Will Hoge has been through the wringer. Since launching his career in the late ’90s, the Nashville singer-songwriter has grinded it out on the road, touring through the dead of winter in an RV with no heat; released albums that, while critically acclaimed, didn’t result in the kind of commercial success many predicted; and even stared down an early death, surviving a wicked traffic accident in 2008, an experience that framed his poignant 2009 album The Wreckage.
Yet Will has persevered. And that defiant worldview is woven throughout his latest project, Never Give In.
Will’s ninth album, Never Give In is a collection of 11 songs, ranging from Stones-y rock ’n’ roll to Kristofferson country, that reflects an artist taking stock of where he is as a father, a husband, a man. There is pride in where he’s landed and nostalgia for where he’s been, all of it brought to life by Will’s soulful voice and indefatigable spirit.
“In both my career and personal life, I’ve had a million chances to walk away or quit,” says Will, a married father of two. “But with this project, there is a sense of pride and ownership that we—the band, our families and our fans—have taken, and that mentality is about never giving in. It represents where we all are, artistically and in our lifestyles.”
For Will, he’s standing firmly in the sweet spot. In 2012, he received his first ever No. 1 single, for Eli Young Band’s “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” a song he co-wrote with Eric Paslay. The song netted Will a Grammy Award nomination for Best Country Song, along with CMA Award and ACM Award nominations, and made him an in-demand songwriter on Music Row. For their No. 1 album Golden, superstar trio Lady Antebellum chose to record Will’s “Better Off Now (That You’re Gone).”
But while Will is enjoying newfound success in country music, Never Give In defies genre classification. Album cuts like the shuffling “Still Got You on My Mind” and the imagery-rich “Daddy Was a Gambling Man” are indisputable country songs, but other tracks would be right at home on rock radio. Album opener “A Different Man” is a hard-charging testament to changing one’s ways, made to sound, Will says, as if “The Who were from Nashville.” The sneering “Home Is Where the Heart Breaks” recounts an upbringing that is far from idyllic. And “Bad Ol’ Days” calls to mind Keith Richards with its chunky guitar riff—and fond recollections of past vices.
“I’m a rock ’n’ roll guy at heart. That’s just where I come from,” admits Will, who was introduced to rock’s building blocks by his father. “My dad had grown up with a record collection that was The Beatles, The Stones, Zeppelin, Hank Williams, Otis Redding, Dylan…all of those things. That’s an easy place for me to go, and that’s very natural for me. But I’m lucky that my sound can’t be pigeonholed. Being born and raised in Nashville, I never really saw a dividing line between rock and country. I like the stories each tells, and they’re both a huge part of who I am.”
Never Give In excels in its storytelling. The album is remarkable in the concise tautness of its songs, a gift that comes only after years of writing.
“There is a tendency as a songwriter to be verbose and say as much as you can,” Will says. “Some of that comes as a younger songwriter, because you have so much to get out and you haven’t written many songs. But now, having made nine albums, and written a ton of songs in and around town for different people, part of the fun for me is to try to write as minimally and as simply as possible. I want to get more direct with each record and lyrically trim the fat.”
“Strong,” Never Give In’s bonus track, is one of the album’s best examples of that lean approach. With lyrics like He’s a need to move something, you can use my truck
/ He’s an overtime worker when the bills pile up / Everybody knows he ain’t just tough / He’s strong, Will sings about the quiet dedication of the common man in plain language. (The song’s universal message prompted Chevy to adopt “Strong” for its national ad campaign for the Chevy Silverado.)
“I think songs are smarter than we are,” Will says. “We had the record done, finished, and that was it. But I write all the time and came up with ‘Strong.’ It became its own entity and just had to be included on the album. In some ways, the sentiment of it is exactly what this record is about. ‘Strong’ could have been the album title as much as Never Give In.”
However Will chooses to describe it, that stubborn, never-surrender worldview is paying off. And with Never Give In, Will is poised to further raise a profile that is already reaching lofty heights.
Still, he refuses to see this timestamp as his singular moment.
“I don’t believe that you have just one shot. I think there are these moments that you have, from whatever powers that be, that give you a tip of the cap or slap on the back and say, ‘Good work, kid.’ And that keeps you going,” Will says, recounting his recent successes.
“I’ve been an underdog for a very long time and a lot of people have wondered, ‘Why isn’t this bigger or why aren’t more people paying attention?’” he continues. “I never spent much time worrying about the answer to that question. I just wanted to keep writing, keep touring and keep letting it build.”