Long before audiences outside the Nashville region knew his name, Will Hoge was getting business done in Lexington.
It could have been at the dawn of the 2000s, when the release of such electric Americana albums as Blackbird on a Lonely Wire and Carousel took him to the long-defunct Lynagh's Music Club. Or maybe it was through an abbreviated set of protest songs (2004's The America EP) or an independently released, blues-infused epic (2006's The Man Who Killed Love) that earned several billings at the long-demolished Dame.
Whatever the sound or style, Hoge has been a regular around these parts as he bounced back and forth between the commercial confines of major-label recording contracts — situations that, by Hoge's admission, were "bad experiences" — to indie intervals of unabated creativity and genre-less categorization.
Today, Hoge is back in town and playing in the ball park — specifically, Whitaker Bank Ballpark, where he will be one of the lead-off men in the annual WBUL-98.1 FM-sponsored Red, White and Boom country music fest.
But such a billing suggests Hoge is either a new country artist or an artist that is new to country music — neither of which is the case.
"I don't feel like anything's different," Hoge, 40, said. "I don't feel like there was this big decision where me and my minions sat around and said, 'Okay, we're going to go after a country career or a country following.' I think in some ways, country music has come around to what I do.
"I was born and raised in Nashville. So what I do musically is a mix of rock with bits of country and Southern influence. It seems like all of a sudden, the mainstream country crowd has said that it's OK. They sort of opened their arms and accepted what I'm doing as a writer and as an artist. We're flattered that anybody will let us do what it is we want to do."
"I've always loved Will's work," said Amy Grant, who featured Hoge as a guest singer on her recent album How Mercy Looks From Here. "He's a great songwriter who doesn't waste his words. His storytelling is amazing, and, of course, his life story is so poignant."
Much of the current industry attention Hoge is enjoying stems from a new version of an older tune: the affirmation anthem Even if It Breaks Your Heart, which he wrote with Eric Paslay (who will also be performing at Red, White and Boom). The tune was a monster hit last year for the Eli Young Band, earning song of the year nominations by the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music, as well as a Grammy nomination. But it was first featured on a 2009 Hoge album called The Wreckage.
The title can be viewed in literal terms. While recording the album a year earlier, Hoge was hit on his motor scooter by a van. Multiple fractures (especially to his legs) and lacerations required extensive surgery and physical therapy.
"Everything about The Wreckage was really personal and really thought-out — that song (Even if It Breaks Your Heart) in particular," Hoge said. "We put it out as a single and it just didn't connect. I thought it was because the song was so incredibly personal. It really tells the story of my life, of falling in love with music and wanting to be in a band and all of those things. But I just thought that maybe it was too much about me.
"Then all of a sudden when the Eli Young Band did it and I started to hear the reaction to their version, it really made me realize the song has taken on a bigger meaning. It became a sort of anthem for anybody that wanted to follow their dreams and do what they believed in. It's really special to stand beside the stage as they're singing it and see people really react."
Hoge has had several chances to do that this summer. He has been on the road of late to write with members of the Eli Young Band. And that means taking in several stadium dates as the group performs Even if It Breaks Your Heart as part of its opening sets for Kenny Chesney.
"I go out Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights with those guys to write and get to see them do my song in front of 70,000 people. That's a pretty cool thing.
"Really, the whole emergence of that song has been one of the coolest things I've ever seen. One, getting to see that exposure for myself as a songwriter is cool. I mean, I'm so down on record labels and music business people because I've had such bad experiences with them over the years. But it was interesting to watch from an insider's perspective, to see something actually work for the Eli Young Band and hear the label guys say, 'Hey, we're going to put this out as a single.'
"I'm used to having that mean the label works on the song for maybe four weeks, then nobody cares. After that, you're back to slugging it out again. But to see these guys and their record label really work to get this song heard and to see people react to it like I always felt they would if people heard it has been real special."
Of course, the Young Band's success doesn't rekindle any interest for Hoge in signing to a major label again. His own career continues to follow an indie trajectory. Hoge's newest recording is a seven-song follow-up of sorts to The America EP that broadcasts it style, sentiments and intent proudly in its title: Modern American Protest Music.
"It seems about every eight years we get a batch of those songs that stand on their own," Hoge said. "And so we put these kinds of records out. I'm sure there are a lot of folks from a marketing standpoint that would argue that it's a terrible idea for any artist in any genre to put out those kinds of songs and that kind of record. But I don't know. I think, artistically as a writer, there are just things I have to say and kind of get out of my head and get out of the way so I can make other records."
"It's important for me to challenge myself, challenge my band and sort of challenge our audience, really. I mean, I'm not foolish enough to think every person that hears our records even cares about anything politically. They certainly don't care what I think about the socio-economic state of our country. But it's all part of building a real relationship with fans as an artist when you get to do some of those things. You get to take that roller-coaster ride together."
IF YOU GO
Red, White and Boom 2013
Performers: Rodney Atkins, Craig Morgan, Randy Houser, Josh Thompson, Brett Eldredge, Rachel Farley, Cassadee Pope, Eric Paslay and Will Hoge
When: 6 p.m. July 5. Gates open at 5 p.m.
Where: Whitaker Bank Ballpark, 207 Legends Ln.
Tickets: $9, free for children 12 and younger. Available at 1-866-698-4253, Lexingtonlegends.com or Wbul.com.
Note: Rain or shine. No outside food or beverages allowed. Blankets are allowed on the field, but chairs are not. No re-entry.
Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.