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Interview: Derek Hoke

25 September 2022

Photo by Alex Berger for Weird Candy

Derek Hoke considers himself just one of the neighborhood songwriting guys, though his albums reveal he’s anything but. The Nashville transplant cut his teeth playing in cover bands and working at a record store in South Carolina before getting a gig selling merch on tour with Ricky Skaggs and learning more about bluegrass than he never knew was possible.

Hoke’s earliest solo output, 2009’s Goodbye Rock n Roll, was full-on country swing music with pedal steel and shuffle beats, a product of the songwriter’s influences. Settled into Nashville and spending time playing clubs removed from the main strip, Hoke’s sound matured and by 2017, with the release of Bring the Flood, the true artist emerged. From the dark corners of Nashville alleys, Hoke’s Americana music incorporates outside influences for something a little moodier and mysterious than previous efforts.

For over a decade, Hoke’s hosted $2 Tuesday at the Nashville club The 5 Spot where not only does he get to perform his own tunes, he invites artists both green and experienced to take the stage to play for audiences who are looking for good music without any pretenses. It was during some of these Tuesday nights that Hoke had the opportunity to woodshed some of the tracks that appear on his new release, Electric Mountain.

Where many artists used to make a big deal out of album release day, times have changed with the advent of streaming services. Running to the local record store to make sure copies are stocked, playing an in-store during the day and an album release show at night aren’t nearly as frequent as they once were. Instead, an artist like Hoke spends album release day on the phone doing interviews and, when he’s got a moment or two, remembering to Tweet about the release and maybe post something on Instagram.

Derek Hoke · If You Need My Love

Are you celebrating today since the album came out?

DEREK: I’m just in the yard jumping up and down by myself. No, I’m at the computer, talking about myself, which I don’t like doing. But, I know it’s a necessary part of all this. It’s been a long time coming and I’m thankful that the people at 3Sirens Music Group helped me put this out and I’m thankful that I get to talk to people like you. Stuff like that is all the stuff that is not going through my head while we’re recording this stuff. I forget about that part. It’s like, we made this thing, now how do we get people to know we made this thing because everybody made a thing! We can only do what we can do. I just try to make them sound good. I’m a music lover myself and I have a lot of LPs. I want to make a record I can just put on and walk away and not think, “Oh, I like that one song.” Hopefully, in the sea of music that’s out there, we can make a really good sounding album.

I always thought of Nashville as the Country Music Capital of the World. But, in the last decade or so I’ve had the chance to interview a lot of Nashville artists and I’m realizing that it’s a much more diverse city than I ever imagined.

DEREK: It still is everything you think it is, especially portrayed publicly like on national television and the Country Music Awards and all that stuff. None of that is any different. But there’s always been, even from the days of bands like Jason and the Scorchers in the ’80s, there were elements of what was going on in Athens, Georgia back in the day. There was elements of that here in Nashville but just not to a national degree. Then bands like Lambchop and, I guess, the biggest would be Kings of Leon, they were the opening act around town for the rock bands that were touring and then all of a sudden they’re playing the arenas. It’s like, “Wait! What? Those kids were waiting tables last week.” There’s an underbelly of other music that, over time and with many people moving here coming from different backgrounds, it’s kind of a big melting pot now that’s getting more and more attention.` Not to the level of Miranda Lambert and stuff like that but there’s just a lot of cool stuff. It’s not as relegated to some tiny little area of town that only the cool kids hang out. It’s kind of everywhere.

Your music has some country, or maybe Americana, elements and you live in Nashville but you’re not a country artist. I have a hard time describing your music to friends of mine.

DEREK: That’s the point. I was telling a buddy of mine, Dex Green, that helped me produce the record that the most common thing I’m hearing from people is that no one knows what this new record is. And he’s like, “Perfect!” Some of it goes back to the fact that there’s so many people doing this thing that it’s like, in what ways, without making a MOOG record, all electronic and weird, kind of like Kraftwerk with pedal steel, can we try to do something different. How can we stretch this little genre that I’m in called Americana or roots music into something that interests me or that I think would interest the listener as well and hold their attention? It’s a great way to buck the expectation of what music is coming out of this town that you can’t immediately pigeonhole it like maybe you once could.

It reminds me of how another Nashville artist, Aaron Lee Tasjan, is doing some interesting stuff that isn’t instantly identifiable as country music.

DEREK: I like that guy a lot. He played on my last record. We’ve done some stuff together. It’s guys like him and Tim Easton, I’ve known that dude forever, who are doing different things. There’s this girl that lives next door to me, Erin Rae, when I first met her she was doing this quiet bluegrass, almost Alison Krauss kind of stuff, and now she’s got a mellotron in her band and electric guitars. Not that what she was doing before wasn’t amazing but I like it when people can start maneuvering and start thinking outside their comfort zone instead of being like, “Okay, this quiet bluegrass record didn’t work but they’re going to love this next quiet bluegrass record.” You’ve already done all of that. I applaud people who keep trying to move forward and see what they’re capable of. I think Erin Rae and Aaron Lee are two people that have done really well at that.

You’ve done that as well. Your early stuff was more traditional country based.

DEREK: Oh yeah. I was super into shuffle beat. I didn’t even know what that was called. I didn’t know that I was doing that. I would just start having people, when I’d play, start to swing dance to it. I’m like, “Okay, that’s an added bonus,” but that wasn’t what I was thinking of at all when I wrote the songs. They’re fun to write and they’re fun to play. When it comes to making another record, as fun as those songs are to write and mess around with on guitar, it’s like, “I’ve already done all that. What happens if I play this chord? What song comes out? And let’s get more honest with some lyrics instead of just happy, fun time, dance music.” Some of it is that I’m maturing as a songwriter and guitar player and trying to craft something.

It’s not like Erin Rae and Aaron Lee and myself and other people have had secret meetings about how to do this, but it’s all kind of unspoken, like, “Hey, you’re on a good path.” Some of it might not be the most commercial path but it’s the most artistically filling on and I think it keeps people interesting in the music.

I hate to use the word “evolving” because it’s not like what you were doing before wasn’t good and that with each album you’re getting better. But, you’re exploring different paths with your music.

DEREK: There is an element of me saying, “I don’t know everything.” I’ve been singing and playing guitar for a long time but there’s plenty of years where I didn’t know what I was doing. And then I moved to this town where the person serving you coffee is the best singer in the world, you just don’t know it yet. That’s everywhere in Nashville. I moved here and was like, “Who’s this person? They’re better than Bruce Springsteen” and I’ve never heard of them. So, I know that my dumb ass moving from South Carolina was like, “Oh, I need to write some good songs and maybe get some stage presence going.” Those were things that I didn’t have to think about when I was growing up playing sports bars where none of that stuff mattered.

In Nashville, the bar has been raised so high, even with mainstream country, there’s an undeniable talent that goes into that stuff whether you like it or not. There’s something about it that’s widely appealing. All of those little things you just sponge up and try to turn that into your own thing.

I’m not turning away from anything I’ve done in the past but it’s like, “What else can I do? Let’s see if I can do this and still it all sounds like me.” That’s more interesting to me.

In another interview, you talked about Electric Mountain being a good record to listen to while in the car. That makes total sense to me and it’s probably where I’ll do most of the listening other than when I’m listening to it on vinyl in my house.

DEREK: I tend to enjoy music in the car a lot too. There’s something about, I hate to call it “car music,” but, you know, it’s almost like that Jackson Browne “Running on Empty Song,” it’s kind of custom made for that kind of stuff. There’s an element of that in there. The image I have in my head is that you could put this record on and it opens with a sunrise or something metaphorical like that, like you’re driving at night and then all of a sudden it becomes brighter and brighter as you drive into the morning.

The videos you’ve made so far are basically performance videos, it’s not like they have a storyline and you’re doing any acting in them. Is it just you reaching out to a couple of friends and see if they’ve got the afternoon free to come over and appear in your videos?

DEREK: Yeah, yeah Erica Blinn is in one of the videos. Nicole Atkins is one too. It’s just like, “Hey, what are you doing today?” I didn’t want to be miming along to my own song by myself. We did the videos over at a buddy of mine’s studio.

Now that I think about it, while I don’t think you sound exactly the same, I was recently turned onto Jacob Thomas Jr’s music and I think the two of you have a similar style. You both make this moody, late night music.

DEREK: I know Jacob. That guy rules. He’s a good songwriter. He’s another guy that, when I met him, is doing something now that is totally different. He’s grown a lot as an artist, matured. I think all of us, at some point, were just hanging out at the bars and doing whatever. It was just us in this little bubble. And I think once other people started recognizing what we were doing, it was like, “Oh shit. Maybe I shouldn’t have that shot on stage” and you kind of grow up a little bit and not just be the neighborhood songwriter guy.

Derek Hoke · Say You Will

You don’t tour a lot, do you?

DEREK: I try to be the friendly, neighborhood opening act. I’ll go out on the road if I can open for someone bigger, if there’s audience to play for. I think me on my own, I’d show up in Columbus and hope that you would show up. And the promoter would be like, “What is this?” I don’t have the machinery and people helping me out to warrant doing that but I’m a great 40 minute opening act, I’ll tell you that.

What can you tell me about the $2 Tuesday thing that you host?

DEREK: I’ve been playing every Tuesday night for 12 years. That’s sort of been an accidental residency. I’ve never thought about it that way. If you come to Nashville and want to see me play, I’m not going to be downtown doing Johnny Cash tunes. I’m playing my songs on Tuesday night, come on by. And, if you can’t make it this week, I’ll be there next week (laughs).

Nashville, being the tourist town that it is, is great because people from Brazil, or around the world, visit and can see you play. I don’t imagine you’re going to Portugal next week to tour so now these people have your records they can take home with them and photos or videos of you that they can share with their friends. So your music, especially in this day and age, does still get out there. I mailed off a CD to some guy in France the other day and I’m always like, “How does this person know who I am?” I’m glad that they do but that still blows my mind. The live thing requires a lot of overhead. You have to have a lot of momentum behind you to make that all work.

But you’ve got a built-in thing, the $2 Tuesday, at The 5 Spot in Nashville so you don’t have to hustle to try to make it work.

DEREK: Well, we’re ending the Tuesday thing. It’s been a blessing and a curse. It’s kind of put my name on the map and it keeps me in the paper every week because it’s a weekly event and people can come check it out. But it kind of screws me. I can’t play a Thursday night because it’s like why come see me on Thursday for $12 when you can see me on Tuesday for $2. I’ve cannibalized myself out of some shows that I wish I could have gotten because I play frequently around town which makes one of those shows not very special. In the future, I’m trying to lean towards doing some bigger shows around town on a Friday night and see what that’s like and play some shows with people like Aaron Lee and some other people I’ve met along the way here on Tuesday nights. I’m just not going to be Mr. Tuesday night any more.

How does the $2 Tuesday thing work? You’re the host and then other artists come play?

DEREK: I don’t know what you’d call it. I just always called it a neighborhood gathering because it’s literally down the street from my house. Back in the days when everyone lived in the neighborhood, now no one can afford to live here, I would book all the bands or acts and it would be like five acts play five songs at The Five Spot. That was kind of the mantra of it. I would play five songs as well. It was like a nightclub act, “You may know the next artist from …” In between sets, my friend Tim brings his two record players and spins old soul music and shares stories between songs, “That was recorded right here in Nashville at whatever studio back in 1969.” It’s a whole little thing and it’s over before you know it.

Anybody that came to town that heard of it, especially managers, they’d be like, “Um, what is this? What are we going to get paid?” And I’m like, “It’s $2. Don’t think about it as a money-making gig.” It’s just a fun night where we erased all music business out of it. There’s no headliner. There’s no opener. There’s no posters to be made. It’s just tell everybody you know and come play your five best songs. It’s like, “Do you have an hour of solid gold? I doubt it. Open with your ‘Stairway to Heaven’ then go right into your ‘Sweet Home Alabama’.” They’re like, “Ah, okay, I get it.” At the end of the night, all of the people that didn’t know what they were getting themselves into, they’d go back to their hometown and try to start their own version of it!

I have to imagine since you’ve been doing this a while, there’s had to have been a few people grace the stage that have gone on to bigger and better things.

DEREK: Oh yeah. Jason Isbell did one early on, nobody knew who he was. Sturgill Simpson and people like Margo Price. They were part of the neighborhood fabric. Everyone knew Margo from just being Margo. Now everybody knows Margo. That’s still so weird to me. She’s big time. To me, she’s still just Margo. For every one of those, there’s a lot of “where are they now?” People that move away or people that try to get famous quickly for all the wrong reasons. Then we’d get people that I liked from when I was younger, like, Robyn Hitchcock. Peter Buck played. I got to play with him. R.E.M. was in town mixing a record and a buddy of his was playing on one of the Tuesdays so he sat in on bass. It was just no big deal. A lot of people would hang out up there because it was no big deal. Danger Mouse and whoever was in town, like some of The Black Keys and some of the My Morning Jacket people, it was like you just grab a table, just a fun night out and nobody would bother you. Even Christina Aguilera stopped by once.

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