Small Town Dreams Review
By Lesley Hastings
Many of the songs on Will Hoge’s latest album were inspired by a 10 day visit he made to his hometown of Franklin, Tennessee, where he stayed in his old family home while his house in Nashville ( he moved there 20 years ago) was being renovated.
Co-writing with some hugely successful Nashville names ( such as Jessi Alexander, Tommy Lee James, Hilary Lindsay and Dylan Altman) Hoge reminisces about life back there, hopes and dreams ( and how unexpected twists and turns in life can affect them) and about life in small town America in general, all recurring themes on several country albums of late it seems ( Angaleena Presley, Brandy Clark and Kacey Musgraves to name but three) .
But where this album differs from those is that Will Hoge’s music has a much rockier sound ( he has said his music is too country for rock, and too rock for country but as he likes both genres he refuses to compromise!) and I really like the way he lets his love of both come through in his writing. Country and Rock purists may argue that the two should be kept separate, please give this album a listen and decide for yourself, but my thoughts are that as long as music is enjoyable does it matter that it’s hard to categorise?
The production by Marshall Altman is fantastic, as is the musicianship ( guitar solos in particular, which owe more than a nod to his rock side!) and I love the grittiness and emotion of his vocals (his country side coming through?) and that’s from someone who normally favours female vocalists as I generally find them more convincing when interpreting lyrics. Talking of which, there is some intelligent , thoughtful writing throughout the album, as well as catchy hooks, the latter helping to produce several really radio-friendly tracks, and I’m so pleased that the legendary Bob Harris is already playing “Growing Up Around Here” on Radio 2 a fair bit.
The reminiscing begins straight away on track 1, “Growing Up Around Here” , a mid-tempo track with a driving rock drumbeat. There’s some great memories of his early life in Franklin, with tales about kissing his first girl behind a certain Texaco sign, drinking his first beer, and playing football . He paints a great picture of driving around his old haunts and looking back on his formative years. Although he he says he “spent seventeen years trying to find a way out ” he admits that he ( surprisingly?) feels a sense of pride to have grown up there and reckons he’ll end up back there one day. A really catchy track.
Moving on to the slower paced and more country sounding “They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To” which starts with a simple piano accompaniment, he writes about trying to live up to his father’s expectations and how his working class father always used to worry about not being able to leave enough behind for his family ( ” you can’t make a million bucks on that damn assembly line”). His tells of his father’s concern that he wouldn’t make a living as a musician and how proud he would be if he could see him now. I love this song, there are some wonderful lyrics (especially in the bridge) sung with passion and feeling. It builds beautifully before coming back down after a great guitar break to an almost wistful finish.
Thing speed up a bit again on “Better Than You” , a break up song with an oh-so-very-infectious chorus, great steel and a real country rock ( dare I add “pop”??) feel and beat. Love the angle this is written from, the knowledge that no one will ever top what he had with his girl. Single material for sure. It’s one of my stand out tracks, along with “Little Bitty Dreams” , the only solo write on the album, a truly beautiful ballad about how meeting the right person can change your dreams but not necessarily make you regret how things turn out. Being the most stripped down track, the lovely lyrics really shine through.
“Guitar or a Gun” is a clever and unusual song about a young man deciding which of the two to buy from a pawn shop with his $200 ( an ultimately unresolved decision) ……lyrically it’s very clever, making various comparisons between the two ( “six bullets or six strings”, for example) and speculating how his future life would differ depending which one he chose. A slower track, it’s another one of my favourites ( apparently there were ten verses that didn’t make the final cut, would love to hear them!) and really stood out to me on first play through of the album., capturing my attention from the opening lines which is important to me.
“Just Up The Road” is a country/rock-ballad that deserves to stand the test of time and become a classic……..a beautiful song that I hear something different in with every listen, Will is pleading with his partner not to give up on their relationship and telling her he’s confident that there’s better times ahead if they move on together. A particularly atmospheric opening verse with just piano and steel. Vince Gill plays guitar on this track, so much feeling there to perfectly complement Will’s heartfelt vocals. A real tear-jerker.
If you’re looking for more rock-influenced songs, there’s the really infectious “Middle of America” , the lead single from the album, about the typical ( if not perfect!) goings on in many rural American towns at night….. “Doing what our parents did, watching them shake their heads………….It’ll be alright, it’s just another night in the middle of America” , “Desperate Times”, which to my ears wouldn’t be out of place on a Springsteen album , about surviving tough economic times ( must admit to finding some of the lyrics a bit clumsy) and ” Til I Do It Again” which closes the album and is the most fun and light hearted subject wise ( waking up after the night before…..swearing not to do it again til the next time) and one of the most commercial sounding. While I can envisage this one being really popular at gigs, it’s my least favourite track along with ” All I Want Is Us Tonight” ( I found the vocal effects used in the chorus here particularly annoying)
At the other end of the spectrum, my favourite track on this album is ” The Last Thing I Needed” which reminds me in many ways ( vocally, melodically and arrangement-wise ) of one of my favourite albums, Jamey Johnson’s “That Lonesome Song” . More bluesy than the other songs, it has a really clever lyrical twist (falling for someone was the last thing that was needed by this good-time guy, but then he realises that he needs nothing else from life now he has found her, she is indeed the last thing he needs ) and there’s some great backing vocals and harmonies. Fantastic opening lines …..” Last thing I needed was distraction, just wanted numbers I could call”…….which drew me in immediately.
So, those are my thoughts on the eleven tracks….sorry if I have rambled on, to be honest I originally intended to comment on just a few, but after immersing myself in the album I decided I couldn’t omit any of them! Maybe this cowgirl has an inner rock chick waiting to break out!
There’s a UK tour from Will this Autumn too, he’ll be playing relatively intimate venues ( not sure if he’ll bring his band over?) and having never seen him live before I am excited to have tickets……. watch out for my gig review at a later date!
You can buy tickets Here