For a guy who's spent two-thirds of each year for the last 10 on the road as a working musician, Will Hoge maintains a refreshing sense of humor about it all. Asked if the cut "Sex, Lies and Money," from his new album Draw the Curtains, could just as easily apply to his relationship with the business side of the music industry, he laughs, allowing that, "There's not a whole lot of difference between dirty women and the music industry, no. You lay down with them long enough and you wake up with something that's hard to get rid of."
It's a joke, delivered in his raspy, resonant voice, that serves to underscore the last decade of doing the work he loves. His commitment to his goal hasn't changed — "My plan is to do this forever" — but the circumstances have. There's a new album on a new label (Rykodisc), and a new role in that other, off-the-road, third of his life: father to a six-month old son. Along the way, he's been willing to roll with the changes, learn from the good examples around him, and keep working away even as the realities of the business and his life shift.
"I didn't think when I started my own band 10 years ago, and wanted to do this for a living, I'd really love to be the CEO of a limited liability corporation, have [a payroll] and have to worry about insurance and labor costs and things like that," Hoge says. "I didn't go to business school."
The present reality is a long way from attending college with the intention to become a high school history teacher. "A long way," he says, from where artists begin their careers — "just being a dumb-ass rock musician."
At least some of that experience has made its way onto Draw the Curtains. The songs feel intimate, perhaps even introspective, qualities Hoge attributes to the way the songs on this album came into being. They began with Hoge and his acoustic guitar. Later, producer and ex-Wilco drummer Ken Coomer joined the process.
"I felt like sometimes before, we tried to build the house from the outside in — for lack of a better cliché," says Hoge. "This time, we did it the old-fashioned way. We laid a foundation and built the framework and did it from the inside out. That lent itself to the songs taking a little bit more of a personal feel to them."
Hoge takes a long view, mindful that he's pursuing a well-established career track at this stage of his life. But being in it for the long haul opens him up to odd criticisms of his work. The life Hoge describes in one of the cuts on the new album, "The Highway's Home," would be instantly recognizable to any working musician. And perhaps, there's the rub.
"This writer a few months back had given us just one of the most hilarious reviews," he says. "She hated, hated our record — just loathed it with all of her being. Went through in her review, ripped every song. 'The Highway's Home' in particular. She said it was the most clichéd bunch of crap she'd ever heard. And that was funny, because I was like, 'Man, that's my life. My life is that cliché.' The song's incredibly autobiographical. I'm lucky enough to unload my gear and play music a couple hours a night."
Cliché or not, Hoge finds himself in a good place: a strong, cohesive new album on a label he likes, a career he's built up with hard work, a community — Nashville — that doesn't lack for artists pursuing their work every day, like any other job. "I live 30 minutes from the house I grew up in," he says. "You can walk out your door, and you're surrounded by people who make their living and support families doing music. In a lot of ways having a baby makes you appreciate the downtime even more, to get productive about things in your off time. It opens up whole new levels of inspiration."
And of the city built on people who make music their livelihood, he says, "It's a blessing."
Currently, Hoge is particularly pleased that this tour includes dates with singer/songwriter Jason Isbell, formerly a guitarist with the Drive-By Truckers. "We met a few years back. He did one of his first solo shows with us. We hit it off. After that, we'd see one another on the road at festivals and such."
The current tour blossomed along with their acquaintance. "It originally started with a little run of shows — 'Let's do a couple shows in January,'" Hoge remembers. "The next thing we know, we're doing 38 shows together. Covering the whole country."
Hoge learned early on about how compatibility affects touring musicians, for better or worse. He's careful about the company he keeps and has no misgivings about the Isbell camp.
"He's a great songwriter and a great guitar player," says Hoge. "He's got a great band. It's probably going into it the most excited that I've been about a tour."
For a working musician, there is no better place to be.