer aspect of me, I wanted to make sure that that’s always about the music. I tried really hard to focus on letting that be the case. And if within the context of that musical conversation we want to talk about this other stuff, then I’m all for talking about it. I didn’t want to go on Oprah and be the guy trying to make everybody feel sorry for him because of this accident. And not that there’s anything wrong with anybody else doing that. That’s just not what I wanted to do.”
He waits a beat before delivering a self-deprecating punch line: “And Oprah didn’t call.”
When a musician’s career has been cut short, and particularly when that musician exhibited a rebellious streak and was gone before the age of 30, the story often takes on the tone of a romantic tragedy. Even Americana has a fallen angel of its own in Gram Parsons. But the Hoge of today — a trauma survivor, singer-songwriter, husband and father — is circumspect about the cult of youth.
“When you’re 22 or whatever, I think there’s a part of you that thinks, you know, the whole ‘better to burn out than fade away’ kind of thing,” he says. “The older you get and the more you see friends that die at 35 or 45 or even 50, you start to realize that that’s just not very old.”
He continues, “I think now, at 39, of all the things I’ve gotten to see and do that I wouldn’t have gotten to do if I hadn’t made it past 30. And that’s a lot of the best stuff of my life so far. …There’s a point where you finally get old enough that it kind of becomes a badge of honor again. It’s like you’re still here and you’re doing the things that you want to do and you’re almost 40 years old. That’s something to be proud of, too.”
Hoge saw his doggedness rewarded with his very first chart-topping hit this year, the Eli Young Band’s cover of his song “Even If It Breaks Your Heart.” Whether or not there are more where that came from, he’s in it for the long haul. Just ask his two young sons.
Says Hoge, “My youngest, George, likes to say that daddy rocks for a living. I appreciate that.”