Will Hoge is a man with a reputation for muscular live performances. Yet four Thanksgivings ago, Hoge found it a physical struggle to play a single song from start to finish. A few days before the holiday, while his wife Julia was at the grocery store and their son Liam was at school, he parked his wheelchair in the living room of their East Nashville home.
He balanced his guitar on his lap. To his great relief, he discovered that he could finally lift his shoulders enough to gingerly wrap his arms around the instrument's body. Tentatively, he closed his fingers and made a chord.
It was the first time in four months he'd been able to strum anything heftier than a mandolin.
Singing came no easier. The wheezy sound emitting from his chest cavity was a far cry from his usual robust rasp. But to Hoge, in hindsight, it marked a turning point.
"That was a big step for me, kinda trying to sing again, even in a whispered kind of tone," Hoge says. "It made me feel like at some point I will be able to do this again, which was nice."
By far the nicest thing about it was that he was still around to do anything at all.
Only that summer, Hoge had been scraped off the pavement in East Nashville, down six pints of blood. His life hung in the balance. He'd been sewn, set and sutured back together by the top-notch team in the Trauma Division at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
This Thanksgiving, Hoge is showing his gratitude by making the first of his two consecutive 3rd & Lindsley shows a benefit for the local chapter of the Trauma Survivors Network. Since he's back to being a full-force, from the-gut performer, there will be no need for a wheelchair, nor any timid, vaporous singing. It's an understatement to say that Hoge has bounced back.
At the same time, he's an indelibly changed man, and one who's on a significantly altered career path.
News of what happened to Hoge the evening of Aug. 20, 2008, instantly spread all over Nashville and well beyond. Even celebrity gossipmonger Perez Hilton was "send[ing] him some positive vibes." A little bit of the attention might have come from a general morbid fascination with musicians cut down in their primes. Mostly, though, it had to do with him being a veteran roots-rock underdog a lot of people knew and liked.
Hoge has trouble recalling the particulars of that night beyond the point where he wrapped up a recording session at the Sound Emporium — he was working on the album he later dubbed The Wreckage — and eased his scooter out onto Belmont Boulevard. He headed for home on the East Side. As far as memory goes, it's not a matter of his having blocked things out so much as having blacked out.
"The last things I remember," he says, "I was coming across Woodland and remembered that I needed to get milk."
For Julia, his wife, that's an especially haunting detail. In a separate interview, she confesses, "Milk! Lord, I still curse that request every day."
Hoge cut over to Main Street, intending to run that quick errand. But he never made it to Kroger. Here, his recollections disintegrate into a dizzying jumble of sensations.
"I remember laying on the ground and there being really bright lights," Hoge says. "And I remember a lot of commotion, a lot of people talking, but not making out any of it. I remember that I wanted a Coke."
What happened, Hoge later learned, was that his motor scooter had been hit by a 15-passenger van, head on. Each was traveling about 30 mph. Hoge definitely came out the loser.
"It'd ripped my face up real bad and knocked a bunch of my teeth out," Hoge remembers. "I think that's why I wanted a drink, because my mouth was filled with junk. Then I went out pretty quick after that. I think I remember going to the ER. I think that's really what the bright, bright lights were."
As the minutes ticked by without any sign of her husband, Julia began to wonder if he might have been pulled over or something. She called his cell. After several tries, she got an unfamiliar voice: "A gentleman answered, and he said, 'Ma'am, this is so-and-so from the traffic unit. Your husband's been in an accident. You need to get to Vanderbilt hospital.' ... And he can't tell me, due to the HIPAA law [which protects patients' privacy], if he's alive or dead."
Julia arrived to find that her husband was, indeed, alive. But his condition, as she'd soon learn, was critical. He was classified as a Level I, the trauma unit's highest priority of patient.
"Everybody kept telling me no head or spinal [injuries], which was the big thing," she says. "So I knew he was still in there, even though his body might be broken. But when they took me back [to the Intensive Care Unit], I was not at all prepared for what I saw. Had someone not pointed him to me, and had I not seen his tattoos, I would not have known it was him, not for a minute. He was so swollen in his face he was unrecognizable."
Hoge's bloodied face was a partly toothless mess. Beyond that, the impact crushed one of his lungs and broke his sternum, collarbone, both shoulder blades and three ribs. Then there was his mangled right leg. The knee was broken, the ligaments torn; a significant chunk of the thigh bone was simply gone.
He'd need multiple blood transfusions and two days on a ventilator just to get stabilized. Ultimately, he would require seven surgeries, a lot of morphine, several months' worth of physical therapy, and a full year of healing.
Still, almost as soon as Hoge woke up and found out where he was and why, his mind turned to all those other patients in all those other beds.
"As you look around that ICU," Hoge says, "maybe there's a part of you that wants to think, 'God, this sucks. I'm going to have to learn to do x, y and z again.' But then you look over, and there's a 22-year-old kid that they're going to have to feed through a tube for the rest of his life, because he was in a car wreck and they're sawing his brain open. That was just never lost on me. I was so incredibly lucky.
"There was gonna be a big pause in what I was able to do and how I was able to do it, and some things would never be the same. But they were so minuscule, really, in the grand scheme of things, especially in that environment. It's one thing if it's just you by yourself and then you start to feel sorry, but when you look around and realize, 'I just went head first through the windshield of an oncoming van, and the worst thing that's going to happen to me is that my face is gonna be scarred up and I might have a slight limp' ... I don't know. I just didn't feel like it was my place to wallow in any kind of real concern about it."
Maintaining a healthy perspective worked to Hoge's advantage, notes Dr. Richard Miller, who's currently chief of Vanderbilt's Division of Trauma and Surgical Critical Care.
"A lot of it is mindset," Miller says, "and I think that's what Will has. He had that mindset that he's gonna get better. You've gotta want to get better. You've gotta work at it. I think that's what he did. He wasn't gonna let this ruin his life, and he wasn't gonna let this be a setback for him indefinitely. ...
"Patients that want to get well, that participate in their rehab, that have that positive attitude — [that] makes a huge difference."
Thanks to his remarkable recovery, Hoge was among the patients of the year recognized at the Golden Hour LifeFlight Gala. And that was before he'd planned a benefit show.
Says Hoge of the motive behind the fundraising, "I feel like I owe them my life, first and foremost. But they've also got this Trauma Survivor's Network that I've gotten involved with. ... The trauma unit over there is incredible, but they're also doing this thing where they're really trying to reach out. Trauma, in a lot of people's eyes, is this thing you just deal with in the hospital, then you just go home and 'Good luck.'
"So they're working really hard trying to bring awareness to it, the same way that a soldier with PTSD comes home. That's a trauma that he has to deal with forever. And it's that same thing. It's so much bigger than just the accident. And they're working really hard to raise awareness of that."
Hoge didn't wait for his leg to heal before beginning his musical rehabilitation. First he played a short set at the opening of the Urban Outfitters store in the Gulch in March 2009. Then he went out on a seated and stripped-down tour.
"Really, it was so fucking scary trying to do that," Hoge says. "And it was really too early. The whole acoustic tour, most of that was artistically not very smart, because I couldn't really sing and I couldn't really play.
"It wasn't bad," he qualifies, "but if you had seen us play before, I mean, I don't think anybody left going, 'That's the best I've ever seen.' But it was so important. I just felt like I had to push myself to try and do it. ... If I took a whole year-and-a-half off, though I might feel better when I came back, I feel like my confidence would shrink with every passing month, and then the fear of going back and falling on your ass is greater every time. It may not have been the best musical decision that I've ever made, but I felt like it was kind of necessary to try it. ... We scaled it down to rooms where the people that were coming knew what was going on and were incredibly supportive."
Hoge had already given longtime fans reason to recalibrate their expectations. He'd begun veering away from the youthful rock 'n' roll lifestyle toward a more settled, less hedonistic sort of existence. By the time the accident happened, he'd not only kicked his wilder habits, but had a 16-month-old son and a 7-month-old marriage. All of that helped speed his recovery, and it had a profound effect on his musical persona.
On Hoge's first albums — 2001's Carousel and 2003's Blackbird on a Lonely Wire, which began and ended a disappointing run on Atlantic — he, like a lot of rock frontmen, played the part of the reckless loner with a revolving-door love life. His audience was drawn to the idea of him being unattached, without the baggage of family or responsibility.
As the decade wore on, though, a very different vantage point started to come through in his songs. Take "Silver or Gold" on Draw the Curtains, one of three Hoge albums released by the indie label Rykodisc and positioned on the commercially accessible side of Americana. That powerful Southern soul ballad was a housewife's desperate plea for a mutual marriage. "I've raised your five children, put food on the table," Hoge sings, "So don't you think sometime you might / Close your eyes and just kiss me, whisper you miss me / Before you lay down and shut out the light."
Not exactly a heartbreaker's anthem. After Hoge's near-death experience, he only accelerated the shift toward commitment-friendly themes.
"The accident was a big life experience in the fragility of family, of love, of the time you get to spend with the people you love," he says. "That certainly was put in perspective because of the accident, and certainly comes through in the writing at this point. I don't know how it couldn't."
He wound up scrapping most of the album he'd recorded before the wreck and adding a bunch of newly written songs. He re-emerged with The Wreckage, which wasn't a rehashing of his ordeal — as the title might suggest — but a meditation on intertwined lives. By the next album, Number Seven, he and Julia had welcomed a second kid, George, and Hoge had taken his writing into the deeply sentimental territory of fatherly sacrifice, lifelong commitment and loss with songs such as "The Illegal Line," "Trying To Be a Man" and "When I Get My Wings."
"I'm sure that like any rock band, as you get married and have kids and stop sleeping with women on the road, there's probably a handful of people that go, 'Well, I'm not wasting my time going to his show anymore,' " Hoge says with a laugh. "But then they shouldn't come to the show anymore, because it's going to be a waste of their time.
"I feel like we've always gained more fans long-term because of being able to grow up and paint a different picture. I'll still go play those songs from Carousel and from Blackbird ... I can still put myself back to when I wrote 'Miss Williams' or when I wrote 'She Don't Care About Me.' ... It's fun to get to step back into it on stage. I just don't want to have to step back into it in my daily life."
Though you'd never know it from the preponderance of current country singles that extol the wonders of hooking up in the bed of a truck, country has historically been one of the more grown-up genres in popular music. Its singers have sung about spouses, offspring, parents and grandparents, and its audiences haven't found that to be a turnoff at all. In fact, they've identified with it.
Hoge, who grew up in Franklin, says he always embraced "the idea of country music being story songs and these songs of real-life perspective, not just about happy puppy love. In great country music, you could talk about God and death and love and everything. So that was always super-attractive to me as a fan. And then as a writer I think I always wanted that to be there, but when you're 22 and just don't have a care in the world, there's only so much of that that you can dig into. I mean, I [was] much more worried about girls and cars at 22 than I was sociopolitical stuff."
Now that Hoge is a family man, and sounding like one, it's not much of a stretch to envision him in a country context. What really got him pondering the possibility was "Even If It Breaks Your Heart." He was still in pretty bad shape when he co-wrote the song with Eric Paslay. Hoge had to get a ride to the writing appointment, lug his guitar in on a walker, and crank out the tune in the 45-minute window before physical therapy. But he was only too happy to put the result on The Wreckage.
Says Hoge, "For years in my career, I'd always heard people say, 'His live show is so great, and his records are good, but he just hasn't had that song, that song that will translate to really a mass audience.' ... It felt different recording it. We really felt great about it. I mean, we put it out as a single. And it just didn't do anything. Nobody cared."
Nobody, that is, except the Eli Young Band. The heartland country-pop act cut it for last year's album Life at Best, and it became a career breakthrough for both the band and the song's co-author. It went to No. 1 on the Billboard country chart earlier this year and snagged a CMA nomination. What bodes especially well for Hoge's crossover potential is that EYB barely even changed his arrangement, sticking with the mid-tempo rock pulse and the jangly, ringing chords on the chorus.
"It sounds silly," says Hoge, "but it was almost like this light-bulb moment: 'Wow, this really could work. I don't have to do anything different. I'm making the same music that I would make for a Will Hoge record, but all of a sudden all of these folks are gonna allow me to be me.'"
Another way to look at it is that as his self-presentation has evolved, mainstream country has more or less met him halfway; it's thrown open its doors to rock influences ranging from Springsteen, Seger and Mellencamp to Nickelback. Hoge notes with amusement that he and his band have even out-countried some country acts with whom they've share a bill.
Anyone who's driven down Music Row has seen the way publishers boast about their No. 1's by hanging glossy banners with song titles and songwriters' photos. Since Hoge didn't have a publisher, he certainly wasn't expecting one of those professionally printed beasts for "Even If It Breaks Your Heart."
And yet he came home one day to find a huge banner in his front yard, a surprise from his manager, Jordan Powell. Emblazoned across it was a jolt of well-earned survivor's pride: "Will Hoge congratulates himself on the #1 single." It also bore a goofy shot of his very surprised-looking face.
His tweet about it went viral. The many people rooting for him got a kick out of it. Even his U.K. fans found it downright hilarious. That said, the next time Hoge earns a No. 1 banner — and considering Lady Antebellum just cut one of his songs, that could happen sooner rather than later — it'll go in front of the BMG Chrysalis office on Music Square East, since he recently signed a co-publishing deal with them.
It's been a heady year for Hoge all around. He put in his political two cents in September with the Modern American Protest Music EP — just in time, too, because depicting a gay-friendly Jesus and advocating for Trayvon Martin's innocence wouldn't exactly be career boosters for an act gaining mainstream country traction — and he's working on a new album that he and Powell plan to shop around.
"I don't like the 'second chance' term," says Hoge, when asked if he feels like this is his. "But I'm willing to admit that you have these windows of opportunity in this business. You never know when they're gonna come, and they come fast, and you never know how long that window's open. I've done it long enough that I can see looking back that there were windows, some of them I stepped through, some of them I didn't, and they slammed in my foot.
"But I do feel like there's a big window of opportunity right now. ... From the years of doing this and from the accident — from perspective — I'm able to not put pressure on myself to get through that window, but understand and appreciate how lucky I am that any of these windows still open."