Social Distortion

"Ness is one of the most underrated pure songwriters in rock." – Los Angeles Times

Here’s how you know you’ve made it in the music business: You’ve stayed strong for three decades on your own terms, on your own time, by your own rules, and over that time your influence has only grown. Each of your albums has been stronger than your last. You’ve been brought onstage by Bruce Springsteen, because he wanted to play one of your songs. You’ve seen high times and low ones, good days and tragic days, but every night you give 100%, and every morning you wake up still swinging.

This is the short version of the Social Distortion bio — the long version could be a 10-part mini-series. But over the past 30 years, the punk godfathers in the band have all but trademarked their sound, a brand of hard rockabilly/punk that’s cut with the melodic, road-tested lyrics of frontman Mike Ness. Their searing guitars and a locomotive rhythm section sound as alive today as they did in ’82, as do Ness’ hard-luck tales of love, loss and lessons learned. “The most common thing I hear is, ‘Man, your music got me through some hard times,'” Ness says. “And I just say, ‘Me too.'”

Hard Times And Nursery Rhymes (produced, for the first time, by Ness himself) is the band’s first record since 2004, but the break hasn’t changed them much. It maintains Social Distortion’s key components — an all-but-perfected mix of punk, bluesy rock n’ roll and outlaw country — but it also finds them stretching the boundaries of their signature sound. “I didn’t want any one style of writing,” Ness says. “I didn’t want it to be all heavy, like “White Light, White Heat, White Trash.” I wanted some heavy and some light. I wanted some fiction and some nonfiction. I wanted versatility.”

That’s evident right away. The record’s first vocal track, “California (Hustle and Flow),” finds Ness and the band not roaring out of the gate so much as swaggering behind a chunky Stones-style locomotive groove. “This record has a lot of my influences,” Ness says, “But how far you go with those influences is up to you. With this record I wanted to go a little farther. I wanted people to hear that second track and realize, ‘Wow, this is not just another Social Distortion record.'” (For good measure the track has hints of “Ball and Chain” and the Stones’ “All Down The Line” and, for the first time, female backing vocals. “I’ve been listening to records for years with (backing vocals), and I was like, “Hey, why don’t I do that?” Ness laughs.)

Not that the band’s punk foundations have eroded; the first single “Machine Gun Blues,” a piece of gangland fiction set in 1934, could hail from “Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell.” But the record is evidence of the band’s ability to evolve. “Bakersfield,” a setlist staple in recent years, is a waking-on-the-railroad-tracks story of wrecked love, forgiveness and Buck Owens; it closes with a spoken-word verse to make Merle Haggard smile. “Can’t Take It With You” sports a Jerry Lee-style piano solo that scorches paint. And set closer “Still Alive” is a soaring carpe diem with an added emotional weight that can’t be described or duplicated.

“The album is reminiscent to me of “Somewhere,” but it also has some of the darkness that “White Light” had. It has some of the flavor of “Mommy’s Little Monster,” Ness said. “I think it’s very signature. We’ve never been afraid to evolve and show people what we can do.”

Now in their fourth decade, Ness and Social Distortion have officially done one of the most non-punk things possible: They’ve failed to burn out.

Mixing Springsteen’s factory-overalls ethic with Southern California punk energy and black leather, Social Distortion formed with Ness and high school buddy, the late Dennis Danell, in the late 1970s; the group broke in 1983 with the thrashing plate of punk and displeasure “Mommy’s Little Monster.” Their 1988 follow-up, “Prison Bound,” hinted at a sonic change to come, and by the band’s self-titled 1990 record and 1992’s “Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell,” their sound had solidified into the instantly recognizable brand of rock n’ roll that’s defined them since.

For Hard Times, Social Distortion consists of Ness and longtime guitarist Jonny Wickersham, along with bassist Brent Harding and drummer David Hidalgo, Jr.

These days the band is rarely off the road for long, and continues to grip fans who have been around since “Mommy’s Little Monster” while drawing new ones who discover the band through hand-shot YouTube clips. “I see people bringing their kids to shows,” Ness says. “And I see kids bringing their parents.”

Social Distortion is a mix of potent power, appeal across all age brackets and a genuine satisfaction at reaching as many people as they have. “I write songs for myself, and I hope that other people will like them too,” Ness says. “I think every record you make is showing people what you’ve learned over the past few years. It’s showing people, ‘This is what I know.'”

"Took a whole lot of miles to know what I know now," sings Will Hoge on
"Growing Up Around Here," the opening track off of his tenth studio album,
Small Town Dreams. "I'm kinda proud of growing up around here." It's been a
whole lot of miles, indeed: miles on the road, driving the bus himself from venue
to venue since the nineties; miles to and from Nashville writing rooms, where
he's spent countless hours penning songs – some for him, some for others;
miles exploring lands outside of his native Franklin, Tennessee, chasing the
spirits of his musical heroes. Roads meet, roads split, roads led to home. This is
the album that follows them all, every twist and turn in Hoge's American
journey – a journey that's positioned him as one of our keenest, most honest
modern storytellers, telling both his tale and ours.
"It's a reflection of where I am currently in my life," says Hoge of Small
Town Dreams, "but also where I grew up, and, ultimately, where I think I'm
going." From the streets of the town where he was raised, to the sidewalks of
cities a hundred times the size, we all have dreams; and these are the stories of
growing up, looking back and passing on those dreams, told as only Hoge can.
Nostalgia, in his hands, is truly magic.
After producing several albums on his own, including 2013's Never Give
In, Hoge partnered with Marshall Altman (Frankie Ballard, Eric Paslay, Matt
Nathanson) on Small Town Dreams, after the idea to work together popped into
his head during one of those late-night drives. Ballard's "Helluva Life" came on
the radio followed by Paslay's "Friday Night," and he was taken by how true to
the artist the production rang. "Neither of those sound like records I would
make, but they both sound so uniquely them," Hoge says. "So I called up
Marshall, at 2 a.m. – he was up in the studio that late. We started the process
right after that. He's part cheerleader, part conductor, part coach, part fan, all
at the same time."
The result is a collection of songs that paint a vivid snapshot of the
American experience – the struggles to overcome the confines of youth; the
perfect cycle of parents watching their children make the same beautiful
mistakes they once did; the feeling when we realize our roots run deeper than
we've ever known. The partnership with Altman (as well as a guest appearance
from Vince Gill on guitar) bred a sound that's both crisp and raw, letting the
lyrics and unforgettable melodies shine while never casting too much of a gloss
on Hoge's signature raspy bellow.
An extremely prolific songwriter with ten albums under his belt and
countless songs written for others (including a Grammy nomination for Eli
Young Band's number-one hit, "Even If Breaks Your Heart," co-written with
Paslay), Hoge saw this next phase of his journey as an opportunity to explore
even deeper into both his country and rock & roll roots. Never fitting
particularly neatly into a genre box, he's always just made the music that
moved him – but it's safe to say that he feels more kinship with the country
community than ever, particularly as a storyteller.
"That's my favorite thing about the genre itself," he says. "That's what I
love most. Country music is the only genre left telling anybody's stories
Those stories are part of what has made Hoge a vital force in fan's lives
who have followed him across the country and seen countless shows – his
songs speak to the reality of all our experiences, delivered in a way that is
honest, true and ever changing. There's no musical formula here or
predictability to seeing Hoge live – whether opening for the likes of Eli Young
Band or Dierks Bentley, or playing his own sold-out dates, he can stir up
somber, acoustic moments in one turn and then spring a hard-rocking,
plugged-in number the next. "The magic happens in the unsafe moments," he
There's safety, however, in Hoge's words, as he documents the mystery in
our future and the security of our past. It's human experience he studies, and
connecting with the listener is part of what makes it all worthwhile for Hoge.
"I tell these stories about me, or a friend, or an experience," he explains,
"and to have someone come up to me and say, 'that's exactly how I felt,' or 'your
songs helped me through a tough time,' that's the ultimate compliment."
Take "Middle of America," which opens with a simple, sweet guitar strum
and ushers into a full-fledged rock-country anthem with a rollicking heartbeat –
it's about the moments, both perfect and flawed, that unite us all. Or "Guitar or
a Gun," that tells the story of a young boy, a few dollars in hand, facing a
pivotal decision at the local pawnshop: should he buy a guitar, or a gun? "One
can feed your family, and one will end you up in jail. He seemed to know which
one was which but me, I couldn't tell," Hoge sings in impossibly vivid
storytelling that's one part Bruce Springsteen, one part Bob Dylan, one part
Hank Williams. And then there's the closer, "Till I Do It Again," that's as much
The Clash as a country romp, showcasing the best of the special hybrid that
Hoge hits with every lick.
The title of the album, Small Town Dreams, was inspired by a photo that
Hoge found while visiting his mother back in Franklin – a picture of him as a
child, riding bikes with a group of neighborhood kids in the field behind his
house. "We're the most non-threating small-town gang ever," he laughs. "It's
this real innocent photo, and everybody's smiling and happy. I started thinking
about all the people I had lost contact with, and how, at that age, everybody in
that photo truly believed they could do anything they wanted to, and that those
sort of small town dreams are possible."
But when those photos and yearbooks of our youth have been lost in the
piles, and the yellowed pages of newsprint has disintegrated into dust, we'll still
have our stories: and Hoge turns those stories into song, into melodies that last
far longer than any etched or snapped record. Will Hoge, the man, is many
things. A husband, a father, a survivor, a devoted small-town son who credits
much of his love of music to his rock 'n' roll loving dad. Will Hoge, the artist,
belongs to us all – a storyteller first and foremost, charting and living our Small
Town Dreams.

Pony Bradshaw

"Songs and music for the Common man."



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