[8 April 2010]
In August 2008, a tragic accident nearly took the life of Nashville based singer/songwriter Will Hoge. Recording tracks for his then unfinished and untitled recording at the renowned Sound Emporium Studios and just miles from his home, he left at 8PM, planning to stop a local market on his way home.
“I was going to go home and hang with the family a little bit early, everybody else was going to go have a drink. And I was going to pick up milk; that was the other thing I was going to do. My wife said we needed milk, so I thought I’d stop by the store on my way home.”
Relaxing on his tour bus after a gig a little more than a year later, he recalls the trip to the store for the dairy product, and reflects candidly about fatherhood, learning patience and life after The Wreckage.
“I remember getting to the light, and making a left hand turn, to go up to the main road where I would make a right hand turn to go to the store. Seventh and Main is where the accident was, that turn would have been on Second and Main. I remember making that turn, but then I don’t remember anything at all from the next five blocks, and really not much at all from the next five days, if we’re going to get right down to it.”
Hoge spent the next five days in intensive care at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, the result of slamming head first into a van whose driver failed to yield while making a left hand turn. He suffered multiple fractures and contusions, including two broken shoulder blades and several ribs, a shattered right femur and kneecap. He received over 100 stitches in his face alone and was temporarily blinded.
“The big thing was my knee, they built my knee back together. It was in ten or twelve pieces I think, and they were able to somehow stick the damn thing together with some screws and glue or whatever it is they did. It broke a six-inch mid section out of my femur; it broke it literally through the skin. That whole piece of bone is gone.”
Born and raised in nearby Franklin, Tennessee, Hoge’s been writing and recording his own songs since 1999. A stalwart and zealous performer, he built a steady fan base up and down the eastern seaboard, and released one CD on Atlantic in 2003. Shortly after, he was released from his contract with the major label and went on to independently release several live recordings and a studio CD, before finding a home with the venerable Ryko Disc label and releasing several more CDs.
August 2008 found Hoge at Sound Emporium with producers Ken Coomer and Charlie Brocco, and band mates Sigurdur (Siggy) Birkis on drums and Adam Beard on bass working on a then as of yet untitled CD. Now married and the proud father of a son, he’d found his priorities had begun to shift.
Asked for a tangible example of how bringing a child into the world has changed his perspective, he says, “It was like a cannon going off! There are things about rock and roll that are incredibly immature. And some of them need to always be immature, it’s something that… You know, ridding around in a bus, trying to conquer the world playing music and stuff with some of your best friends in the world…I mean, there’s an immaturity that goes with that that’s something that we all want to maintain,” he says with a slight hint of sarcasm in his voice. “But, when there’s a kid involved, like all of a sudden, some of the things that… everything just gets a lot more focused. That’s the only way I can describe it.”
His son, William, was 16 months old at the time of the accident. Though difficult, the decision was made not to see his son for four weeks after the accident, due to the stitches in his face and overall condition. Aware he’d be unable to roughhouse in the typical father son manner, his wife, Julia, explained to William about his fathers’ injuries. Hoge states that when he finally saw him again, it was one of the most moving moments of his life.
“So she (Julia) brought him over, sat him on the bed facing me like this. And he looked up at me, and he leaned forward and he put both his little arms as far as he could stretch them out around my chest, and he put his head down on me. And he sat perfectly still right there, for what must have been 35 or 40 minutes. He didn’t want to do anything, he didn’t want to wrestle, didn’t want to do anything, just held my torso. And it killed me. It may have been even more powerful than… your child’s birth is one of the most amazing things that you’ll ever witness. But I was able to get through that. But that moment just wiped me out. It was really one of those, ‘OK. This is worth surviving all of this. To get to do this, will make all of the struggle worth while for sure,’ you know.”
After the accident, Hoge spent the next three months hospitalized and in rehab, going through as many as 12 surgeries. He says that he never contemplated giving up his career as a songwriter and performer, however.
“It never entered my mind that I wouldn’t do it (tour) again. I mean, people have asked that question, they’d come to the hospital a week after the accident and say, ‘God, I bet you can’t wait to get back to tour,’ and ‘can’t wait to get back to writing,’ blah, blah, blah. And my standard answer is just, ‘I can’t wait to walk!’ Music just wasn’t a concern. I knew that it would be again. But at the time…? No, it was something that I always knew that I’d do again.”
Eight months after the accident, Hoge and the same musicians as well as multi-instrumentalist Devin Malone reentered Sound Emporium on a mission to complete the recording, along with Brocco and Coomer. Though they had recorded as many as seven tracks prior to the accident, only four from the original sessions made the final cut of the 11-track CD The Wreckage, and one of those four was completely revised and re-recorded.
The nine-month period between recording sessions proved to be one of the most fertile periods for Hoge as a songwriter. Despite the title track’s blatant reference, though, the songs tread familiar ground for Hoge, and serve more as a metaphor for failed relationships rather than as dour ruminations on the accident. In the weepy title cut, life keeps revolving around a couple in a stalemate of a relationship. While on the more rocking “Favorite Waste of Time”, the protagonist puts an ex who would no longer give him the time of day in the rear view mirror.
The last track on The Wreckage, the tender piano and string ballad “Too Late Too Soon”, is totally different from the original recording prior to the accident. “When we had recorded it initially in those first sessions, it was like Free, like Bad Company, like total heavy, guitar rock,” Everyone was happy with the initial recording at first. “But when we took that time away and started listening back to it, there were certain things that just sort of stood out as…. something about it wasn’t right, like the further that we got away from it, the more we listened to it, it always came off kind of limp,” Hoge says.
“Too Late…” in particular benefited from being re-imagined as an aching ballad. “Piano is something that I approach totally differently because I don’t have any clue what I’m doing. So that’s the first song that’s ever been recorded that I wrote on piano. So I rewrote everything and it took on this whole different vibe for the song to fit way better and it was the perfect ending.”
Another highlight is the lovely acoustic duet “Goodnight Goodbye” with Nashville based chanteuse Ashley Monroe. “I met her years ago, she moved to Nashville from Knoxville with her mother when she was… she must have been fourteen of fifteen when I met her. And she just had one of these pure mountain voices, this bluegrassy kind of thing. I’ve always thought she was a fabulous singer and I’ve always wanted to sing with her. And so we brought her in, we were going to have her do a couple of songs on the record. And when we did “Goodnight, Goodbye,” she finished it, and it was like, ‘Get her the hell out of here,’ there was no point in having her sing anything else. There’s moments’ listening to that song that I get chills, just hearing her sing.”
The accident, among other things, influenced Hoge not only as a songwriter, but as a person as well. “There are three things I think in the last few years of my life that it really taught me…” Hoge says, pausing as he chooses his words, “some patience. One being marriage, another being a father, and the accident.” While laid up in the hospital, he found himself in the unfamiliar situation of being dependent on others for mundane tasks of daily life that are taken for granted.
When he was able to get back to work, he found the experience had translated to the studio. “I’m impatient sometimes in the studio, I don’t like to take and over think things. I’m more of a… ‘Let’s get it done and move on and do something else.’ I think before the accident I would have just fallen on that and probably kept the other version of the song. I wouldn’t have really sat and tried to come up with a different version. I don’t know that I would have challenged myself, been patient enough to challenge myself.”
Back at home after the accident, unable to hold a guitar with two broken shoulders and time, quite literally on his hands, he found himself drawn to the piano, and even bought a mandolin to teach himself something new. “It gave me patience for wanting to learn some other instruments. I’m not even a good mandolin player and I’m damn sure not a good piano player. But, it opened up some different things musically. It changes the way I play guitar because I’ve been able to bang out things on the piano a bit.”
In a press release that accompanies The Wreckage, Hoge compares the accident to “…stopping a record as it spins,” and “…taking the needle and pushing it off the turntable.” Asked to further the metaphor in regards to getting back to work with the band, he compared the process to the “baby steps” of his rehabilitation. The act of standing up on his own for the first time, taking that first step weeks later, moving with a wheelchair and then a walker. The band had two options as they saw it; wait it out until he was fully recovered, or just start taking “baby steps”. According to Hoge, it was pretty much a no brainer as far as the band was concerned.
“Everybody was really great about it, you know… I’ve started playing and writing again at my house and that made me feel better, started building up some strength for singing. And then we got together and did a rehearsal or two and we did one little acoustic show at a place in Nashville, just four or five songs. Then we went out and we did a couple of weeks of touring, stripped down, totally acoustic, seated on stage. We did them real spaced out and gave ourselves time to rest in between. We took a month off and then we did a four week stint in Nashville of our first shows back, full on standing rock shows, we did that every Wednesday to give ourselves time.”
Those gigs, a residency at Twelfth and Porter, the famed Nashville haunt that gave Hoge his start as a performer more than 12 years ago, brought the band together emotionally and cohesively. They were presented with the opportunity for one, huge shindig at the legendary Ryman Auditorium, opening it up to more than 2200 people. But that just didn’t feel natural to Hoge or anyone and they choose to go the route of the residency.
“And that way we got to play a little bit more, we got to enjoy it a little more. It didn’t become this one thing that was full of pressure. And we had guests out every week; people that had played in the band in the past or people that had played on records, or just friends that we liked. And it was as much fun as I’ve ever had playing music. I mean really and truly from the day that I started doing it, it was just…. it was ego free, and it was just people that were there on stage and off, really just for the joy of the fact that we can still do this. It was pretty special, I don’t mean to over emphasize it, but it put a whole lot of fuel in our collective tanks. I don’t mean that monetarily, I mean just emotionally and spiritually. It really was one of those things that was like, ‘OK, people give a shit.’ And if we go out and do this the right way, there are people that are going to care. It was a real positive, positive thing to be a part of.”
In the press release for The Wreckage, Hoge says that making this record opened him up and felt to him “…like I’m getting to the core of what I want to do and why.” Asked to elaborate, he says there had been times when “…there had been to many egos involved in the band. Somebody’s doing it more as just a paycheck then something else or…” His voice trails off and he seems lost in thought for a moment, but then he returns and states vigorously, “This was the first time where we really just got back to being about the songs.” He adds that there were songs that Siggy didn’t play guitar on or Adam bass, as guests would be sitting in or Brocco or Coomer would be playing. But everybody was on the same page and they were all moving forward with what they were trying to do.
“And it was great cause it was really like working with a bunch of men for the first time. I felt like we all made it through puberty on this record. We’ve gotten closer and closer to this every time, and we still have got to grow. This is not the be all and end all of the records we’re going to make. But it was a real good firm step forward for all of us I think as musicians.”
Having stared down his own mortality and been temporarily put on workers compensation so to speak, the accident has given Hoge a new outlook on his career and life. He’s always been genuine, down to earth and sincere, but listening to him speak candidly, one gets the impression he’s truly grateful to have a second shot at life.
“I’ve always prided myself on being pretty appreciative about things. I get to play music with my best friends, travel around the country. I’ve a lovely wife at home and a kid. And I’ve always been real fortunate. I’ve been thankful for that. But I think after this, it’s just an even more, supreme version of thankful. You can be thankful for something. But then, when you see how easy it is to truly lose all of it, it’s just thankful on a whole another level, that’s all I can say.”
Bill is a New England based freelance critic whose writing has been published in Paste Magazine, Relix Magazine, Performing Songwriter Magazine, The Hartford Advocate and Hartford Courant, Jambase.com, Yahoo Music, among others.