Will Hoge w/ Ryan Culwell - 9/18/18Tuesday, September 18 2018 6:00 pm Doors / 8:00 pm Start
- Front Premier
- Bar Stool
Will Hoge w/ Ryan Culwell - 9/18/18
at City Winery Washington DC
- 6:00 pm
- 8:00 pm
- Front Premier
- Bar Stool
"I hit a wall," says Will Hoge. "I was doing the best touring of my career and I had a great, steady gig writing songs, but I was falling out of love with being in a band. I didn't have a good answer when I asked myself, 'Why am I still doing this?' So I walked away. I had to figure out what was next."
For Hoge, what came next was a quest to reclaim the joy and the magic that had drawn him to music in the first place. He let his band go and hit the road for roughly a year of solo shows, crisscrossing the country by himself with just a guitar and a keyboard. He felt rejuvenated by the freedom and began writing material that reenergized him, that made him feel like a kid falling in love with rock and roll all over again. Those songs ignited a dormant flame somewhere deep within Hoge's soul, and now they form the bulk of Anchors, his strongest and most nuanced album to date.
"All the solo work made me fall back in love with the process and really inspired me from a writing perspective," says Hoge. "I was so excited when it was time to record this album because I didn’t have any parameters that I had to stay inside anymore. I could reach out to anyone I wanted and put together a band that could play these songs in a way that just felt cool and natural, like we used to do in my garage back when I was a teenager."
Hoge's teenage garage band years were spent in Franklin, TN, but his music career didn't begin in earnest until he moved roughly twenty miles up the road to Nashville. Starting with the release of his acclaimed 2001 debut, Carousel, Hoge established himself as a masterful songwriter and performer as well as a critical favorite, with Rolling Stone comparing him to Bob Seger and John Mellencamp and NPR praising his "sharp, smart, passionate rock 'n' roll that seems to exist out of time." Hoge built up a loyal fanbase the old fashioned way, maintaining a steady studio output and a relentless touring schedule of more than 200 shows a year, including bills with the likes of My Morning Jacket, the Black Crowes, and Drive-By Truckers, in addition to festival slots from Bonnaroo to Austin City Limits.
Then, in 2012, Hoge found himself suddenly thrust into the spotlight when the Eli Young Band hit #1 on the Billboard Country chart with their recording of his song "Even If It Breaks Your Heart." The single went Platinum, earning Hoge coveted nominations at the CMA, ACM, and GRAMMY Awards, where the track was up for Country Song of the Year. The wider world took notice of what those paying attention to Hoge had known for a decade, and soon he was performing everywhere from the Grand Ole Opry to The Late Show with David Letterman, his music was soundtracking a high-profile Chevy truck campaign, and he'd signed a major publishing deal.
"All of the sudden, people were coming and offering me money to be a songwriter," reflects Hoge. "I hadn't had a regular paycheck in fifteen years at that point, and suddenly I was a 'paid songwriter.' It was an incredible opportunity, and I did that for four years while I continued to tour and make my own records. I learned a lot of valuable things and wrote some songs that I really loved, but it was a very different kind of writing. I felt like I was working for somebody else."
So, as he's always done throughout his career, Hoge took a gamble on himself and left behind the security and comfort of the familiar in order to pursue the kind of art that moved and inspired him. The result is Anchors, an album that blends elements of literate folk, vintage country, and heartland rock into a passionate, genre-busting masterpiece. Recorded with an all-star band comprised of drummer Jerry Roe (Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, Darius Rucker), bassist Dominic Davis (Jack White, Wanda Jackson), and guitarists Brad Rice (Son Volt, Ryan Adams) and Thom Donovan (Lapush, Ruby Amanfu), the album is a prime showcase for Hoge's soaring, gritty vocals, as well as his remarkable gift for crafting complex characters with real emotional depth and plainspoken profundity.
"There's some seeds you plant that never grow," Hoge sings on loping album opener "The Reckoning." It's a beautiful, bittersweet introduction to a record that grapples with the messy challenges of adulthood and takes an unflinching look at the ways in which we persevere (or don't) through hard times. On "This Grand Charade," Hoge paints a portrait of a crumbling marriage going through the motions to keep up appearances, while "Angel's Wings" channels classic country in the search for one more chance to turn things around, and the spare, piano-driven "Cold Night In Santa Fe" laments that "it ain't the knowing that it's over / it's the watching it slip away" that causes the most pain.
Hoge's a happily married man with two kids of his own these days, though, so he knows that time doesn't inherently doom all lovers. "Ain't nothing we can't fix / Ain't no broken trust / Ain't no great divide between the two of us " he sings in harmony with special guest Sheryl Crow on "Little Bit Of Rust.
"I'd always wanted a female vocal for this song because I felt like the 'we' in the chorus is important," says Hoge. "Nobody fixes a relationship on their own. I felt like it deserved this strong female presence, and Sheryl's just one of the greatest singers I've ever heard. Having her on the track breathed a whole new life into the song, and it's one of my favorite things I've ever done."
While the album has its fair share of heavy moments, Hoge isn't afraid to mine the more optimistic and playful veins of his creativity, too. He lets his mischievous side shine on the lustful "This Ain't An Original Sin," gets romantic on the Traveling Wilburys-esque "Baby's Eyes" (a co-write with Brendan Benson), and reconnects with the innocence and excitement of his early days on "Seventeen," a track inspired by his own kids' exploits in the garage.
"My boys are six and ten, and they started a band with their friend," explains Hoge. "I was sitting around one day during my period of deep doubt, and then I heard these three pre-teens in my damn garage thinking they can save the world with rock and roll. It was amazing. All of the sudden you remember the feeling of going to band practice and playing with your friends and making sure that you've got your jean jacket on just right so you can talk to the girl at the movie theater and try to get her to come to your show. You remember you do it because you love it and it feels right."
That's the notion that carries album closer "Young As We Will Ever Be" into the sunset. It's an ode to the present, to living in the moment, to seeing the splendor in the right now, challenging as it may be. It's easy to get jaded or lose inspiration in this world when the going gets tough, and it's even easier to take the good times for granted, only recognizing them for what they are once they're in the rearview mirror. If there's one takeaway from Anchors, though, it's that hard times come and hard times go, but love and art can sustain you through both if you let them. The road you end up on and the stops you make along the way may not be the ones you'd always imagined, but true happiness belongs to those who learn to find fulfillment in the journey rather than the destination.
"Am I as far as I want to go?" Hoge asks himself out loud. "No. Am I further than I ever imagined being at seventeen? Fuck yeah. There's some beauty in that."
When Ryan Cullwell released his critically acclaimed 2015 album ‘Flatlands,’ Rolling Stone hailed the collection as both “gorgeous and bleak,” and the intervening years of the Texas native’s life could be described in similarly contradictory terms. Culwell has touched the top and scraped the bottom, known true joy and faced pure sorrow, been blessed with luck and cursed by tough breaks. He welcomed daughters number three and four into the world, only to nearly lose his life working odd jobs just to make ends meet. It’s been a beautiful, brutal time for Culwell, one that he’s woven into the fabric of his most stunning songs yet with ‘The Last American,’ his third album and debut release for Missing Piece Records. Recorded in his adopted hometown of Nashville, the collection showcases Culwell at his finest, crafting poignant portraits of ordinary folks just trying to get by, men and women doing their best to make it through the day with dignity and self-respect in these trying times.
“When I grew up and started traveling around the country, I began seeing certain truths in people’s struggles and pains, and I realized that the America that was given to me wasn’t what I’d been told it was,” Culwell reflects. “The patriotism that my father passed down didn’t have anywhere to land because that America simply didn’t exist. I’m a father myself now, and I think part of the inspiration for these songs was to try and give my children the tools to love this country for what it is and what it can be, to provide them with an accurate picture of where they are and what it means to love and hope and have empathy.”
Love and hope and empathy have long been touchstones of Culwell’s writing, a style that NPR raved “wring[s] grace from plain and often dark details, expressing the realities of class and region in ways that many other writers barely touch.” ‘Flatlands’ was a stark meditation on the forgotten emptiness of the Texas panhandle, and its sparse arrangements and profound lyrics drew plaudits from around the world. Rolling Stone said that Culwell has “a voice as big as the Texas horizon,” while Guitar World praised the album as “masterfully crafted and artfully delivered,” and Country Weekly called it “both deeply personal and universal in its depiction of struggle.” In the UK, Mojo gushed that Culwell “shapes his characters with dirt, blood, [and] spiritual foreboding,” and The Mail On Sunday proclaimed that the album “heralds a gritty, poetic new American voice.” The music earned Culwell dates with Patty Griffin, Hayes Carll, Ashley Monroe, Billy Joe Shaver, and Amy Speace among others, and racked up more than a million streams on Spotify.
You can’t feed a family on good reviews alone, though, and as Culwell’s brood grew, he had a choice to make about the kind of father and husband he wanted to be.
“I see a lot of guys in this business forego relationships and families, and my wife and I decided we weren’t going to do that,” says Culwell. “I’ve been married almost fourteen years and I’m committed to home life, but it takes sacrifice and balance.”
Culwell put touring on a temporary hold to be there for his kids, and in order to help pay the bills, he took on a series of increasingly odd jobs: roofing salesman, landscaper, tree cutter, pedal tavern driver. Each took its toll, and while ferrying drunk bachelorettes around Nashville on an alcohol-fueled megabike was perhaps the most harrowing, it was the tree-cutting job that nearly killed him.
“I was out working by myself when I made a poor cut on a fallen tree and it started rolling at me,” he remembers. “I ripped my shoulder out of my socket and came within an inch of cutting my face in two that day.”
Around the same time, Culwell’s friends Ethan Ballinger (Lee Ann Womack, Aubrie Sellers) and Megan McCormick (Jenny Lewis, Conor Oberst) approached him about getting back into the studio. It was nothing serious, they assured him, just a few songs for fun, but he quickly realized they had grand designs on producing a full length LP for him. Culwell had been reluctant to commit to making another album, but he soon found himself deeply invested in the project and grateful that he’d been tricked into it. They worked off-hours at Zac Brown’s Southern Ground studio, recording a few songs here and a few songs there whenever Ballinger and McCormick’s touring schedules allowed. With half the album completed over the course of nearly a year, Culwell added producer and longtime collaborator Neilson Hubbard (Glen Phillips, Apache Relay) to the team, and the remaining songs were finished in a short burst of concentrated writing and recording at Hubbard’s studio.
“I knew that last batch of songs was going to be an intense sprint, and the team and environment evolved perfectly to let the album flex into full form,” says Culwell. “Having Ethan, Meghan, and Neilson all producing together in a small studio like that was the perfect setup for capturing the chaos and the intimacy of the music. Imagine having Brett Favre, Drew Brees, and Peyton Manning all calling the shots at once, but with the humility to defer to each other most of the time. It was weird and tense and glorious.”
The album opens with the dreamy “Can You Hear Me,” a reverb-soaked rocker that calls to mind the swirling soundscapes of The War on Drugs mixed with the anthemic drive of Bruce Springsteen. The album’s sound is a major leap from the stripped-down weariness of ‘Flatlands,’ but Culwell pulls it off with ease, drawing on a cast of characters who are alternately motivated by hopeful promise and bitter resentment. On the relentless, fuzzed-out “Dig A Hole,” he channels the anger and helplessness that run rampant in parts of the country looking for someone, anyone, to lash out at for their struggles, while the wistful title track presents a narrator tenaciously holding on to a past he (may or may not) be better off scrapping, and the deceptively charming “Dog’s Ass” draws on the dark memories of a family who’s livelihood was tightly hitched to the price of oil."
“My grandpa, my uncle, my dad, and his cousin all started a trucking company together in the ’80s, and they made good money working in the regional oilfield,” says Culwell. “The bulk of their money was made with a large oil company that was using my family’s little business to write off huge sums on their taxes, and when oil crashed, my folks were stuck holding the bag. They had to find a way to pay for their 18-wheelers, so they took to over-the-road driving, and my grandpa ended up having a stroke and getting into a head-on collision. There’s no chance I’ll ever believe that stroke wasn’t brought on by the greed and corruption of those oilmen.”
Despite its fascination with the dark underbelly of the American Dream, there remains an unshakable sense of promise on the album, an eternal spring of optimism that believes in better days to come. Songs like the gentle “Moon Hangs Down” and “Tie A Pillow To My Tree” began life as improvised lullabies for Culwell’s daughters, and it’s no surprise they hold the most beauty and wisdom of any tracks on the record.
“I’d write a single line one night, a few more a week later, and so on, until eventually we were singing the songs whole,” he explains. “Singing those tunes with my family is easily my greatest success in music. I hope those songs will still be useful to my girls someday when they’re old ladies and I’m gone. That’s all I’m after.”
In that sense, Culwell’s already achieved everything he could hope for with ‘The Last American.’ He’s crafted a collection that’s built to last, one that’s sturdy enough to weather the storms of today, and one that’s certain to be there for the brighter tomorrows still to come.