Endurance is an important talent in the music business, but so is hard work or luck. Will Hoge wouldn't be where he is without all three, as epitomized by Hoge's country-rock single, "Even If It Breaks Your Heart." The Eli Young Band took the song on a long drive to the top of the country charts in 2012 and changed the trajectory of Hoge's life. Now he is someone living the dream rather than just singing about it.
"I feel incredibly lucky about that, but I do feel I've paid my dues. In fact, I think I've paid other people's dues if we're getting real," Hoge says in a baritone warmer than a wool blanket. "Things like that don't happen every day. I'd be a fool to not realize how incredibly lucky I am to have opportunity like that."
Hoge's "Even If It Breaks Your Heart" tells the tale of a singer who never gives up hope and stays true to the vision that burns inside him. A spare guitar rides shotgun through the verse over a steady backbeat that subtly echoes Born in the U.S.A.-era Springsteen. It's about a burning fire that can't be extinguished and the wagon that's hitched to it: "Some dreams stay with you forever/ Drag you around but bring you back to where you were/ Some dreams keep on getting better/ Got to keep believing if you want to know for sure."
Before the Eli Young Band picked it up, "Even If It Breaks Your Heart" was released on Hoge's breakthrough fourth album, The Wreckage. Coming after two albums on Atlantic and the subsequent release for Warner Bros Records' subsidiary Rykodisc, Draw the Curtains, it represented the real coming together of his country/rock/soul style. Needless to say, his eclectic tastes bamboozled the labor marketing departments for years, and Hoge spent a decade negotiating the "too country for rock/too rock for country" morass.
With The Wreckage, he got the mix right and penned a terrific batch of songs, from the heartsick midnight-of-the-soul, piano balladry of the title track to the alt-country rocker, "Favorite Waste of Time," and the old-time country harmonies of "Where Do We Go From Down." The LP generated his best critical notices of his career but didn't move the needle commercially.
That's where the Eli Young Band comes in. On Christmas Eve in 2011, the band released Hoge's song as the follow-up to their first chart-topping single, "Crazy Girl." It took nearly eight months, but relentless touring and persistence eventually made it their second No. 1. That success put things in perspective for Hoge.
"I watched how hard they worked to make that happen. It was a great song and all that, but there are a lot of great songs that never get heard. And even if you get a great song heard, it takes a ton of work," he says. "You start looking at your own career and going, 'Wow, the chances of me having that happen as an individual artist is nearly impossible.'"
Hoge's label deal finished before "Even If It Breaks Your Heart" went to No. 1. But rather than sign to another major for Never Give In, he signed with artist-owned Cumberland Records. That 2013 record outperformed all his prior major label releases, going to No. 23 on Billboard's Country Album charts.
Part of that success came on the shoulders of "Strong," a track Hoge had written about his grandfather during a co-writing session. Several days after they cut the demo, Chevy offered to use it in a truck commercial. Growing up, Hoge harbored the sense that selling a song to a commercial was the biggest form of sell-out, but in the intervening years times have changed. He was laying in bed with his wife feeling he wouldn't take the offer.
"We're sitting there, and a Volkswagen commercial with Wilco comes on. Then a little bit later, the Bob Dylan Victoria Secret commercial came on," laughs Hoge. "It was truly one of those things where I said, 'Well, OK, I'm doing this. They want to use my song, and it's a song I'm proud of.'"
This April, Hoge released Small Town Dreams, his most country-themed album to date, and it went all the way to No. 15. It's an album about small town dreaming that stands in stark contrast to a guy who just three years earlier released Modern American Protest Music featuring "Ballad of Trayvon Martin" and a year before wrote "American Dream," whose post-bust down-on-its-luck story is a sibling to James McMurtry's "We Can't Make it Here Anymore." Instead, he's writing the kind of Norman-Rockwell-goes-country myths Nashville (and domestic beer commercials) typically traffic in, from the teenage hell-raising of "Middle of America," with its melodic echo of Mellencamp's "Little Pink Houses," to the ode to childhood dreams in "Little Bitty Dreams."
Hoge saw those little bitty dreams growing up in little Franklin, Tenn., 30 miles south of Nashville. Recently, when he spent a few weeks in his childhood home, the nostalgia came flooding back — and he wondered about those old dreams.
"We were unpacking these photographs, and I ran across these old photographs taken when I was a kid," Hoge recalls. "We all had these huge dreams ... Most of us settled down and got a real job and families. In some ways, folks want to look at that as if it's a failure, and I think I see it as completely the opposite now.
"I'm never going to be Luke Bryan or Blake Shelton. My goal is to continue to carve out a living writing the songs I want, making records, and growing an audience," Hoge continues. "That's a very middle-class, rock 'n' roll existence, and I think that's something to be celebrated and proud of. That song ["Little Bitty Dreams"] is a reflection of that."