Race and Country Music: A Conversation With Will Hoge
Let’s talk a little bit about your career overall, you’ve been making music since the 1990s. Is there a moment you remember realizing that this was something you would make a career out of?
My dad had grown up here and been in bands so I was always aware of the concept. My dad and my uncle snuck me into a bar when I was probably 13 or 14 to see Bo Diddly play. It was a shit hole bar out on like highway 100 and that was pretty life changing.
Especially looking back. It wasn’t like I all of a sudden quit middle school and went out on the road, but I do remember feeling different. I was always a music fan but there was something about that, that was just sort of revelatory. Then I got a guitar in high school and tried to write songs pretty quickly after that.
Do you remember the first song you learned on the guitar?
There was a guy in my high school History class and he wrote out the three chords for “Sweet Home Alabama”. I learned D, C and G and I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of those three chords over the years.
I played in bands throughout high school, knocking around in the garage or playing a show here and there. Then in college, I joined my first real band. It was pretty downhill from there. School and studying went away. Within a couple years I had left school and was back here in Nashville, really pursuing it full time.
What were you studying?
I thought I was going to be a History teacher and high school basketball coach. So yeah, studying history.
Well your wife is a teacher so you kind of got close to it, you could still do the basketball coach thing.
My kids play so I get to still piddle with it. My kids make fun because my wife came to Belmont to do music, then she ended up an educator and I went to school to be an educator and ended up doing music. So we kinda’ just swapped roles along the way.
Is there anyone who has not recorded a song of yours that you would like to?
That’s really and truly one that is flattering every single time. There’s nobody I’d like to not see. Wait, that’s not true. There’s definitely some people that I would not want to record my songs. But I don’t know if there’s any dream list. I just hope that people will keep wanting to do it.
I think they will. You’ve got a pretty good track record.
I hope so, thank you.
Have you always been focused on writing music that delivers a message or is that something that came along later in your career?
I wanted to from the get go. I was always intrigued by that in any genre. The Clash was always a band that did that. Growin’ up I had Public Enemy doing that in a very different space but then you also had Johnny Cash that was doin that in the country world. So I was always really fascinated by it. Dylan did it for years. Sam Cooke was doing it in the later part of his career. I was always drawn to those artists because to me that was real art.
When you were reflecting, not just love songs but also not just political songs. Really covering the gamut of what people feel and talk about, so I think I always wanted to do it. I don’t think I was prepared to do it. When I first started writing songs, I was certainly not in a place where was. I was probably not educated enough certainly not worldly enough.
I had spent a lot of my years in about a 250 mile radius of where I’m talking to you from right now. So I was pretty unworldly and unlearned for a long time but early on, even when I was first starting out, I was tryin’ to write those songs or work those things into songs. About 2003 I had put out two records I had put my major label stuff with Atlantic and that’s when I first recorded with the election, my first sort of political and topical music at that point and have done it fairly consistently ever since. It’s been a commitment, I think.
How would you say that you have been able to position yourself so well in the country music industry even having a consistent history of making music that often takes a very political stance?
I’m a really shitty businessman, is one of the things. Really and truly, I think there’s probably more people that feel that way than you realize or even that I realize. I mean, I probably lose work because of it. I know that there are people that are not interested in hearing those kinds of songs and ultimately don’t want to reward the asshole with those opinions. I’m not willing to not say those things to have more commercial success.
I feel really fortunate that I have been able to support myself doing this now for 30 years. I’m more interested in my kids growing up and knowing that I had a voice and whatever size platform, I was willing to use it to try to make our little world, or our little corner of the world a more fair and equitable place. So some of it is just I guess as much as anything, my willingness to not be liked by everyone. Probably if there’s any secret formula, that’s what that would be.
So you just can’t have friends then, that’s it.
Yea you just have to be willing to lose folks. You know, are those the people you want around? I don’t think so. I can have fewer of those people in my life. That’s ok.
I recently came across your song, “Still A Southern Man”, which I can’t believe I’m just hearing. It came out in 2016.
I wrote it originally the night of the Charleston Baptist Church shooting. It got written and played the first time that night. Then we did a kinda stand alone version not long after that then finally got it put on a record through the “My American Dream” album.
One of the reasons I think that “Still A Southern Man” is so impactful and surprising is because you don’t just speak from the perspective of knowing better, you also talk about your journey getting there. That’s a part of the story many people leave out in these conversations. They want you to believe they’ve just always been on the right side of things. What was it for you that made you realize that there was something more insidious about the confederate flag?
We moved from Nashville to Franklin when I was a kid. We moved when I was six or seven probably. My first friend, it was a really small town, his dad was the high school basketball coach and they were the Franklin Rebels. You just grew up with that and I wanted to be apart of that team and that culture. It didn’t really have anything to do with the civil war as a kid. If it was the bobcats, I would’ve wanted to be a bobcat.
I didn’t think about that as a kid. That’s how instilled that racism is. I think that white folks have a hard time admitting that we just have done racist shit. Even as individuals. It’s hard to delineate a lot of times that you can not ‘be a racist’ and also have done something that is racist. I think that that was the big realization for me.
My mother is Jewish and so for years growing up in Nashville, their family couldn’t live certain places, couldn’t join certain country clubs, there were all sorts of things that anti-Semitically, that they dealt with when she married my father who is not Jewish. I grew up with this weird, bastardized mix of religion and really seeing culturally what that was like.
My maternal grandfather on that side also had a lot of interracial business relationships. From the 1940s on he owned businesses up and down Jefferson street. He would travel every year to go on a trip, it would be 3 white guys and 3 black guys, they would went to the NCAA basketball tournament every year. We grew up in a fairly, especially for the time, interracial thing.
It wasn’t strange for there to be folks of color in and out of the house as friends and acquaintances and all those different things. That was the same for me. My friends growing up, there was lots of color around. We saw it. Its not one of those “we don’t see color” kinda things. You know, there have never been racist jokes allowed, none of those kinds of things. The racism is so rampant lots of folks think that as long as you’re not the worst at it, then its not racist.
I think culturally growing up, I loved the idea of the flag. I was the guy at the football game. There weren’t hundreds of people carrying rebel flags. There was one and it was me. I did that on my own because I thought I was supporting our school and all of our friends . I’m sure at the time as an uneducated 16 and 17 year old I would have said ‘I’m not racist so this isn’t racist.’
I remember a conversation with my friend, when we were juniors or seniors in high school, and we were going to Memphis for a football game and she said ‘please don’t bring that rebel flag to Memphis.’ I remember thinking at the time ‘well of course I wont bring the rebel flag to Memphis because that would be racist.’ I think back on that. How understanding I was of what that meant because of what had happened in Memphis with Dr. King and all of the things that had gone on. I was smart enough to see how that could be racist but wasn’t empathetic and smart enough to understand that all my friends that I’d grown up with since I was 6, were also sick of it because it’s fucking racist.
I think it was the years when I went to college. My roommate was Black and he had been there for a year. The six or eight guys that he was closest with became my friends in college. So it was six or eight Black guys and me. I remember at that point having a conversation. I had a shirt with a rebel flag on it that we had printed for shit in high school. I remember having a conversation with my friend about it, making whatever feeble sort of defense that I could of why this wasn’t racist. At one point somebody pointed out about the Nazi flag and what if it was a swastika.
It was truly one of those moments that was like a light bulb for me. It was like Holy shit, I’d never be okay with that. Flying a Nazi flag wouldn’t have been cool. And it was truly that moment, well this is just the same fucking thing. To me it wasn’t the heritage, it wasn’t the South was great. It was ‘We’re rebels and nobody’s gonna tell us what to do.’ It was more that and it was this personal statement and then I just realized, its not.
It doesn’t matter if that’s what I think it is when someone else sees this and what it has stood for. Why am I trying to defend it? It was pretty eye opening. It was like well shit, I don’t want to be a part of that. Why would I want to be a part of that? Its just wrong. I was just wrong. Admitting that and then moving on from it is just not that hard to do.
You’d think it’s like losing a limb.
There are people that just get so fucking worked up about it and I don’t get it. I truly don’t. I don’t understand the defense of it, that’s why I wrote the song.
When I wrote that song my hope was that there’s another 15, 16, 17-year-old small town kid that is really not on the ‘wrong’ side of things and isn’t a racist but is doing this stupid shit because you just don’t know the world well enough to see it. I think we’re all so afraid of that, there’s this shame.
I say all of that and you’ll get these defenders that’ll go ‘well now you’re ashamed of it.’ I’m not ashamed of it. I was just too stupid to see it in a worldly enough sense . I don’t think we have to be ashamed of those things. We just have to admit it and be better.
After you put the song out, did that lead to you having the conversation about it with anyone that was close to you?
I mean most of anybody that’s really close to me by that point, there’s no tolerance for that kinda shit in our circle. I’m a loud mouth about that kinda shit. Any family members, they run the other way when I show up with that shit.
Then lots of my family, my cousin Tim Wise is a public speaker and racial activist and is well published on that stuff. I’m really surrounded more by people that are on the left side of that argument, fortunately. Our family, we’re not just packed with the good old-fashioned racists that lots of folks around here are.
What do you think that the industry can do to change? Because right now, from where we’re sitting, it’s not for us. It’s for the people that defend the confederate flag. What do you think the industry can do to open itself up to more Black artists?
That’s a hard one. There’s a difference between the industry and the audience. What the industry can do is continue, well I don’t want to say continue because there not really doing it. What they’re doing now, it’s dangerously close to this sort of token appeasement shit. Its like ‘hey look we’ve got a Black girl now, we’re not racist!’ I don’t wanna sound like, you know… Progress is always good…
No its exactly what you’re saying. After last summer they knew they were going to get called out so they said “Oh here’s Darius to host an award show, and Reba too. A Black man and a woman, so be quiet.”
Yea “Here’s Rissi Palmer, everything’s fine, we’ve got a Black!” yea that’s… tough. Within the country music industry, it’s the music industry as a whole but you know we deal with the country world here, you go in those board rooms and its still a white boys club. So what can the industry do?
I mean its more than just the artists. Some of it is even from a journalistic standpoint, like talking to you. It’s such an asinine idea that the industry thinks that this is an industry that is just dominated, the only people that are interested in this are white males and occasionally white females is how the whole industry looks at what they do. It’s so myopic.
If you take the other end of that spectrum and you think about the hip hop world, I think you look at that there are white hip hop executives. They are willing to sign and market talent. That’s what labels here should be doing. Who are the women, folks of color, whatever your gender identity- are you good at this job and do you have a passion for it? If so, there needs to be a place for these folks.
That will start to change it. Part of it is also, you gotta market great artists. If you put a great, Black country singer out and release a record, newsflash racist motherfuckers aren’t gonna buy that record. There’s no label that’s gonna change that. That’s a whole cultural conversation, then we get into public school debates. How do you educate people out of that shit? A whole other conversation. I don’t think record labels need to be worried about that. If you’ve got an artist that is Black or Latino or whatever it is, that you think makes great music that the world should hear, you need to be putting those records out.
If Less racists buy the records, I don’t know that that’s a bad thing. There’s a way to scale your Marketing and the money that you spend to help those artists see success. I think there’s just, opening the tent up to have more representation of what the country at large looks like will start to change that. Unfortunately, I don’t think, well I know, its not really a paradigm shift.
I’d love for us to hang up from this conversation and John Esposito at Warner Brothers has suddenly changed everything about the way Warner works. That isn’t gonna happen. This is not gonna be something that changes this calendar year or next.
No, but what will happen is that because you took the time out to talk to me, it might help at least one person take our site more seriously, considering you are such a force in the industry.
I think that’s what we’ve all gotta do. I say this laying on my bed of white privilege which I totally understand. I don’t know that I have big steps, all I can do is try to help little steps. Its easy for me to say it’ll happen or we’ll do what we can. That’s not enough.
Sitting in your seat, I’m sure is a very different experience than mine and it ain’t gonna happen fast enough is the thing that sucks. But we can’t not do anything right? We have to do this, its important. Its important for what you’re doing, for what I’m doing, for all of us. I just think that people have to stop being afraid of conversations and differences of how we grew up and opinions and things like that. There’s a way through this.
What Black artists do you want to work with or enjoy listening to?
I’ve had Black members of my band and that’s been great and eye opening.
I grew up listening to tons of Jackie Wilson. My dad used to go and see Jackie Wilson, that was my dads favorite singer. I remember when Jackie was sick in the hospital, I was a little kid. My dad somehow, through music business connections, found a phone number to where Jackie Wilson was in the hospital and was able to get him on the phone. This was in like the early 80s. There was no Facebook. Somehow my dad was tracking that man down just to let him know what his music meant to him.
I really grew up with this adoration of what Motown was doing and what Ray Charles was doing. “Modern Sounds in Western and Country Music” is still my favorite country record of all time and always will be. I think that there’s just more and I’m so excited about what you’re doing with your site to really shine a light on new artists.
I can sit here and say that, but “Modern Sounds in Western and Country Music” came out in 1967. There are Black roots records that have come out more recently that that. Even the business we’re in, its still something that isn’t easy for me to find.
That’s a lot of the reason why I started the site. You look for Black country artists and all that comes up are lists of the same 5 artists.
Right and they’re great. But I can take that into my own world. It would suck for me if the only people you ever heard that were white singer songwriters were just Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson. Its like fuck, there’s a whole lot more of us out here doing that. And people know that but again there’s this whole, all of a sudden the melanin gets different and people only talk about the same four people. I just feel like there’s a light that hasn’t been shone on those artists and I think tis really important.
One of our goals also is to get Black people everywhere in the industry. Something that I hear from people who are getting some work in the industry is that being the only black person in the room can be a barrier to success. They’re not getting to put their best self forward because they’re the only person in the room that has lived their experience. That’s something white people never have to think about.
That’s one of the things my wife and I talk about all the time. It’s the “band aid” conversation. You finally get there and you walk into the awards show and there’s 400 people backstage doing make up and you’re the one Black girl. You think white lady’s gonna know what to do with hair and make up?
I mean holy shit. That’s a reality show I would watch. I mean, holy hell, it’d be awful. So now you’ve made it and you’re still by yourself. Its terrible.
You’ve been inside for a year now. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve done during quarantine?
Hell, just being inside for a year is fucking weird. I put out a record with the anticipation of touring like we always do and supporting the record. Putting out a record that you can’t go and play for people is pretty fucking weird.
Did you write at all?
I’ve written a bunch. I’m really excited about that part of it. I spent a lot of time just at a desk with a guitar and paper, really just writing again. That’s been really positive.
What’s your favorite lyric you’ve written while holed up inside?
There’s a song that I think were going to record for this new record called “The Last One To Go.” It’s really more the whole lyric. Its about a guy, it’s a really sweet love song. I tend to write sadder shit. This one is sad, but sweet.
When is the new record coming?
We’re going to try to record in late June and then whether or not that comes out this fall or first quarter of next year, I’ll know more once we get the record done. Within the next 12 months, for sure.
You recently announced dates for an upcoming tour, “Anywhere But My Couch”. Are you excited to get back on the road?
I’m nervous about it. I’ve just gotten really used to being at home. My kids are 14 and 10, so I think the leaving will be harder than its probably ever been. I’ve gotten really used to being a civilian at this point.
I’m excited though. I really miss the band, the camaraderie that comes along with that. And playing music together with people, for people. Yes, I’m excited about it.
I saw on your Facebook that you wrote a song that’s 12 verses long, what the hell is it about?
It started as a journal entry, one thing I started to do as quarantine really started to kick my ass. I heard from a friend that’s a writer- I started trying to study writers- that he does a thing called morning pages. You just wake up every morning and write. So I started doing that, making myself write at least two pages of shit.
One day I wrote this long thing about people making a deal with the mob. It’s a short story but a long song. I didn’t plan on it being a song then one day I was piddling with this chord progression thing and I thought I wonder if there’s anything in this book. I looked through and it kinda became a song.
I wrote a chorus for it. I think I ended up cutting it down, it’s only 10 verses now. Much more palatable. I tend to operate much more in thinking of songs for the radio, I look at three and a half minutes as the dream. But then I’ve got a few that are the longer things over the years. This one would certainly be the longest