May 25--Will Hoge started his career as a rock 'n' roller, but by 2012, his songwriting had come to the fore.
"Even If It Breaks Your Heart," a song that Hoge co-wrote and recorded on his 2009 album "The Wreckage," became a No. 1 country single for the Eli Young Band. By the end of the year, on the power of that song, he was nominated for a Grammy Award, a Country Music Association award and an Academy of Country Music Award.
He didn't win any of them -- the "triple frown," he has joked -- but he did get a songwriting deal with BMG Nashville. The next step was uncommon. He made a protest record.
Last year's EP, "Modern American Protest Music," which included such songs as "Times Are Not Changin'?" and "The Ballad of Trayvon Martin," didn't seem careerist in the cynical sense. But Hoge said he felt he had to do it, and he wishes that in times like these, more people would.
"I think a lot of it just comes down to money," said Hoge, 40, who performs on June 1 at the Blue Ridge Music Festival in Salem. "There's no one in the business world that would tell you: 'You know what you ought to do? You ought to follow up the nomination for all of those things with a protest album.'
"It's not exactly a brilliant marketing idea. And I think you get a lot of that in the mainstream world. You get people that are just in fear of saying anything, because you don't want to ruffle any feathers, and it's all about the bottom line. "
But eight recordings into his career, and with more potential success on the way -- chart-ruling Lady Antebellum included Hoge's 2003 song "Better Off Now" on its new album -- he said he is interested in more than just money.
"I've made more money than I ever thought I could have made doing this," he said. "I want to have commercially successful records and all those things. But I just think that it's important to write the songs that are inside and get those out and make room for other songs. And these songs were there.
"I wish that more artists did it. Even a guy like Ted Nugent. I don't agree with anything, pretty much, that he says. He's a total wack job. He runs his mouth about all these things, but he's still playing the same tired music that he's played since 1974. If he's truly such a believer in all of those things, I'd like to hear him put that in music."
Hoge, who grew up south of Nashville, Tenn., and has for years called Nashville home, thinks that at least half of his fan base is conservative. But he has developed a relationship with his fans, and he feels like he can take a chance and keep their respect.
"I think that's much more what it's about than just how I am going to make another $3,000 at the next show," he said. " It's important to me that it's more than that, at least for what I do."
Saving country music?
The online publication SavingCountryMusic.com last month published a piece titled "7 Men Who Could Immediately Make Country Music Better." Hoge was second on the list, behind Sturgill Simpson and ahead of Whitey Morgan.
So who better to ask the question: Does country music need saving? Not exactly, Hoge replied.
When the movie "Urban Cowboy" came out in 1980, its soundtrack also was popular, mixing in pop music with country. People thought that it was going to ruin the genre, Hoge said, but not long afterward, Dwight Yoakam emerged, reviving the Bakersfield, Calif., sound of such players as Buck Owens. From there, Clint Black and Garth Brooks blew up.
"It's just a cyclical thing," Hoge said. " country music is something that's incredibly important to me, as a songwriter, as a performer, as a native Nashvillian.
"But it is a genre that has to grow, has to change. But that doesn't mean it has to be bad. And there's a lot of bad music in every genre at all times. So I don't think it needs saving. I think it needs people -- all music, it's not just country music -- it needs people that do this because it's a passion and something that you can't not do.
"And [it's] more of a fan issue than anything else. I mean, the record labels are going to put out what sells. That's never going to change."
He returned to his point about "Urban Cowboy."
Even as arena-rock style country seems to hold sway these days, "it'll swing back the other way," he said.
"It's not something I spend much time worrying about. I just make my records and keep the bus on the road."
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