Next to Butch Walker scoring songwriting credit on major hits and earning the distinction of Producer of the Year from Rolling Stone magazine back in 2005, hearing Will Hoge's "Even if it Breaks Your Heart" on the radio waves is one of the most satisfying occurrences to take place within the mainstream in years - even if it's not Hoge singing on the record. I've gotta say, there have been a few moments this year that have almost given me hope for mainstream popular music. First, Adele's continued domination of the charts showed that the album format still had some gas left in it; next, fun. hit number one on the charts and even now continue to display a surprising amount of longevity with Some Nights; and now, Will Hoge's song, one of my favorite songs from 2009, is making waves on the radio waves, three years down the road from the first time it graced my ears. Of course, it's not his version: the "hit song" status that now lies on "Even if it Breaks Your Heart" is thanks to the Eli Young Band and their version of the tune. It's been bizarre hearing the song issuing from speakers that don't belong to either myself or my older brother, whether I was hearing it on the radio waves or in the midst of a slew country standards playing on my co-worker's iTunes, but I'd call it a good kind of bizarre. Even in decidedly less talented hands than Hoge's, "Even if it Breaks Your Heart" remains as great a song today as it has always been.
I always thought that "Even if it Breaks Your Heart" had crossover potential, from the first time I listened to The Wreckage and fell in love with Will's music, and I suppose I have been proven right there. Still, it makes me wonder: why isn't this guy a huge country music star? Eli Young is clearly a more talented individual than the majority of the stars in pop music today, and I think that, in general, country music, even in its most mainstream forms, is a much less egregious and offensive genre than the majority of what crops up on top-40 radio. For the most part, the singers can still sing, the players can still play, and the records still have a measure of emotional force and artistic integrity to them. That said, Young's take on "Even if it Breaks Your Heart" doesn't add anything new to it: he plays the song straight, which is fine, but the only notable difference is that it sounds more generic, more stereotypically "country," but only in a modern sense. Hoge is very much in the vein of classic country and rock music stars: he's Tom Petty, Hank Williams, and Springsteen rolled into one, with a twinge of Johnny Cash thrown in for good measure. His voice is distinctive and unique, his vocal performances sparked with an emotional honesty that is impossible to doubt, no matter what he's singing about. His songs are, across the board, stellar, flitting between rock, pop, country, folk, and even gospel, and breaking down the barriers between all of them. And more than anything else, he's a force of nature onstage, ranking amongst the greatest performers I've ever seen. If there were any justice, this man would be a living legend.
A cover song is a weird route into fame for any artist. Even if your performance of another artist's song takes it to a new level (basically, if you're Jeff Buckley), it still has an asterisk next to it. That's a bit odd to me because, inevitably, we all start out as little more than a collection of our influences. We take our first steps into music by learning how to sing and play other people's songs, and we channel that experience into our own music, if and when we begin to write it. The Eli Young Band doesn't exactly fit into any of this, since they had one big hit prior to "Even if it Breaks Your Heart," but the idea still remains: cover songs as hits are a tricky beast - especially if much of your audience will probably never even know there's another version of the song in question. And I guess, ultimately, it doesn't really matter, because Will's song is speaking for itself: a lot of people obviously love it, and it could mean big things for him. Maybe he'll take a leaf out of Butch Walker's book and start doing some songwriting for other artists; maybe it will filter out into bigger tour opportunities, more fans, bigger album sales, and a better life for Hoge; maybe he won't always have to drive his band from town to town in a beat up old van, foregoing sleep in order to get to the next venue and play a kick ass rock 'n' roll show. I don't begrudge Eli Young his success with the song, I just wish that the success were Will's to call his own, and I just hope that he's getting the recognition and compensation he deserves for it.