For nearly 15 years, Will Hoge has been recording and releasing music pretty much his own way. With one poorly performed major label release and seven independent releases, Will Hoge has earned every bit of success through his own blood, sweat and tears. With a number one song from the Eli Young Band cutting “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” and a song on a Chevy campaign with “Strong”, more people have begun to take notice of Will Hoge. Recognizing this growing fanbase, Hoge teamed up with producer Marshall Altman to give this new album a more mainstream friendly pop country sound to the production. Hoge’s new album, Small Town Dreams, keeps his roots of sharp story telling with a cleaner production.
Small Town Dreams is more than just a name for the album, it’s a central theme that ties through many of the songs. On the opener, “Growing Up Around Here” Will Hoge sings about things he did while growing up: where he kissed his first girl, high school sports, drinking his first beer, etc. The song is tied together with the desire to leave town at the first chance of adult freedom, only to realize years later that the little town is home and something to be proud of. The song gets a little clichéd on the lyrical front, but the acoustic mid-tempo production adds a freshness to the song and makes it feel authentic.
Up next is “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To,” which I would argue to be a song of the year candidate. A song about a son trying to live up to his father’s hard working legacy. Hoge co-wrote this with Texas country writer Sean McConnell. The piano melody soars behind lyrics of a father doing his best to provide for his family. “You can’t make a million bucks on some damned assembly line. But you threw every dime you could into that Folgers’ coffee can after ten percent to Jesus, 25 to Uncle Sam.” The authenticity of this song lies in the fact that Hoge sings of himself as a struggling musician trying to provide for his own children. “Better Than You” isn’t your typical “you’ve left me” song. Hoge knows he’s messed up the relationship and the loneliness hurts. However, he also knows there is nothing better than her in his life, and that’s the cause of the pain. This song has a country/rock anthem beat to its melody.
“Little Bitty Dreams” is a stripped down track, and is the only Will Hoge solo writing effort on the album. The song tells a story of man and a woman who fall in love and start a family. But in sticking to the small down dreams theme, the start of this family comes at the expense of abandoning large dreams of leaving town to be a movie star, baseball player, or dancer in a big city. It’s a beautiful song about falling in love, yet a little poignant with characters forgetting their grand dreams in lieu of their “little bitty dreams.” Following this is the rocking “Guitar or a Gun.” Hoge penned this tune with Gary Allan and Dylan Altman, and told Saving Country Music that he had actually written 12 verses to the song. Eventually the trio landed on two verses for the song and left the story of a teenager deciding between buying a guitar or a gun unresolved. The comparisons drawn between the two and the pictures painted about the life that would come from them are excellent; “Guitar or a Gun” is one of the album’s top tracks.
The album’s lead single, “Middle of America,” pops up next. As Josh originally wrote in the song review, “The lyrics for once in a song about a small town are actually honest. Basically the picture of rural America that Hoge paints in the listeners’ heads is it isn’t perfect, but that’s just the way things are in rural America.” The infectious pop country melody and description of the town in the song make “Middle of America” enjoyable. Not to mention the album’s name comes from the song’s chorus. However, Small Town Dreams, isn’t a perfect album, and stumbles a bit with the next track, “All I Want Is Us Tonight.” The song carries a more pure pop-rock production with some vocal effects and distortion in the chorus. And lines like “wear your pretty black dress, wear your faded blue jeans” make me shake my head just a bit. I’m not surprised that Altman and Hoge let a little bit mainstream influences seep into this album, and thankfully “All I Want Is Us Tonight” is the only song on the album that commits these current country sins.
However, after a small slip up, Small Town Dreams immediately offers up another standout track. “Just up the Road” is a song about a couple searching to rediscover their passion. They don’t want to give up, and starting a new life out of town might be their answer. Hoge pleads for her to go with him to that “place called forever…waiting just up the road.” Will Hoge was also able to get Vince Gill to play guitar on this track, and Gill’s guitar riffs behind Hoge’s vocals are awesome. And further adding to the theme of Small Town Dreams is “Desperate Times.” The economy has hit the town hard, and though some folks are packing up to find something better elsewhere, Hoge is determined to stick it out with his family. With a feel good, upbeat country-rock melody, this song is presented with a bit of motivation for those working hard to get by.
“The Last Thing I Need” is an atypical, but excellent love song. Co-written with Chris Stapleton, Will Hoge sings about living the rambling life. Getting wild in bars and phone numbers of women he only intends to spend one night with is all that’s on his mind. So when he met the special girl that made him fall in love that was the last thing he thought he needed in his life. However, after falling in love, Hoge learns that she is indeed the last thing he needed, and now his life feels complete with her in it, no matter what. The story and lyrics are presented in a unique way with a heavy, bluesy rock production behind it. Small Town Dreams ends with the rocking “Til I Do It Again.” Another Hoge/Allan/Altman co-write, this song tells the story of a man who goes out and parties hard most weekends. He knows it’s wrong to do this and that he should stop and slow down, but he just can’t. So he says “that’s the last time I do it, til I do it again.” This is a fun rocker, very typical Will Hoge song that serves as an excellent close to the album.
I talked in the album preview how it was Hoge’s vision to create an album with more mass appeal while maintaining his roots, and I think it’s safe to say that Small Town Dreams has done just that. A slicker, cleaner production certainly allows these songs to sound more radio friendly, and Hoge collaborates with some of country’s better songwriters including Hillary Lindsey, Chris Stapleton, Gary Allan and Sean McConnell. Lyrically, there’s a good balance between radio buzz words and Hoge’s own signature style that make those tropes feel fresh. For years, Will Hoge has been vastly underrated as a singer and songwriter, and he’s been a well-kept secret in the music business. But the secret’s out with Small Town Dreams, and this is the perfect album to fuel the fire started from Hoge’s recent, small successes.