ALBUM REVIEW: Will Hoge – ‘My American Dream’

This Tennessee native songwriter made his name honing a blend of soulful Americana and heartland rock & roll. After spending his childhood in Franklin, TN he left for Western Kentucky University to study history. Music drew him back home, however, and he relocated to Nashville to assemble a band. He issued a live release of the bar circuit in 1999 called All Night Long before signing a deal with Atlantic Records. With the label’s support, he recorded his official debut album Carousel in 2000. Since then, both on and off major labels, Hoge was worked hard at honing his reputation as a road warrior and man of the people. Protest albums like, ‘Modern American Protest Music,’ have sat neatly alongside bombastic pop-rock influenced ones like ‘Small Town Dreams’ and the more intimate, personal recordings like ‘Anchors’ and ‘Wreckage’.

2018 sees Hoge returning to his roots with an 8 track album of protest songs, lifting up the rock on American society and shining a light underneath into the murky darkness. One thing that should be said, from the off, here is that you shouldn’t be put off by the serious nature and lyrical content of these songs – there is some damn catchy and damn fine Country-Rock to be found on ‘My American Dream’ – who knew that protesting could be such fun?

A number of the songs from ‘My American Dream’ have been floating around different platforms for a while now. Perhaps the oldest song written for this project is ‘Still a Southern Man’ which is a stinging attack on some of the values of the South and a rallying cry to all those opponents of the Confederate flag and the history that it represents. In this respect, this is probably the most controversial song on ‘My American Dream’ but if you close your eyes you could be listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd jamming with Black Stone Cherry in a super-group fronted by Kid Rock! The song is essentially ‘of the south’ and in it Hoge urges the listener to believe that he is ‘still a southern man’, he just doesn’t represent a flag that, ‘ain’t never led to one thing good.’ It’s a great, southern song but the juxtaposition of the sound and lyrics are an interesting thing to process as you are hollering along!

Other songs that have been around for a while are tracks like, ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ and ‘Gilded Walls’. The former, released in the aftermath of the Harvest 91 and Church shootings last year is an angry yet thoughtful entreaty about gun control and a pointed reminder as to just how many politicians are in the pay of the NRA and how deep their influence goes in American society. ‘Gilded Walls’ is an anthem, pure and simple, driven by a steady drum beat and simple, repeating guitar line in a song that touches, again, upon privilege within American society and how the rich are getting richer whilst the poor remain disenfranchised. Similar to ‘Still A Southern Man’, ‘Gilded Walls’ is incredibly fun to sing along to and it’s unsettling at first to find yourself toe-tapping and singing along to such a song with heavy lyric portent – a handclap beat augments the rhythm during the line, ‘Another group of kids in a high school, dead,’ which is unsettling at first but well worth persevering with.

‘Stupid Kids’ comes across all punk-rock guitar and ‘The Clash’ like lyrics as it rocks out in a less than 3-minute-long song about how the younger generation today are having to suffer from the last-gasp power grabs from the older generation that some may say have caused things like Brexit in this country and the election of Donald Trump across the Atlantic. Irrespective of your political leanings you can’t fail to be moved by Hoge’s logic as he implores the young to, ‘turn your music up, make up your own damn song, you know you’ve got it right when all the old, white man don’t sing along.’ It’s a searing romp through three minutes of punk-country that will leave you breathless and reaching for the repeat button again and again.

The title track, ‘My American Dream’ and ‘Oh Mr Barnum’ sees Hoge reflecting on change and what has gone wrong in American society. Both deal with the issue of disassociation and with a lack of moral guidance. In the title track, it’s Hoge’s father that has gone missing whilst in ‘Oh Mr Barnum’ it’s something more ambiguous but bigger – it could even be God that has abandoned us when Hoge sings, ‘now the crowd is getting restless, thinking that you lied……and the ringmaster is gone……Oh Mr Barnum, won’t you please take your circus back home.’ Both songs are thoughtful looks at the lack of direction in American society and, again, similar to the other songs on the album, you can have a damn good sing along to them as well because melody has not been overlooked here or forsaken in favour of lyrical meaning.

The final two songs on the album keep the pace and intensity going. ‘The Illegal Line’ sees Hoge weighing on the immigration debate in what he recently described to me in an interview for Lyric Magazine as his ‘Rage Against the Machine’ moment. Yes, this song opens with a Metallica style-guitar and closes with a searing guitar outro worthy of a mention in the pages of Classic Rock Magazine but it is a folk song at heart, touching upon, as it does, the story of a Mexican immigrant, laying concrete in the Texas dirt, sending his $4 an hour back home to his family. The story is gripping and is augmented by very atmospheric instrumentation that breaks out every now and then with discordant and heavy guitars that lead to you suppose that the tale isn’t going to have a happy ending. Album closer, ‘Nikki’s a Republican Now’ takes the listener back to ‘Stupid Kids’ territory – a kind of punky-pop-rock style rocker that will go down a storm in liberal, Democratic towns like Washington DC but maybe not so much in places like Dallas or Florida! It tells the story of a cool teenager who used to be into U2 and The Pixies, but, as Hoge told me on the phone, like many women in the south, seems to lose that sense of awe and wonder with the world and end up as ‘bonkers, middle-aged Republican housewives’ who ‘kick out their sons because they think he is gay’ and hate their daughter’s boyfriend because he’s a ‘folk singer and a socialistic Jew’.

It’s obvious that Hoge will receive some social media kick from certain sections of the media or areas of the South for some of the opinions on show here – but you know what, after fourteen years of opining I think he is resilient and thick skinned enough to cope, in fact, as he said to me recently, if anyone gives up on him as an artist because of this album, they can’t have been paying him much attention in the first place. With ‘My American Dream’ Will Hoge has produced what has to be some of the most melodic and down right fun protest songs ever recorded! I can’t stress to you just how much I enjoy listening to this album as a piece of music and a work of art, first and foremost. Yes, it helps if you share at least an inkling of the same political views as Hoge – I can’t see too many middle-aged Republican housewives jumping around at 10am in the morning with their glasses of white wine to ‘Nikki’s a Republican Now’ to be honest but that doesn’t detract from the fact that this is a DAMN GOOD ALBUM first and a political statement second. He’ll be clever with where he tours and I urge you to take the opportunity to see Hoge when he comes over to the UK with Lucero in December before he returns again with the band in Spring 2019. This is your chance to have some fun, to rock out and to capture the moral high ground all at the same time – why would you pass up the chance to do that?

James Daykin
@rockjames