He’s yet to achieve upper marquee status, but Will Hoge is rapidly positioning himself between those two pillars of populist rock, Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp. It’s not that his voice bears any special resemblance to either; less blustery than Bruce and not as folksy as Mellencamp, he nevertheless demonstrates a knack for creating rousing anthems ready-made for air guitar wielding enthusiasts and those in the crowd with a penchant for waving lit lighters above their heads.
Of course, there’s no shortage of troubled troubadours documenting the legacy of America’s rural environs and the places where desperation and desire are typically spawned. Much like Springsteen and Mellencamp, Hoge recognizes that even the most sweeping epics are essentially borne from an individual’s ordeals. Indeed, the title tells it all: Small Town Dreams is essentially a look at a rapidly fading pastiche, that of life in middle America, where for all the touting of an economic recovery, the struggle for survival still persists. Hoge documents these tales from a knowing, first-person point of view, giving each scenario the credibility — and respectability — that the characters deserve. It’s touching and enlightening, and just what’s needed to put the focus back on the heartland, the place where it needs to be.
Nevertheless, for all the ache and desperation these narratives entail, Hoge’s resolute attitude, defiance and determination are the elements that rise to the fore. “It’s too late for me to go crazy, so I’m holding out as long as I can,” he declares on “Desperate Times”, one of the most driven songs of the set. That decided determination also resonates to the fullest on the album’s opening salvo, “Growing Up Around Here”, which finds Hoge taking musical cues from Tom Petty while affirming a genuine sense of self.
Despite the obvious comparisons mentioned above, Hoge is essentially his own man, and it’s a credit to his credence that he never comes across as a poser or pretender. When you’re giving a voice to the masses, credibility is essential, and fortunately Hoge comes across as a genuine crusader who heeds his calling. It’s no wonder then that Small Town Dreams boasts a kind of incandescent delivery and drive that makes a live rendition of each of these tracks easy to imagine. It takes a certain savvy to write for the stage and at the same time keep the music true and void of compromise. So in a sense, Hoge walks a narrow line between maintaining integrity and marketing to the masses. That’s not always easy. Look to Bon Jovi as an example of an arena artist gone wrong.
So far, Hoge appears to be doing it right, building to bigger audiences while still keeping his homespun perspective intact. It makes a big difference, and potential admirers will likely perceive it too. Both rocking and reflective, Small Town Dreams is chock full of the kind of ready-for-prime-time anthems that effectively assert both his acumen and authority.