The singer-songwriter lost six pints of blood on the pavement as paramedics raced to the scene of the collision between Hoge’s scooter and a 15-passenger van.
The list of his injuries is too long to reprint but included broken ribs, sternum, shoulder blades and a collarbone; crushed lungs, temporary blindness, concussion, shattered knee and a mysteriously absent 4½-inch section of his femur. Doctors used 300 stitches to repair his face and sew his eyelids back on.
‘If I hadn’t recognized his tattoos, I wouldn’t have known it was my husband,’ Hoge’s wife, Julia, said.
The Will Hoge that emerged from that accident is a very different man than the one who set off on a side trip to the grocery store for milk that night in August 2008. He looks a little different. He stands a little different. And he sounds a little different, from the timbre of his voice to the way he plays guitar.
You can hear those changes on his new album, Number Seven. It’s the second he’s released since the accident, but the first to wholly feature his new approach to life and music.
Change is inevitable after serious injury, but Hoge found himself having to relearn everything. Luckily his hands and arms weren’t broken, but he still couldn’t hold a guitar for a long time, and when he could his body had changed.
‘Harder to deal with for me was the crushed lungs and broken ribs and broken sternum,’ Hoge said. ‘I couldn’t breathe the same way. Then I had tubes down my throat for such a long time. I made me sound different, too.’ Sort of like Tom Waits gargling marbles. ‘I remember asking my wife at one point, ‘Am I always going to sound like this?’’
There was the physical rehabilitation, learning to stand and walk and the yoga and pain management tricks. And then he had to learn how to breathe again, how to move air through his body to sing. Do you breathe with your chest muscles or your abdomen when you reach for that note?
Everything had to be rebuilt, top to bottom. And it was a slow process.
‘He never complained,’ Julia Hoge said with a sense of wonder in her voice. ‘It would make us kind of uneasy. His mom and I would be, ‘What do you need, what do you need?’ And there was one day at the rehab hospital where he said, ‘You’ve got to get down here. I’m in so much pain I don’t know what to do.’ That was the one time, so he’s just never wanted to dwell upon the pain or the past.’
Friends would drop in and play songs with him for as long as he could endure. Eventually they helped him back out on the road.
‘It was kind of one of those things where we’d do what we could do to help him out,’ Hoge’s drummer, Sigurdur Birkis, said. ‘We went on a small acoustic tour as soon as he could walk, pretty much. We went out and did this sit-down, three-piece acoustic show, just kind of traveling around to build the energy back up.’
About six months after the wreck, Hoge went back in the studio and completed the album that would become 2009’s The Wreckage. It was very much an album cobbled out of two different lives – the before and the after. Number Seven is a more complete picture of changes in songwriting, approach, production and feel Hoge has undergone.
‘It’s kind of calmed him down, I guess you’d say,’ Birkis said. ‘Before the accident we were out running around and doing as many shows as we can, just burning the candle at both ends. I think since the wreck, it’s kind of caused him to calm down and look at everything. Now when we do shows, it’s more of an attention to detail now and I think the shows have been better because of that.’
That same patience spilled over into the making of Number Seven. Hoge serves as his own producer for the first time, a role he doesn’t think he could have served without the patience he learned while he healed.
‘I think it comes across in little ways,’ Hoge said of his new perspective. ‘There’s a song called ‘Trying to be a Man’ and it’s a real quiet, intimate song, and the vocal’s not something I would’ve been able to do before. It’s almost in a spoken tone of voice, and I don’t think I would’ve had the patience as a singer or a songwriter to have done that.’
That newfound patience is just one of the many gifts Hoge has been left with post-wreck. Though no one could have imagined it at the time, some good came from all that pain.
‘Every time I hear my kids laugh – you hate to sound cheesy about it – there’s a nanosecond of, ‘You almost never got to hear that again,’’ Hoge said. ‘Or recently it was my second son’s birthday, and to think I wouldn’t have even had a second son. I just think there’s a level of just being incredibly thankful and grateful for all of this. Even the hard parts.’