Saturday, March 26, 2016

Will Hoge - Small Town Dreams

Rock 'n' roll has always been obsessed with the idea of escape. From Springsteen's Born to Run to Green Day's American Idiot, the small town has been repeatedly painted as dead end stagnation, while the big city has always symbolized the promise of the American Dream. Those are two of my favorite albums of all time, but I'll tell you, I've never been able to fully relate to either one—if only because I'm a small town born and bred guy who finds the idea of living in the big city about as appealing as drinking gasoline. I'll take my American Dream in a world where I can own a house, see the stars, get some peace and quiet, and drive around without feeling like I'm cruising down the trench of the Death Star, thank you very much.

Luckily for me, Will Hoge is here to offer a manifesto in defense of small town life. On his 10th studio record, aptly titled Small Town Dreams, Hoge gazes back wistfully at the place he grew up. And whether he's telling autobiographical stories, or dreaming up characters and narratives to populate his world, he does so in a way that anyone who's ever grown up in a so-called "dead end town" will be able to understand and appreciate.

Hoge's last record, 2013's Never Give In, was a big one for me. I ranked it as my album of the year (a title that it would have since lost to Jason Isbell's Southeastern), and I called Hoge "the underground version of Bruce Springsteen." On Small Town Dreams, though, he's a lot closer to John Mellencamp. Having gotten a taste of mainstream success around the release of his last album—first when the Eli Young Band cut his song "Even If It Breaks Your Heart" and turned it into a number one hit on country, and second when Chevrolet used another single of his, titled "Strong," for an ad campaign—it's not terribly surprising that Small Town Dreams is Hoge's most overtly countrified album to date. It's also his most mainstream, featuring co-writes on nearly every song and plenty of bids for radio airplay.

For those who have followed Hoge since the early days, parts of Small Town Dreams might be tough to swallow. Lead-off single "Middle of America," for instance, is a far-cry from the barn-storming, anti-establishment rock 'n' roll of The Man Who Killed Love, a jangly and easily digestible anthem about life in the heartland. When he released the song last summer, Hoge joked that he could have easily sent it to Blake Shelton and made a pile of money off it. He's not being big headed with that statement, either: "Middle of America," from the brief character sketches of its verses to the big "We're letting our freedom ring" hook, sounds like a surefire hit. You can bet that any number Nashville's biggest stars would have paid handsomely to snatch it up as the lead single for their respective albums.

There's no denying that "Middle of America" is the closest Hoge has ever come to sounding like everyone else, and it's not the only song on Small Town Dreams that could be described that way, either. "Better Than You" has a "woah oh" bridge section that sounds like something from Keith Urban's last album, or like Billy Currington's current hit, "We Are Tonight." The good news, though, is that Hoge is still Hoge. He's still one of the deftest songwriters in the game, capable of penning tunes that pack poignant storytelling into the confines of an instantly memorable melody. And then there's his voice, an impressive instrument with the dexterity to hit the high notes, and the weatherworn intensity to make each of songs feel genuine and lived-in. If there's one thing that sets Hoge apart from every other singer/songwriter in mainstream country music right now, it's his vocal ability, and the songs on Small Town Dreams offer strong evidence that he is aware of the fact.

Hoge plays to his strengths on the album's emotional peak, a gospel-laced homerun called "Just up the Road." Though it starts out as a simple highway-bound piano ballad, "Just up the Road" builds to a sublime and well-earned zenith, with a spot of high-wattage lead guitar improvisation (courtesy of country legend Vince Gill) and a call-and-response section built for gang vocals and live concert sing-alongs. Hoge may be a mid-level artist who mostly plays clubs and dive bars, but with this song, he's got a number that could bring out the cigarette lighters and cellphones in any arena or stadium.

What ultimately makes Small Town Dreams a great record—and one that can stack up to Hoge's past work, even if it's a bit streamlined for the mainstream audience—is its devotion to a core theme. Where most of his radio country competitors or contemporaries are putting out disconnected collections of singles, Hoge is still an album man, through and through. With Small Town Dreams, he's exploring the aforementioned rock 'n' roll ideal of escape, but looking at that concept from the other side of the tracks. Instead of mirroring Springsteen, whose characters either dreamed of getting out of their hometowns, or got trapped in them by circumstance and responsibility, Small Town Dreams is an album about how settling down in the same place where you grew up doesn't always mean settling for less.

Granted, the youthful ideal of escaping is still there in some of these songs. "I swore I'd never come back to this sleepy little one-horse dot on the map," Hoge sings in opening track and propulsive anthem "Growing up Around Here," adding "I spent 17 years trying to find my way out." But then he changes his mind: "Took a whole lot of miles, but I finally know now/I'm kinda proud of growing up around here."

A similar thing happens in "Little Bitty Dreams," a classic acoustic ballad, and the only song on Small Town Dreams that Hoge wrote solo. At the outset, the song seems like an examination of the titular small town dreams that so many of us have as kids: dreams of being a movie star, or of "thinking some day a fastball might get me out of this town." Eventually, those dreams tend to fade away, but "Little Bitty Dreams" isn't a song about the lost hopes of youth. Rather, it's a love song about how finding the right person at the right time can change your dreams and make them all come true in one fell swoop. "I met you and then I knew that my big dreams were done/I settled down in this same small town and swore you were the one/Some might call it giving up, but it don't feel that way to me/I think it's just the two of us, and our little bitty dreams," Hoge sings in the chorus. Sometimes, the greatest dreams are the people we choose to share our lives with, and this wonderful song is a reminder to cherish those things that matter most.

Themes of family and devotion run deep throughout this record. "They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To," for instance, is a loving elegy for a role model who I presume to be Hoge's grandfather. The song explores the numerous ways in which a legacy can hold strong, even long after the person who built it has stopped breathing. With lyrics like "They don't make 'em like they used to, you always used to say/That's why everything you ever built is still standing here today/That old Camaro in the carport, the fence along the lane/All the walls in this old house, right down to the family name," the song hits hard—especially if you've recently lost a parent or grandparent. The bar-band rocker "Desperate Times," meanwhile, is told from the perspective of a husband and a father who sticks around and buckles down when the waters get rough, rather than "packing the cars and running" like other weaker souls. And while "Better Than You" falls into the category of "breakup song," it comes from a narrator who can see so clearly that the best thing in his life just walked out the door.

A friend of mine, who is a fellow music writer and a fellow Hoge fan, is disappointed in this record, and thinks that Hoge is no longer pushing himself or exploring new creative ground with each album. He's not entirely wrong: even at its best, Small Town Dreams is comfortable, with songs that can often be traced back to comparable forerunners Hoge's discography. The easy thing to do would be to blame the co-writers, or the country radio establishment that Hoge is trying to cater to here. You could even blame Hoge, for being ready and willing to trade in the outsider's badge he's carried for so long. But then you have to realize that this guy has released eight LPs and two EPs in the space of 13 years, and that he's done most of it with little to no help, and minimal mainstream success or recognition.

Said another way, Hoge is long past overdue for a big break. And if he can find it by playing things a bit safer and releasing a mainstream country record like Small Town Dreams, then I'm all for it. After all, if there's a album that can make his a household name, it's the one, so tailor made it is for summertime road trips, backyard barbecues, and outdoor concerts. Sure, it's not the cathartic masterpiece that Draw the Curtains was, nor is it as wall-to-wall consistent as The Wreckage or Never Give In. But if Small Town Dreams is Hoge's ticket to bigger venues, better pay, or even just a tour bus that he doesn’t have to drive himself, I honestly can't think of a guy in the music industry more worthy of the success. The songs are still great, the live shows will still be raucous, and as evidenced by fiery album closer, "Til I Do It Again," Hoge's still got plenty of rebel left in him anyway. It's just that, with Small Town Dreams, he's ready for the big rooms.

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