On The Line For The Music: A Conversation with Will Hoge

By Carey Hereford

Photo courtesy of the artist

The term “Americana” befits Will Hoge as the musical genre is as definably indefinable as the singer/songwriter’s familiar-yet-fresh sound. For more than 20 years, Hoge has garnered a loyal fan base via word-of-mouth and incessant touring. Since leaving Western Kentucky University to pursue a full-time career in music, Hoge has released a steady stream of albums and has a new record slated for release in 2020. On Wednesday, September 25, he will perform at WorkPlay Theatre with Stephen Kellogg. Recently, we spoke with Hoge by phone.

Birmingham Stages: Thank you for your time Will. Who was your biggest musical influence growing up and how does that compare to who influences you now?

Will Hoge: Oh, I don’t know, the biggest thing for me is just as a fan. I mean it wasn’t necessarily any particular artist. My dad had this really great record collection growing up, he had everything from the early ’60s through the mid ’70s. He kind of had all of the great stuff in my opinion. Whether that was singer-songwriters or country stuff or rock stuff, he had everything. I just grew up with this really great appreciation for what I like to consider great music. Genre of music didn’t necessarily matter. I like that artist would go out there and put themselves on the line for the music – that’s what always interested me as a kid. That still interest me to this day – I don’t think the general concept hasn’t changed much for me.

Birmingham Stages: How does your writing process work and where do you tend to find inspiration?

Hoge: The inspiration for me is just daily life and that’s a constant thing. I think when was younger it was just trying to write songs about love or whatever it was when you were feeling 18 years old. Now that changes a little bit – there are kids and marriage [and] all sorts of things that could factor into this. Life is the inspiration. From there, the process is almost chaotic. You know you have all these thoughts that swirl around and then you, hopefully, sit still long enough where you can get a cool melody or cool lyric idea and you scramble to get them down and out as quickly as possible.

Birmingham Stages: How old were you when you wrote your first song?

Hoge: Aw man, first attempt was probably in like fifth or sixth grade, but I didn’t even play music at that point. I didn’t start playing guitar until I was about 17. Think I was trying to do it a little before that. I was 16 or 17 when I got my first guitar and I was learning like ​”Sweet Home Alabama.”  ​That was the first thing a guy kinda wrote out chords for me in a history class. From there I started to write songs pretty quickly. They weren’t very good, but I was trying my best.

Birmingham Stages: Do you feel obligated to play songs in your sets or do you play the songs you want to play?

Hoge: One thing I like about having done this for so long, I think there is a trust between the crowd and audience that they have come to see a great show. I don’t think the audience comes to hear a song in particular. That’s the beauty of not really having a bunch of hits – I don’t have the obligation to play any particular song. My favorite thing is when people leave and say “Man, that was one of the best shows I have ever seen and he didn’t even play this song or that song.” That’s really the biggest compliment I think you can get.

Birmingham Stages: When you are making a record, how do you choose which songs are going to be singles?

Hoge: I differ most of the times to other people on that kind of stuff – I just don’t know anymore. One, there is not much places for singles, – Americana as a format, they just put your whole record out at once. Then people get to pick and choose what they want to listen to which I think is great. That is one of the places where I try to listen more than lead, then I just get to go play the songs.

Birmingham Stages: What song of yours do you see as unfinished and still needs more work?

Hoge: Oh, everything. We are going to start a new record new week, start on the 11th (of September). So I’ve got 11 of them right there were I can think of that I need to be finishing in the next four or five days. So, those are the ones that I am focused on currently.

Birmingham Stages: Your recent record, My American Dream, was released in 2018. What made you feel like you were ready to start a new record? When do you plan to release your next record?

Hoge: I had a pretty decent batch of songs that I felt like kinda could make two records actually and I went in feeling pretty bold about it. But then, when we went in for pre-production, I realized that I like all of these songs and they all need to be released. There was a batch of them that fit together and then a batch of them that went together in another way. So we are concentrating on these 11 right now. I think that the album will be released in the first quarter of next year.

Birmingham Stages: So what kind of music might be found in your playlist right now?

Hoge: Man, I’m all over the place, like all of that stuff that I mentioned earlier. I try to listen to friends of mine and people that are putting out new records and spend some time there. I’ve got twelve and nine year old little boys that bring a whole different element of what there listening to. Things that I have never heard of or would have never found. So it’s a pretty healthy dose of all sorts of music.

Birmingham Stages: What do you consider your greatest musical achievement or failure?

Hoge: My greatest achievement I’d have to say is that I’m still here doing this, 20 years-plus of not having to do anything else – I’ve felt really fortunate about that. But, as far as failures, it’s kinda cliche to say but failure don’t really matter – it’s kinda about what you do afterwards that defines you. I just feel very lucky to be able to keep getting back up.

Will Hoge and Stephen Kellogg will perform at WorkPlay Theatre on Wednesday, September 25. Advance tickets to the 8 p.m. show are $25 and can be purchased at www.workplay.com.

Matthew Sweet Performs at Saturn on September 17

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Evan Carter

The term “Power Pop” is synonymous with melodic, hook-laden songs performed with a rock & roll attitude. Big Star, The Raspberries, Badfinger and Todd Rundgren were early torchbearers in the genre and – for more than 30 years (has it really been more than 30 years?) – Matthew Sweet has been at the forefront of the movement. In addition to releasing a wealth of solo material, the singer/guitarist has been involved in projects with Susanna Hoffs, Shawn Mullins and Pete Droge among others. On Tuesday, September 17, Sweet will perform at Saturn with People Years opening the 8 p.m. show. Advance tickets to the 18+ show are $20 and can be purchased at www.saturnbirmingham.com.

Concert Shots: Hootie & The Blowfish and Barenaked Ladies at Oak Mountain Amphitheatre 9-6-19

By Langston Hereford and Brent Thompson

Judging by an enthusiastic and capacity-filled crowd at Oak Mountain Amphitheatre, the music world has missed Hootie. On Friday, September 6, Hootie & The Blowfish and Barenaked Ladies brought its Group Therapy Tour to Pelham. Hits from the ’90s – alongside some well-chosen covers – filled the night as concertgoers recited song lyrics word-for-word.

Review: Jesse Dayton Goes Home

By Brent Thompson

Texan Jesse Dayton was raised on a diverse host of musical influences and now he’s revisiting the songs that inspired him. On Mixtape Volume 1 [Blue Elan Records], Dayton stretches himself by covering a wealth of stylistic ground. Gordon Lightfoot (“If You Could Read My Mind”), The Cars (“Just What I Needed”), Jackson Browne (“Redneck Friend”) and AC/DC (“Whole Lotta Rosie”) are all fair game here and Dayton sounds up to the challenge. In fact, Dayton accomplishes the most difficult task of placing his own stamp on familiar, well-worn material. As we delve into Mixtape Volume 1, we can also take heart that a new set of listeners will be introduced to these songs.

Highway Song: A Conversation with The Vegabonds’ Daniel Allen

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Michael Weintrob

Daniel Allen – lead vocalist of The Vegabonds – has an easygoing demeanor considering that his band is playing in Wisconsin on the night of our conversation and its van is being repaired in Kentucky that same day. Asking if he would like to reschedule our call in light of the aggravation, he just laughs and says it’s a good time to talk as he is just sitting. Somehow this mental picture befits a band that tours as incessantly as The Vegabonds. Comprised of Alabama natives and current Nashville residents, the quintet released its fifth album, V (Blue Elan Records), in January. With a style reflecting the timeless sounds of Tom Petty and The Allman Brothers Band, The Vegabonds are reverent and relevant at the same time. On Saturday, August 10, the band will perform at Zydeco’s Jam in the Ham Festival. While patiently waiting at the dealership in Kentucky, Allen weighs in on the band’s new album, songwriting and today’s musical climate in general.

Birmingham Stages: Daniel, thanks for your time. We are enjoying the new album, though I assume you have been living with these songs for quite a while.

Daniel Allen: Actually, I was just thinking about that – it’s funny you said that. One of the songs on the album – it’s actually the last track called “Help Is On The Way” – I was thinking about how long ago we wrote that one and it was probably written in 2013, which is crazy to me.

Birmingham Stages: Are the songs on V newer compositions, older ones or a mixture of both?

Allen: Most of them are new. “Help Is On the Way” is an older song, but it’s the first one we went to and the first one we recorded for this album – that kind of got the ball rolling. The first track on the album called “Partyin’ With Strangers” – we released that as a single about a year and four months before the record came out. We’ve been playing these songs live for probably a year and a half before the record came out.

Birmingham Stages: Why do you think “Help Is On The Way” resurfaced after so many years?

Allen: I think lyrically it hit us in a certain way. It’s basically talking about how in 2008 and 2009 the whole market crashed. It touched a lot of people in Alabama and it touched my family personally. My dad had a building materials business that kind of went under because the housing market was crap. That’s basically what the song is about – going through that situation personally and as a country as well. It touched everybody.

Birmingham Stages: How do you feel about the current musical climate? Some artists applaud avenues such as iTunes, Youtube, satellite radio and Spotify. Others say the current setup makes it difficult to be found among the crowd.

Allen: I do feel the same way about both of those statements. It’s great that you can put out a single or an album and somebody in Japan can listen to it as soon as you put it out. I think that’s crazy and it’s awesome. But at the same time, bands on our level aren’t making money off records anymore. Where we find [technology] beneficial is on the touring side which is what we do year-round. It’s easy for people to listen to music which brings them out to the shows, which in turn enables us to connect to them a lot easier. I know how it was in the older days, but I wasn’t doing music then and this is the only way I know. Apple Music and Spotify are great avenues to get your music out there and we use them as tools for touring. It’s shortened attention spans for people because there is so much music out there. To me, it’s hard to get hooked on an album these days because there’s so much content out there. You have to figure out how to reach people.

Birmingham Stages: How does your writing process work? Is there a set routine or do you wait for inspiration to strike?

Allen: I’m writing all the time, even on the road. I’m jotting down notes and lines and throwing them in my phone or my notebook. When I get home, I get my son off to daycare and then I’m sitting down writing songs. It’s almost like I can’t turn it off.

The Vegabonds will perform at Zydeco’s Jam in the Ham on Saturday, August 10. Advance tickets to the 18+ event are $15 and can be purchased at www.zydecobirmingham.com.

A Beautiful Discovery: Catching Up With The Smoking Flowers

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Eric England for The East Nashvillian

Kim and Scott Collins are partners in every sense of the word. The married couple – known musically as The Smoking Flowers – performs strictly as a duo and owns the record label Bandaloop Music. Equal parts alt-country, punk and classic rock, The Smoking Flowers’ sound is timeless and fresh at the same time. The band recently released two albums – 2018’s Let’s Die Together and the 2019 acoustic outing Snowball Out Of Hell. On Saturday, August 10, The Smoking Flowers will perform at Marty’s PM. Recently, Kim and Scott spoke with us by phone from their East Nashville home.

Birmingham Stages: Kim and Scott, thanks for your time. We are really enjoying Let’s Die Together.

Kim Collins: We’re still touring for it. We just put out another record but (Let’s Die Together) is still the focus.

Birmingham Stages: Were the songs on Let’s Die Together and Snowball Out Of Hell newer compositions, older ones or a mixture of both?

Scott Collins: The material on Let’s Die Together was definitely the newest stuff that we had written at the time of recording. It was the lion’s share of our live shows and it still is. On the acoustic record we put out a couple of weeks ago, there are songs that are different versions of songs on Let’s Die Together, but they’re acoustic presentations of them. Some of the songs on that record were old, lost gems that we rediscovered.

Birmingham Stages: How do older songs resurface and eventually become relevant to you?

Kim: Sometimes it’s just, “Oh, you remember that song?” It’s not that we don’t have any new ideas – we go back so deep in songwriting. I’m 30 years deep on material and Scott is 20 years. We have a back catalog and sometimes you don’t want an old song just sitting there collecting dust, so there’s no rhyme or reason to it.

Scott: I feel some songs are like wine – you lay them down in the cellar and 10 or 20 years – lyrically or musically – they make more sense or they’re more relevant to your personal life and that was the case for those. When a couple of these songs were originally conceived, I was singing them and sometimes letting a female sing the song gives the song a whole different identity.

Birmingham Stages: A difficult part of a touring musician’s life is going on the road and leaving loved ones behind. As a married couple, that situation obviously doesn’t apply to you. If you will, talk about the unique experience of being a married, touring couple.

Kim: Living in Nashville, I’ve seen the challenges of so many friends in relationships with musicians. What it creates for us is that we get this lifestyle together. As dreamers and lovers of travel, it’s ideal for us. Not everybody can play together, live together and go on the road together, but it makes us stronger together. It’s been a beautiful discovery.

Scott: We’re more and more grateful the older we get – it’s a special blessing to have.

Birmingham Stages: With only two of you in the band, how would you describe your musical approach? Though bands such as yours, Shovels & Rope and The White Stripes have recorded and performed as duos, it’s still an uncommon setup.

Scott: The live focus is on the vocal performance and dynamics. It’s something that’s scary at first, but after 10 years of touring it’s like method acting almost – we just react to one another. That’s nice because you never just go through the motions – you can really be in the moment.

Kim: I will say that I try to trick Scott [laughs] like taking it down dynamically where we’ve never done it before just for own good and it translates to the audience. We’ve gotten good at following each other. In not having other players, we’re able to do that more freely.

Birmingham Stages: You both play several instruments. Which instrument do you typically use for songwriting?

Kim: Mostly guitar.

Scott: I will say it comes in handy with songwriting. You can start something on guitar, but when you play it on piano or mandolin it can reveal entirely different things about the song. So, it’s nice being able to do that.

Kim: I like to even hash it out on drums to give it a certain rhythm or vibe and that can help you go in a different direction.

Birmingham Stages: As label owners, you are a great example of the freedom available to artists in today’s music industry. How do you reconcile the pros and cons of today’s climate in the era of iTunes, Youtube and satellite radio?

Kim: There are a lot of pros, but the one con I’ve found is not being able to reach a larger audience when you own your own label. The larger labels have access to late night shows and Saturday Night Live or getting [an artist] to open for a big band – you can’t do that without a big label.

Scott: If you choose to do the indie thing, you have to realize it’s the arena you’re playing in and go for that and build your audience on a club and theatre level. But artistically, the pro is you never have to answer to anyone. You can really blaze your own trail.

The Smoking Flowers will perform at Marty’s PM on Saturday, August 10. For more information, call (205) 939-0045 or visit www.martyspm.com.

Road Trip Recap: Gibson’s Summer NAMM Jam

Legendary guitar manufacturer hosts star-studded event in Music City

By Brent Thompson

On July 18, Nashville’s Wildhorse Saloon provided a spacious and inviting setting for Gibson’s 2019 Summer NAMM Jam. Les Pauls and 335s roared with authority as an eclectic mix of artists performed in the nearly three-hour event. Jason Isbell, Lee Roy Parnell, Chris Isaak, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Cassadee Pope, Parmalee, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Jim James and Nathaniel Rateliff – among others – played to a capacity crowd.

Chris Isaak
Jason Isbell
Jason Isbell
Cassadee Pope
Lee Roy Parnell
Ray Wylie Hubbard & Aaron Lee Tasjan
Jim James
Nathaniel Rateliff

The Deeper Meaning: A Conversation with Jimbo Mathus

By Brent Thompson

Photo courtesy of the artist

Jimbo Mathus’ musical existence is characterized by a revolving collection of people, instruments and genres. A solo artist that has been associated with several projects – most notably Squirrel Nut Zippers – Mathus is continually exploring new creative avenues. In April, Mathus released Incinerator [Big Legal Mess/Fat Possum Records], an 11-track collection that includes contributions from Lilly Hiatt and Andrew Bird. On Thursday, July 18, Mathus will perform at The Nick with Kate Taylor Hollingsworth opening the 10 p.m. show. Recently, Mathus spoke with us by phone from his Taylor, Miss. home.

Birmingham Stages: Jimbo, thanks for your time. How is your touring schedule these days?

Jimbo Mathus: It’s really mixed. With the Zippers, I go sometimes for two, three or four weeks. With Incinerator, I’m just starting with where people know who I am and might be interested in what I’m doing and I try to expand out from there. I’ve had a solo career since mid-’90s and it’s just one foot in front of the other. There’s no hard and fast rule.

Birmingham Stages: If you will, talk about the creation of the album.

Mathus: The producers were Matt Patton and Bronson Tew. Matt’s in Drive-By Truckers and The Dexateens and Bronson’s a great engineer and musician from Alabama. They just got me in there and we started New Year’s Day in 2018 and we really had no plan other than to get me in there and be real comfortable. Instead of tracking the songs on guitar, I tracked them on piano and we left a lot of space. We work pretty fast and we don’t over-work a record. We started this about a year ago and it’s already out and we’re touring behind it.

I like to make records that mean more and I should know what I’m doing after 40 years. I like to have a record with a purpose and a meaning, not just a collection of songs for the sake of a collection. I started seeing a concept take shape – the concept being, “Why is it that I do all these albums and why do I create all this music? Why has this been a lifelong passion and a calling?” I started realizing how much of what I do as a songwriter is capturing people and remembering people and how much people come and go in my life. There are a lot of songs dedicated to people that have been a huge influence on me that have passed away. There are a lot of songs on there about people in my life now that are inspiring and motivating to me. So, it took on this meditation on mortality and what’s the deeper meaning. At that point, I started looking back on songs in my history and one song is 30 years old. So I did go back and reimagine some things. Going back 30 years to a song, that’s a lot of recollection. I was pondering some things but didn’t have the bigger picture. After almost 300 songs and dozens of albums, there has to be a purpose – that’s what I’m searching for.

Birmingham Stages: I’m close to you in age and it can be hard to accept that we are to the point where losing family and friends becomes more and more common.

Mathus: We’re on the downside. A song like “Never Know Till It’s Gone” is a perfect example. You can ponder those things, but as a writer and musician people ask me to come perform music at funerals. To be a part of that part of life – it’s a real honor and a real privilege.

Birmingham Stages: How do you view the current musical climate? Some artists applaud the accessibility to listeners via iTunes, Youtube, Spotify and satellite radio. Other artists say it’s a challenging time to be found among the crowd.

Mathus: I think there are two parts to that. Yes, someone in Siberia can download my album and find me. When I came along, you had to physically go places and be very active. Now, you can easily do it and I like that a lot. There’s a lot more noise out there. How do you get through? Well, I’ve been a journeyman musician for all these years. I’ve had major highs – I’ve sold millions of records and I have Grammys and all that, but over the long term it’s about staying focused. Hopefully, a record like Incinerator comes out and can cut through the noise a little bit. There are people who want some bark and experience in their music and I can offer that through my songs and youthful zeal I present onstage and in the studio.

Birmingham Stages: With the large catalog of music you’ve created, how do you construct your set lists these days?

Mathus: The studio band is basically my backing band, so we’re basically presenting the Incinerator album in its entirety with all the harmonies. So, it’s more of a meditative show. Otherwise, it’s whatever I feel like doing [laughs].

Birmingham Stages: Keeping on the topic of your catalog, how do older songs stay fresh to you after you performed them hundreds of times?

Mathus: I can go back to that initial moment when the song came to me. Songs are like tombstones to me – you can go back and revisit them and the memories flood back. It’s like re-creating a moment and a memory.

Jimbo Mathus will perform at The Nick on Thursday, July 18. Kate Taylor Hollingsworth will open the 10 p.m. show. Advance tickets to the 21+ show are $8 and can be purchased at www.thenickrocks.com.