Count Derek Hoke among the legions of musicians who have shown up in Nashville toting a guitar and a suitcase full of expectations, only to find that the destiny awaiting them wasn’t exactly what they had in mind.
Over the course of a decade, he paid his bills by hawking Ricky Skaggs T-shirts and movie tickets, gradually shifted from rocking out to mellowing out, wound up making two albums with a pleasurable blend of swinging country and vocal pop — Goodbye Rock N Roll and Waiting All Night — and hosting a hot ticket, Tuesday night showcase at East Nashville’s 5 Spot.
Now a fixture in town and a touring ambassador for danceable roots music, Hoke doesn’t sound like he has any regrets about tossing out the original plan.
This is what, the third year of Two Dollar Tuesdays?
Hoke: Two and a-half years, yeah. The end of, I think, July will be three years.
What has hosting and playing at that showcase week in and week out done for your music making?
There’s an identity to it, the Tuesday guy. And it’s a good way to try stuff out. That’s kind of what I tell people when I get people who probably shouldn’t be playing there because they’re above it: “Give some new tunes a whirl and you get a genuine reaction out of it.” … In my living room, I think, “Oh, man, this is a great song.” Then you go play it, and it’s like, “Well, that’s OK.” Or, “Man, that feels really good.”
Who’s the most unlikely guest you’ve had on a Tuesday, someone you thought was beyond the realm of possibility?
Well, Peter Buck from R.E.M. played. A buddy of his was playing, this guy from Seattle, and R.E.M. was here mixing a record. So there’s [R.E.M. bassist] Mike Mills in the crowd, and Peter Buck walks in with his guitar. He was just there to play some garage rock music. Then Cory Chisel and Jason Isbell.
See, now you’re naming people who appear on your album.
Yeah. So some of that all worked. I’ve known those guys for a while, but it’s more like if they’re in town and under the radar [they’ll come play]. It’s more like a friendly [thing]… “Hey, Hayes Carll wants to do an hour at the end of the night.” “Great!” Justin Townes Earle’s walking around. It’s like a little Americana who’s who. I don’t question it. I’m just grateful that it’s caught on.
You moved to Nashville in ’99, didn’t you?
Did you think it would take roughly a decade before you started making your own albums? What were you anticipating?
I moved here in a station wagon just to move here. I’d played music in South Carolina and was like the big fish in a small pond. And the first time I ever played here, I knew it wasn’t gonna work. What I was doing there wasn’t gonna work here.
Was it more roots rock then?
It was bar band music. That’s all I ever played — sports bars with 20 TVs on and really no reason to even have a band. You could just put on Tom Petty’s Greatest Hits and everybody’s fine. But we’re over in the corner doing that, sprinkling in some of my tunes.
I came here and was doing that stuff, and I could just feel, “This isn’t happening.” … So I got jobs, paying rent that way. I didn’t know I was reinventing myself, but that’s what I was doing. I had weird writer’s block and was getting asked to do these ASCAP things and songwriting sessions and all that stuff. But everything that I was writing was so horrible or trying too hard to please some guy in a suit. Then I started playing real quietly on the guitar and stopped yelling.
Do you remember the first time you sang a song that way and it clicked — that you’d found what your voice was meant to do?
Yeah, I think 2005. I was living on Music Row in this apartment, and I remember writing this song about this girl that worked next to where I worked at the Belcourt Theatre. Just a simple “I like you” song. I sang it to a few people.
Not to her, no. I don’t think she ever heard it. But it was on that Goodbye Rock N Roll record. Everybody was like, “I can’t get that song out of my head.” It had taken so long to get there that it wasn’t like a magic trick, like I just walked in the next day and said, “I’m gonna start sounding like this.”
Didn’t you work for Ricky Skaggs selling merch before that?
Yeah. So I moved to Nashville, and I wasn’t really here [much] for [the first] three years. I was out with those guys four days a week and would come home to this little apartment, and I didn’t know anybody.
Did you think that job would help you get somewhere musically?
Well, I had been a fan of his, but I never thought of myself as being anywhere near that style. I was just a fan. To me, it was like listening to jazz music or something. But I play by ear and can pick up stuff, and I slowly taught myself bluegrass rhythm guitar. I could pick out the fiddle tunes and the melodies, and that’s what started [my search for identity] too. To learn all these fast songs, you have to play them really slow first and build it up. So I’d sit around the house playing these songs really slow and saying, “Man, this is beautiful music.” I was a sponge taking it all in and hanging out at the 5 Spot on the bluegrass nights.
You’ve jokingly described your sound as “quietbilly.” What’s that all about?
The guys that played on the Goodbye Rock N Roll record, they were studio musicians. They play with Emmylou Harris. …The bass player [Chris Donohue] was like, “It’s quiet rockabilly.” And my buddy Dex [Green], that was producing, was like, “Quietbilly. Let’s just call it that.”
It’s a little swankier than rockabilly, though. Rockabilly’s perpetually stuck in a teenage mindset almost. What you do is a little more adult and uptown than that.
Yeah, I didn’t want to sing about hot rods and jailbait, you know? That’s already been done. Very few people on earth are going to invent a whole new thing. I’m not Radiohead or Bjork. So it’s like, “What can I do musically that isn’t going to remind anybody specifically of anybody else?” That’s the hard thing.
You have that distinctive vocal sound working for you.
I was running from that for a while because everybody was like, “Hey man, great voice.” … That can be a backhanded compliment if you see a songwriter whose songs are terrible: “Great voice.” Or “Nice guy.” … I was like, “Are you [messing] with me?” But I finally got it.
Do you think that singing the way you do has drawn ears that other singer-songwriters might not have as easy of a time drawing?
Yeah, I think so. I write these really simple tunes. I don’t write change-your-life music. And the guys that I know that have those change-your-life songs or clever lyrics, story-songs and stuff like that, they’re not really thinking about how their voice sounds necessarily. They’re just getting the story across with a melody. I’m trying to do that, but I’m trying to be as easy on the ears as I can because what I’m saying isn’t profound in any way. Why sing it as if it’s urgent or heavy?
Performance is an art.
Right. So it’s more like the entertainer approach than the road-worn, haggard honky-tonker. I’m taking Paul McCartney and putting some fiddles on it and trying to Buddy Holly it up a little, make it a little fun.