Will Hoge Returns to His Roots for New Album, ‘Small Town Dreams’
Will Hoge's new album, Small Town Dreams, is a return to his roots in the most literal sense.
The Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter has been kicking around Nashville's music scene since the 1990s, releasing his earliest albums independently before signing first with Atlantic Records, then with Rykodisc before returning to indie status.
He partnered with Thirty Tigers to release his 10th studio album, which pairs him with producer Marshall Altman for a collection that draws on Hoge's own small-town upbringing in Tennessee. He worked with some of Nashville's top songwriters on the tracks, including Brett Beavers, Hillary Lindsey, Eric Paslay and Gary Allan. He will kick off a tour in May in support of the project, which drops on April 7.
Taste of Country caught up with Will Hoge recently to talk about the inspiration behind the new album, his new business model and much more.
Which song kicked off the writing process, and when did you come up with a direction to hang the collection on?
I write often, and there's always kind of piles of songs laying around that start to group themselves together. The one that really started it for me, we were leaving a festival back in the summer, we had played in front of this big crowd, and my drummer and I were talking and we said, "I wish we had one more song with this real driving, four on the floor, anthemic thing. I think we could have just killed it if we'd had one more song."
I had just written and recorded a demo of the song "Better Than You" that's on the record, and so I grabbed my phone and I played it for him on the bus, and he was like, "Man, that is exactly what we need." So that sort of started the process, and shortly after that I had written "Middle of America," because we were gonna go in and record what we thought was gonna be the first single, which ended up being a song that didn't even make the record.
Those two things started the whole process, and then I'd spent some time at home, at my mom's, at the house I grew up in right at the end of the year, and a bunch more of the songs were informed through those moments. And then lo and behold, there was a record.
In choosing the title Small Town Dreams, what were you trying to say?
It sort of reflected this growing up idea of my childhood. My wife and I were unpacking some stuff at this new house that we've built, and I found a picture that my dad had taken that used to hang in my mom and dad's house when I was growing up of me and a bunch of my neighborhood friends. We're all on our little dirt bikes, riding in this field back behind my mom and dad's house, and it's just us kinda lined up. We look like a low rent, Little-Rascals-meets-Hell's-Angels kinda dirty street urchin band. [Laughs].
I see it reflected in my own two boys at this point, so I just like the idea of the innocence of that small town dream perspective.
Everybody's got this real innocent look to them, and I can remember the picture. I almost feel like I was just there. I can remember the guys in the picture, and I think about all of the things that each of us does now, where we are in our lives, and so it just sort of brought about that idea that at that point, I don't know that you could convinced any of us of what the future would hold, because we all had such wild-eyed and innocent ideas of what we were gonna do and who we were gonna be. I love that innocence. I see it reflected in my own two boys at this point, so I just like the idea of the innocence of that small town dream perspective.
If you could go back and tell the young Will in that photo something, give him a piece of advice about what lies ahead, what would you say?
Well, I do know this: he wouldn't listen to it anyway, because he's too hard-headed! [Laughs]. So I don't think it would make any damn difference.
You've struck a deal with Thirty Tigers for this album. How does that work?
It's like all of the things that are crappy about major label record deals that you hear about, it's none of those, which is awesome. David and everybody there at Thirty Tigers has really struck a very futuristic and very realistic way of trying to help people make records for a living. For me, it's a lot more fun. It's a lot more conducive to who I want to be as an artist and the way I want to work as an artist.
They're not sitting there in meetings telling you you're going to be a big star, and wining and dining you and spending all this ridiculous money that you're never gonna make back. They go and look at a profit and loss sheet and say, "You sold this many records. Here's what we think we can do, and here's how we think we can be creative and make this work, and grow your business." It's non-sexy in a very sexy way, which is awesome. It's a big step in the right direction, for sure.
How does that free you up musically, on the creative end of it?
Unfortunately for the record labels that have worked with me in the past, I don't know that it's changed much. I've always been a wee bit hard-headed in that I want to make the records that I want to make, and write the songs that I want to write, and I feel like I've got a pretty good handle on that. That hasn't changed. The thing is now, with Thirty Tigers, I don't have to fight that battle.
I can go and make a record now, and sit down with them and say, "Here's what I did, and what I think I want to do," and they go, "Okay, here's where we can get it put out, and here's good ways to make it happen." It's more of a support staff. It's truly a partnership, and not a contentious us-versus-them relationship, which I couldn't be more grateful for.
You worked with producer Marshall Altman this time around. What made that the right fit?
I wanted to really try to push myself forward, but I didn't want to do it in a way that felt like I lost any of what I'd built naturally. I didn't want to lose any of the fans that I've garnered a relationship with and that have come to trust me as an artist. So the natural fit for me was Marshall. He's a guy that I've known for a long time. I like his work ethic. I like the records that he makes. They're unique to each artist.
Marshall's not one of those producers that has a Marshall Altman Sound, and then you just insert the artist and get that same record over and over and over with different songs. Marshall's a guy that really looks at each artist and tries to get to the core of what they do, and then work from there.
I was driving down the road one night after a show, listening to a couple of the demos and driving the bus, and one of his songs came on the radio that he had done with Frankie Ballard. That piqued my attention, because it had been a hit single that really put Frankie on the map for what I think he's gonna try to make his signature sound.
The next song was a song by Eric Paslay, who's a dear friend, that Marshall had also done. Sounds totally different than Frankie, but also just sounds great on the radio, and feels cool to listen to. I called Marshall right then and started talking about it, and sent him some songs, and in a few days we started the process of pre-production; what songs we were gonna do. It just went from there.
What does working with him bring out of you that's different than what you would have done for yourself?
It didn't change what I had to do; I still had to come in and be creative and try to sing my a-- off, or try to bring my best vibe into the studio to get things done the way they needed to get done. But I could focus solely on the musical aspect of things and didn't have to worry about the business aspect of things, which was really freeing. And artistically, a guy like Marshall that I really trust, I can throw out things and say, "Man, I'm uncertain on this, what do you like?" And he can give me his opinion.
It's the same reason that co-writing with somebody that's good can be beneficial, and give you things that you've never gotten before. When you find the right producer it just opens some doors that you don't just think of naturally yourself, but without compromising who I want to be as an artist.
I think in some ways it sort of innocently became a concept record — which sounds like I'm making some sort of Styx or Yes record when I say 'concept record.'
Is Small Town Dreams meant to be a concept album? It seems like the songs are interrelated.
It didn't start out as a conceptual thing. It started out as just, here are five songs that really work together. But all of a sudden, as I was continuing to write, there were themes that came back up, and there were seven songs that worked together, and there were two more that got added. And we got to the last two or three songs, it really started to feel like a concept record, but not in a bad, over-arcing way. It at least gave me a real definitive direction of, "Here's what this record needs to round out this pile. We need this type of song." It kept some themes throughout the record. So I think in some ways it sort of innocently became a concept record — which sounds like I'm making some sort of Styx or Yes record when I say "concept record." [Laughs].
Like Tales From Topographic Oceans? [Laughs].
Exactly! Yeah. [Laughs]. It's not the case!
You co-wrote with some pretty substantial people for this project. A name that jumps out is Gary Allan.
I got a call probably a year and a half, if not two and a half years ago. Gary was getting ready to work on what was his last album, and he was looking for songs, and I got a call to go write with him. That's just not a call that I get very often, you know, getting to really focus on writing for an artist. I relish those opportunities when they come. So I sat that morning and really wanted to go in with Gary and give him songs, I wanted him to go, "Yes, here's my next single." And then Gary does all the work, I just cash the checks and buy a new house and feel great about it.
So I came up with these two what I felt like were really strong songs, so much so that I called my manager that morning, and I was like, "Man, I've got these two songs that I love, and I'm wondering if I should go in and finish them with Gary, in hopes that he'll cut them, or do I just keep them for myself?" And he said, "Look, this is an incredible opportunity, I would suggest when you're in these moments, you have to take advantage."
Which made total sense. So I go in with my friend Dylan and Gary, and I play these songs, and we wrote the rest of them, two songs in a day. I just loved them, and I felt sure Gary was gonna have huge hits with them. And he didn't use either one of them. So I was like, "Well, I know which two songs I'm gonna put on my next record." I'm excited about having Gary as a writer on my record. I think he's a talented guy.
The first single from this album, "Middle of America," was recorded at RCA Studio A. Was it by happenstance that you worked there, or were you trying to make a point about the historical value of the space?
I feel like over the years that I've been making records here, I've worked literally in almost every studio in Nashville, especially the big commercial ones. We've done records all over town, and that RCA complex is one that I've never gotten to work in, and have always wanted to. We started talking about that, and it just happened to be open. We were gonna record the single on a random night before we were working on the record, because it was gonna come out prior to the record being done, so RCA happened to be open.
By the time we booked it, that's when all the shutdown stuff was about to happen, so I was really excited to get in there before it shut down. There was a point when were recording that night, they were about to shut it down. It was gonna ultimately end up being the last single that was released out of RCA A. That's a dubious honor that I really didn't want to be a part of, but I was dying to work in that room at some point, and it was as magical as I had hoped. It really was incredibly special.
Shortly after we finished, they'd come to their senses, both parties, and figured out a way to keep the studio, which is awesome. And putting the cart way ahead of the horse, I've got another record that I want to work on that takes a little different turn, but I want to try to make the whole record in that room. It's one of those places that's incredible to work in. I can't wait to get back over there and do it again.
At the end of the day, I can book a show and get a band together, and we can go out and beat people over the head with this thing until they submit.
You've got a headlining tour coming up. How does that integrate with your promotional plans for this album, and what's going to be your focus in trying to get the word out?
The road is ultimately the one thing that I feel like we can control. Radio is what it is; there's only so much you can do as an independent artist to really get that ball up that hill. As far as press and PR goes, again, you can only do what you can do. But at the end of the day, I can book a show and get a band together, and we can go out and beat people over the head with this thing until they submit. [Laughs]. And that is one of the things I love about it. There's nothing that convinces people about a record like a great live performance, and I feel like that's something that we can do as a band really well.
We're hitting a lot of places, we're trying to get to venues in specific that are very special to us, or cities that we just love. We're trying to really focus on places that we have a history with, and fortunately there's a lot of those. So we'll do that through the summer, and we'll do a lot of festivals through the summer. The record comes out in Europe, we'll be over there in the first part of September, and then there's a bunch of places we don't get to play on the first bit of the tour, so I would imagine there'll be another announcement. It's gonna be a busy 16 months, for sure.
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