Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Can You Find Yourself By Selling Out?

On Independence Day, I witnessed something disturbing. I witnessed a man who earned his music stripes the hard way, through sweat and toil and hundreds of tour stops over more than a decade, sell himself out to Chevy Trucks.

Most people don't even know who Will Hoge is, yet there he was, performing in this Frankensteinean half-video, half propagandistic product placement Chevy Truck ad

But I know him. Will Hoge and I are friends on Facebook. So what I’m saying is we’re basically brothers from other mothers. Or Eskimo brothers. Or something. We’re tight; he just doesn’t know it is all.

He's my age and just had a career high-mark year in 2013. First, Eli Young Band took his 2009 song, “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” practically re-recorded it note for note, and won a crap-ton of critical praise and award nominations for it. And now he was cashing checks and snapping necks for Chevy. And I was unsure how to feel about it.

That I sat 10 feet away from Hoge in the front row of a Patty Griffin concert at the Ryman years ago is apropos, since Patty is the Queen of Late Bloomin' Music and Pilfered Hits. On his Facebook page, Hoge has seemed thrilled about every bit of this. Eli Young making a hit out of Xeroxing his song, and Chevy making him a blue collar poster boy. And I wonder what percentage of his career earnings have come from the last 12 months. I'm betting it's a number in the high teens or 20s.

I own every studio record Hoge has ever released and one live album, so it’s difficult for me to act like I’m unbiased in All Matters Hoge. His last two releases, Number Seven and The Wreckage, have been let-downs in the Hoge Pantheon, but nothing catastrophic or awful.

From a commercial standpoint, Hoge’s problem is he likes too many kinds of music, and his albums and career have roamed all over the place, with songs infused with classic rock, blues, country and all things in-between. Blackbird on a Lonely Wire flirted with AA chart rock, and Draw the Curtains showed an independent country-inclined side. His America EP aimed for Springsteen-esque glory, and The Man Who Killed Love proved he didn't want to be slave to the corporate music machine.

Hoge's video/commercial (shudder) shows him performing in a barn for lots of dudes in big cowboy hats in-between shots of clean trucks and hardscrabble men. Depending on my mood, it's shameless pandering or highly polished and brilliant branding. So it's probably both. And a part of me gets a little nauseated. This guy who cut his teeth traveling the country in all kinds of horrid vehicles, who played any and every sort of honky tonk and dive... only to sell some trucks?

But Will Hoge almost died four years ago. A scooter accident left him in such a state that, even if he survived, there was no guarantee he would look the same again, walk again, maybe even ever sing again. That wreck, the surgeries, the recovery, gave him unusual time off the road to sit and ponder the big questions. Not in hotel rooms, but in a hospital bed, and in his home. Not with a liquor bottle or a tallboy, but with water, and juice.

Hoge and his wife have two boys. As I struggle to figure out how to pay for three kids of my own even as I make a decent living, I damn sure don’t get too excited about judging him for his decision to cash in.

Two years ago, my college professor of poetry for accepting a commission of several thousand dollars to write a poem honoring a small-town manufacturing company. The owner heard him read and loved his writing, and he wanted a poem to honor his company, a place he spent his life building up.

In art and poetry, in the music of previous centuries, in half the pieces my church choir sings, commissioned works are greatly respected and frequently beautiful. Nowadays, we call it selling out.

Never Give In, released earlier this month, is Will Hoge’s best album in six years, and I still love the guy's music. It doesn't seem like selling out killed his talent or his passion, and I can't wait to see him in the next honky tonk or local dive he finds near me. I'm confident he'll put on one helluva show.


Anonymous said...

There was a time when, yes, I'd have called this "selling out." Now, I'd just say he's pursuing a different kind of career. While I wouldn't consider him to be a serious artist anymore, I doubt that he is losing any sleep over that. These days, it's about branding, and the expanded Hoge brand is likely going to add to his career longevity.


troutking said...

It's interesting that Bob Dylan doesn't get reamed for selling out when he appears in lingerie ads or lets his songs be used in commercials because "he doesn't need the money." So if someone really does need the money, then it's no good? I kinda think it all depends on the attitude and the pervasiveness. Won't Get Fooled Again has lost some of its power because it's on the TV show and people hear it so much in that context that it has to affect how we think of that song. Same thing with Genesis and Michelob--as Billy just said when he walked in my office. Like A Rock became a jingle and not a song and that affected my view of Bob Seger. If this payday helps him earn the money to keep doing what he feels is his music, the overall balance is positive towards art. If the artist gets hooked on the money and becomes more known for songs in commercials than everything else, then the balance has gone the other way.