There’s a lyric in “The Overthrow” on Will Hoge’s new album Tiny Little Movies in which the unwavering singer-songwriter spits out a perfect pop-culture description of our clown-painted, misogynistic Dear Leader: he’s “Darth Vader with a spray tan/and a girly magazine.”
“That one’s not getting played on country radio,” Hoge deadpans.
But the truth is the Nashville native has never been a part of that system. While he scored a Grammy nomination and earned some mailbox money when Eli Young Band turned his song “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” into a 2012 mainstream country hit, Hoge has always spray-painted well outside of Music Row’s lines. When he did make his own full-throttle charge at country-music stardom in 2015, teaming up with hit producer Marshall Altman (Frankie Ballard’s Sunshine & Whiskey) to record the LP Small Town Dreams, he couldn’t resist prefacing his Mellencamp fantasy “Middle of America,” with its idyllic chorus of “letting our freedom ring/chasing our small town dreams,” with the tough-choice message song “Guitar or a Gun.”
Will Hoge is just that kind of shit-stirrer.
“I learned so much with the Small Town Dreams record,” he says. “There was a realization of, ‘There’s not a place in that world for an independent artist and especially not an independently minded artist.’ You’ve really got to toe the line and you have to say the right things and not offend anybody and never take stands for anything. You have to try to just be in the middle of it, and that is not why I got into this.”
On Tiny Little Movies, out Friday on Thirty Tigers, Hoge doesn’t sugarcoat tough topics, from messy breakups on “Even the River Runs Out of This Town” and “That’s How You Lose Her,” to the shame that comes from being duped by a huckster on the torrential “Con Man Blues.”
Hoge grew up in Franklin, Tennessee, about 20 miles south of Nashville. His high school football team was named the Rebels and he bought into the myth of the Confederate flag as part of his Southern heritage. In 2015, he shredded that narrative with the defiant anthem “Still a Southern Man,” calling for the flag to be torn down. (He rerecorded an even fiercer, electric version for 2018’s My American Dream.) But that upbringing gave Hoge a unique understanding for those who may be exploited to cast their lot with a charlatan.
“There is a group of folks that has been taken advantage of by these bullshit con men for years. You saw it in the Civil War era, and the post-Civil War era. There were poor undereducated white folks who were sold this bill of goods that they think they’re helping themselves or they think they’re helping the country or they think they’re helping their religion,” he says. “But if I say I bought into this con man, I have to admit I was fooled, which I’m a little bit ashamed of. And I have to double down on it because I was ashamed of it. And then you have to question the people who raised you to believe these things. There is fallibility in your parents and there is fallibility in the system that we’ve perpetuated all these years. Those are some big boy and big girl questions to ask.”
Hoge doesn’t shy away from challenging himself on Tiny Little Movies. He poses existential questions about where he’s landed in his own life, at 47. On “Maybe This Is OK,” he wonders if he’s at peace with the way things turned out for him. (He is.) “It’s a funny thing to say,” he sings, “but maybe this is OK.” While Hoge remains ambitious and dedicated to expanding his audience — he won over crowds opening for SoCal punks Social Distortion on their 2018 tour — he’s not about to repeatedly ram his head into Nashville’s wall.
“If I feel like I’m a failure every time I do something, then there’s not a point in doing it. It’s been an interesting couple years of realizing that,” Hoge says. “There are bands that I love and admire that have changed the way that I play music or think about the world, and they drive their own van and never played a venue that’s bigger than 300 people. I got into this because I wanted to try and write great songs and make great records and play great shows.”
Knocked off the road like the majority of touring artists, Hoge has been performing livestreamed gigs on StageIt to build anticipation for Tiny Little Movies. He says the album was recorded with the live show in mind, and he’s figuring out how to promote it without a flesh-and-blood audience in front of him. But Hoge remains optimistic.
He circles back to “The Overthrow,” a rocker that might lambast the president and his rat-like cronies leaping “off a dead ship,” but gives him hope for the future. Especially when he views it through the eyes of his children and their generation. To them, he says, equal rights are nonnegotiable.
“‘The Overthrow’ is what I see with my kids. That song is looking at all of this reform and caring about people’s feelings. Nobody is getting less of that in future generations,” Hoge says. “The snowball may move real slowly, but that rebellion is going to continue.”