I’m not a political person, which makes conversation during election years difficult, since I don’t want people to know what an uninformed asshole I am. I pick my spots carefully, and rely on stock phrases, like “It’s a year with no good options on either side,” or “The real problem is Congress,” or “I’ll give you $7 if we can please stop talking about this.”
Maybe I’m a bad American.
I don’t usually read the newspaper, unless I’m in Ireland, because people still read newspapers there, and I don’t watch cable news, because I don’t like yelling, and the man hands episode of Seinfeld is on. I think that war is bad, capitalism is good, terrorism is really bad, and the two party system is broken, which is another stock phrase, but one I’ll stand by. I think if a cat wants to marry a dog, or a man wants to marry another man, or a woman wants to become a ficus tree, or a person wants to urinate in a hole in their backyard, that’s cool. Do you. (If you know what political party this makes me, please let me know.)
I think my lack of engagement comes from alienation, not apathy: I care about how things are going, how people are treated, how people treat each other, and the state of the country, as it relates to my life, but politics seems to exist outside of my immediate reality. It exists at a level I’m not privy to, and don’t often feel the effects of in the course of my day. The politics people talk about sound theoretical, divergent from my own governing philosophies, the three pillars of “let’s use common sense,” “why do you care so much?” and “stop being an asshole.”
With November fast approaching, it’s a precarious position. The way I see it, if I had to vote at this very moment, I’d have to write in a name.
Specifically, I’d write in Will Hoge.
Now some people might call that a wasted vote, but those people haven’t heard Modern American Protest Music (plus, it’s a year with no good options on either side).
Will Hoge released the album in 2012, and it fit that election as well as it fits this election. Over the course of twenty-eight minutes and seven songs, Modern American Protest Music succinctly cuts into the heart of the nation, looking at the reality of the country, unpacked from political rhetoric, and doing so with the sound of early Joe Pug, late Bruce Springsteen, and Mellencamp at his most popular.
From voice, to look, to perspective, to career arc, Will Hoge is an everyman, willing to take a snapshot of America separate from party lines: he examines the conversation of the day, and puts alleged successes and shortcomings under a microscope to see how they hold up. He looks at the way we take in our politics, the way we self-identify, and the problems that always seem to linger. In that way, it’s a collection for any time, not specifically 2012 or 2016. Hoge is unapologetic, bold, and is willing to take on the topics that make many artists in his genre skittish.
“I don’t care if I make a Republican mad, I don’t care if I make a Democrat mad. That’s meaningless to me,” Hoge said, prior to the album’s release. “Actually, I would prefer to make a few of both of those people mad.”
As its name suggests, Modern American Protest Music is a return to the album as a function of social and political awareness, a place for a voice that runs counter to the status quo. Hoge digs his heels into the era when a song could become a rallying cry, giving obvious nods to the 60’s Civil Rights folk scene, and attempting to apply that in the present. He uses country music to look at his country, in a way that only country music can, and he says what Nashville’s Top 40 Machine is afraid to: that you can love your country, while pointing out that your country is a pretty fucked up place sometimes.
It has the type of substance that tends to make people uncomfortable, but makes Will Hoge an artist. Unfortunately, that authenticity is also what keeps Will Hoge on the periphery of full-blown, crossover success.
There is no more sterling example of how bullishly Modern American Protest Music takes on its subject matter than “The Ballad of Travon Martin.” The album’s last track, “The Ballad of Travon Martin” is also its most potent, where Hoge pulls on the Dylan-esque tradition of musical justice, in the vein of “The Death of Emmett Till” or “Hurricane.” The track is punctuated by obvious anger, opening with Hoge’s strained shout—“Travon Martin was a young black kid/doin’ the same things that we all did”—that later takes aim at George Zimmerman and Police Chief Bill Lee. Hoge is direct and explicit, the frustration built into the song’s heavy, bluesy riff. Through his smoky voice, Hoge barks that Zimmerman “really wants to say ‘Black kids are thugs,’” and that our country is “still [being] shackled by the hatred and the lies.”
“The Ballad of Travon Martin” is as good an example of a protest song as can be found in the 2000’s: Hoge lets the facts of the case damn its villain, and captures the public exasperation with the systems at play. It’s as poignant as any musician has been on the matter, hip-hop included, with Southern rock unexpectedly emerging as a modern anthem of race relations.
Songs like these bring into focus what’s lacking from much country music: that no one has the balls to take on something so real or controversial. But Hoge—the scruffy, white, Telecaster-playing, Tennessee native—candidly speaks on the heated issue, tactfully examining the tragedy of “another young brother gone way too soon.” The song is necessary to the collection and to the culture, and Hoge’s willingness to engage in this way is his strength as a songwriter. It separates him, as he wields that confident knowledge that these are things that need saying.
Opposite of “The Ballad of Travon Martin” is “Founding Fathers,” the album’s first track. Aided by its catchy, chunky opening riff, the song’s shuffle is the avenue into its overt declaration. “Founding Fathers” captures the conscience of the record and its writer, the hook simply stating, “I still love this country, even in its darkest days/But I bet are Founding Fathers are turning over in their graves.” It’s the best representation of what Hoge has referred to as “that time honored bipartisan tradition [called] rock’n’roll,” using the song’s groove to cradle its honesty. The track grows into a sing-along, and crescendos with a sentiment that’s ever-present through the record: “Democrats or Republicans, who’s to blame? It’s hard to tell/Sometimes I think we’d be better off if they just went to hell/Oh, let ‘em all just go to hell.”
“Founding Fathers” sets the album’s course, acting as the musical compass for the independent American, the politically unaffiliated, or the rhetorically fed up. Hoge steps outside of left or right, approaching the issues with an interest in those things human, rather than legislative. It’s refreshing throughout, something you didn’t know you needed until you’re deep into the record, and when the songs hit right, it makes you believe that we could actually wipe the chalkboard clean and start over with something better.
“Jesus Came to Tennessee” is another stand out, soaring with its sense of humor, jug-band shuffle, and narrative: Jesus shows up at Will’s door, Will doesn’t immediately recognize the son of God, calls him James, and asks him “‘So Jesus, where you been?’” and Jesus says, “‘Heaven, Will. I’ve been in Heaven.’” The two spend the afternoon together, having a chance encounter with the Westboro Baptist Church, singing old Merle Haggard songs, and coming close to doomsday, until Jesus sees the potential for goodness in children. But the song’s single best exchange comes in Will’s living room: “We just sat there talking, watching the TV news/I asked him, ‘Fox or CNN?’ He said, ‘Will, I prefer the truth.’/I said, ‘PBS, ok, my friend,’ and we both had a laugh.”
Hoge brings that levity throughout, even with a soldier on his fourth tour of duty in the Middle East, giving a honky tonk sound to “When Do I Get to Come Home?” which features lines like, “The white guy sent me over, the black guy said he’d bring me home.” On “The Times They Are Not Changing,” Hoge does a glass-half-empty Dylan impersonation, tracking how quickly its nameless character gets jaded with age: “Then the ‘70’s came, and you got a real job/You bought a house in the suburbs on a half-acre lot/They started busing in children, and you stopped quit pot/The oil went higher, and the whole world is shot.”
Outside of this schadenfreude, Hoge gives the quick-hitting collection necessary balance, evening out the wit of earlier songs with the melancholy piano of “I Don’t Believe,” and his true country heartbreaker, “Folded Flag,” which looks at a soldier’s widow two years after his death, when the “long black cars and twenty-one guns are gone…[when] no one else remembers, and she cries there all alone.” He twists the knife further when Fourth of July fireworks are lighting up the summer sky, “but there’s a widow and a daughter, who sit alone and cry/they lost everything, and it’s hard not to wonder why/when all they’ve got is a folded flag/and a piece of both of their hearts they can’t get back/nothing you can do, nothing we can say/another folded flag in the U.S.A.” The song ends with a haunting fiddle melody, probably the album’s most beautiful string of notes, which are able to bring the tragedy of it all into sharp focus, without words.
Despite how spare it is, on a track-by-track level, Modern American Protest Music is some of Hoge’s strongest work—musically, lyrically, thematically. But, in its totality, my appreciate is how overt it is: these are not political songs hidden between love songs and radio hits. Will tells you what it’s going to be from the outset, from the title, and makes good on its promise. It’s uncompromising, and has a soul that reaches backwards to make you believe in revolution all over again. For that reason, Modern American Protest Music was never going to be a commercial, not with this particular subject matter. Even Jesus told Will that: “I said ‘Okay, Jesus, thanks for hanging, see you another time.’/And just like that he was gone, and everything seemed fine./I yelled, ‘One more thing, Jesus, could you help me write some hits?’/And in a big voice he said, ‘That I will, if you quit writing songs like this.’”
But songs like these are necessary, even if they’re not hits. They’re grown less and less frequent, which makes them more and more necessary, because the need for them remains: we need songs like these to act as the voice running counter to prevailing opinion, and to challenge a listeners to reconsider what is, and what has been.
So yes, I’m an uninformed asshole, but an uninformed asshole with good musical tastes.
Which is why, come November, I’m voting Hoge.
(Paid for by the Committee to Elect Will Hoge.)
Billy is a feature writer and content workhorse, fluent in English. His career highlights include a Twitter favorite from Matt Nathanson, and sitting a few rows behind John Kerry’s hair at a Bruce Springsteen concert. Recently, Billy has played with the idea of getting a dog, but realized that might be too much responsibility. Check out more from Billy on Twitter and at billyrosenbeck.com.