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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."