Too Old to Die Young
On the inside of Will Hoge’s left forearm is a tattoo of a motor scooter with a red line through it.
“No scooters,” he says, tilting his arm outward to illustrate his point. He half smiles, but he’s not kidding.
In 2008, in the midst of making his sixth album, The Wreckage, a scooter accident almost claimed the 39-year-old singer-songwriterguitarist’s life. Nashville was abuzz with concern, and a headline in USA TODAY proclaimed, “Rocker Will Hoge in Critical Condition After Accident.” For the first time in over a decade, the music stopped as Hoge faced a yearlong process of relearning to walk, hold a guitar, and sing.
Today, in a blue-and-white checkered button-down and jeans, Hoge doesn’t look like he’s been to hell and back. He’s lean, with magnetic dark eyes, unruly hair, and a contagious grin.
On a sweltering July afternoon, he’s sitting at a green Formica tabletop in the back room of the FooBar on Gallatin Road, ironically just down the road from where his accident occurred. Hoge seems right at home, maybe because he spent years doing soundchecks in similar clubs.
He left college in the late ’90s to pursue music, and hit the Southern bar circuit hard just when bands were getting websites and MySpace was taking the music business by storm. Listeners flocked to his raspy vocals and classic rock sound. He sang about love in the heartland rock tradition of Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen, and his songs were earnest and melancholy and catchy as hell. He played at the Ryman Auditorium and Grand Ole Opry House, and toured with artists like Shinedown, Needtobreathe, Marc Broussard, ZZ Top, and Edwin McCain.
Hoge always had the makings of a performer. His father, uncle and grandfather were all musicians in Nashville, and he was brought up in Franklin listening to his father’s record collection: Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Ray Charles and other legends of popular music. With a solid musical lineage and inherited musical taste, Hoge never looked back. His home for the better part of a decade was the road.
“That’s the one thing you can control as a musician,” he says of logging some 300 shows a year. “There’s only so much you can control over your relationship with a record company or with radio. But we can go out and put on whatever live show we want. We can get people to come see us. That’s why [touring has] always been so important — it’s the direct link between the band and the fans.”
His fans, or Hoge Heads as they’re affectionately called, gave him the energy to maintain his punishing schedule. His first studio record Carousel, his major label release Blackbird on a Lonely Wire, and subsequent independent albums were each followed by relentless touring. But Hoge’s wanderlust wore his bandmates thin, so there was a lot of turnover in personnel, which contributed to the band’s ever-shifting sound.
That was fine with Hoge, whose musical tastes are vast and adventurous—a range that includes rock, country, soul, blues and folk. He intended every record to sound different, and he immortalized almost every phase of his band’s life with a live record. Those snapshots piece together years spent in a blacktop blur.
Hoge slowed his frenetic pace when he met his wife and they welcomed their first son. But actually stopping was out of the question until an August day three years ago. Hoge had just left the studio near Belmont University where he was recording The Wreckage, and was headed home to his Inglewood house. He’d been riding a motor scooter exclusively for four or five years for the environment and to save money as gas prices climbed.
“I had always been safe,” he says.
But he couldn’t avoid the 15-passenger van at Seventh and Main that didn’t see his scooter, failed to yield and broadsided him on Aug. 20, 2008. EMTs rushed to the scene and lifted his broken, bloodied body into an ambulance. The van driver was fine, but the future looked bleak for Hoge.
When Hoge came out of a coma, he was lying in Vanderbilt Hospital, and he felt like he was choking. Tubes were jammed down his throat to help him breathe, and blinding hemorrhages blocked his vision. His fingers fumbled to find a piece of paper and scribble down, “Wife and kid?” A nurse told him, “You’ve been in an accident on a motorcycle. You’re in the hospital. Your wife is here and your family is fine.”
Relief washed over Hoge. “In a lot of ways, that was my first bit of therapy,” he remembers, “that first moment when I realized, the most important things are OK.”
Over the next few days, he realized the extent of his injuries — crushed lungs, numerous broken bones, and lacerations requiring more than 100 stitches. His unfinished record was the last thing on his mind. He was focused on his family and just being able to walk again.
“I never let myself think I wouldn’t get back to some sense of normalcy,” Hoge says. “Certain things were going to be different, like in the way that I walk. There was gonna be pain and arthritis as I continued to grow, as I got out of the hospital and had to transition from being in a bed constantly to a wheelchair for months, then a walker and a cane.”
After 10 grueling months of physical therapy and surgeries, the day finally arrived when Hoge’s wife was able to leave him on his own at the house. His shoulders had healed enough that he could hold a guitar, and he recalls sitting alone in his living room in a wheelchair trying to play and sing again.
“That day, I could hear glimpses of what my voice sounded like before, and I could feel things within my hands playing-wise,” he says. “That was a pretty cathartic moment of realizing that it wasn’t okay, but it would eventually be okay.”
Physically, he says, it changed his voice. Post-accident, Hoge’s guitar playing was, as he puts it, “slightly above average as it always was,” but his voice was considerably drier and raspier.
“You get into habits as a singer, what comes natural—and for 12 years, you rely on that,” he explains. “When that changed, I had to reapproach everything as a vocalist. I had to sing quieter because it was all I could do, but that in turn has led to me being able to do different things now, widened the material I’m able to write and perform.
“For example there’s a song on The Wreckage, a very quiet, personal, upfront song that I wouldn’t have been able to sing that way before. And there’s a song on the new record called ‘Tryin’ to Be a Man,’ and it’s even more conversational in its delivery. That’s just something I wouldn’t have done before, but those are two of my favorite songs I’ve done, ever.”
His songwriting changed as well. It was always honest in that “love sucks and sometimes I’m an asshole” kind of way, but after the accident, Hoge realized he was capable of more.
“It’s not like Jan and Dean, and I came back writing ‘Dead Man’s Curve,’” Hoge quips. “But [the accident] changes everything so much. My appreciation for even things that are nonmusical — being alive, my family — all of those sort of things parlay themselves into how I write.
“I feel like I’ve developed a bit more patience as a writer and as a performer. I noticed that before the accident I would sort of hit my limit in the studio or even as a writer as I was working on something. If the song didn’t get finished in an hour, I would sort of cast it aside and then never go back.
“Since then, I’ve learned to have patience and explore things that are a little more personal to me in the material. Sometimes I worry that it’s too personal and people aren’t going to understand it. But I think [the accident] opened up something in me where I’ve got more of an ability to do that. If I make things even more personal, sometimes it becomes more universal in some ways. I don’t think I had much of that before the accident.”
The changes are all over his new, selfproduced album, Number 7, on shelves September 27. Like previous records, it’s a melting pot of sounds. The downloadable single “When I Get My Wings” floats on R&B influences, a horn section and a Memphis Stax soul vibe.
“The rest of the record runs the gamut of everything that I love in music,” Hoge says proudly. “There’s some very straightahead rock & roll stuff in it. There’s some country-tinged songs; there’s some political material; and stuff that’s just relationship fodder. It’s the most representative of who I am and the things I love about music. If someone asked me how to sum up who I am as an artist, I would feel confident giving them this record.”
Even before the accident, Hoge had searched for a way for music and family to properly coexist, and a near-death experience made his priorities that much clearer. He says it’s “that pesky maturity that everyone in the business is trying to avoid.”
“My desire to be gone all the time — I just don’t have that desire anymore. There’s a very finite amount of time you have to dedicate to your family and be on the road. You can’t create more time with either one. The thing I’ve learned over the years is trying to up the quality of both of those things. When I’m home, I’m trying to make sure I spend as much quality time as I can with my family. And in turn, when we tour, maybe it’s less shows, but the quality of those shows is way more important to us.”
Hoge loves to talk about his wife, Julia, a Belmont student when they met now completing her master’s to become a school counselor, and his two children, Liam, 4, and George, 1. They live on the East Side in a quiet, green neighborhood. On the average day, you might run into them at Watanabe, Mitchell’s Deli or Jeni’s Ice Cream.
It’s clear from spending an hour with Hoge that he is a changed man. The wisdom behind those dark eyes isn’t that of a carefree, single rocker. It’s that of a devoted artist, husband and father who almost lost it all.
“I was so fortunate to be surrounded by great family, friends and fans,” he says. “It was tough, and it was a tough two years after that trying to get everything back to normal. In some ways it’s still getting back to normal. But it’s a process that I’ll keep putting up with.”