Honky Tonk Professor
Joshua Hedley moves to the head of the class
Thur 21 April 2021 3:05 CST
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In “Country & Western,” a key track from Joshua Hedley’s new album, Neon Blue, the 37-year-old singer/songwriter slyly confronts one of the great country music conundrums. What does a country singer in the 21st century call their music?
They say I’m neofolk, a traditional outlaw
Americana troubadour, that doesn’t sound like me at all
I sing about real life, like drinking, cheating, and loving
I’m what they used to simply call country music
The problem, of course, is in Hedley’s answer, which is too vague for modern pop music taxonomy. A more detailed categorization is required. Are you a Bro-Country dude singing red-state anthems of pick-up trucks and hot girls in Daisy Dukes? Or a roots music artisan crafting driveway moments for the NPR-icana crowd? Or perhaps you’re a new millennium outlaw drinkin’ and cussin’ and hellraisin’ with every country-punk nugget you spit out? In 2022, it’s vital to commit — a legion of radio programmers, music critics, and marketing professionals need to know.
With his new album, Hedley deftly throws a monkey wrench into the works of the country marketing machinery. While he seemed to be firmly pegged as a traditional country revivalist with his first record, 2017’s Mr. Jukebox, which drew inspiration from late 60s era countrypolitan pioneers, Neon Blue is rooted firmly in the sound of the 1990s hat act era, a period many country revivalists regard with scorn.
Perhaps the real problem for the gatekeepers is that Hedley’s a true country music polymath who has absorbed all of country music’s rich and varied history while keeping his focus on the future. By being one of a rare breed of artists who’s able to navigate the tricky path between inspiration and imitation, Hedley not only confounds the marketeers but brings something genuinely new and vital to vistas others might consider frozen in amber, or as he says in “Country and Western,”
I studied all the legends and learned from what they done.
No, I’m not trying to rewind time; I’m just doing what I love.
A native of a distinctly un-country area of the American South — Naples, Florida, aka “Golf Capital of the World” — Hedley’s road to defining himself began at a very early age and under circumstances that would seem to indicate the hillbilly gene is a product of nature instead of nurture.
“For whatever reason, I asked for a fiddle when I was three years old,” Hedley recalls. “Neither of my parents listened to country music, so where I found out what a fiddle was is shrouded in mystery.” Faced with the horrifying prospect of a three-year-old sawing away on a fiddle all day, his parents managed to kick the can down the road a few years. Hedley persisted, and at age eight, his parents folded with the stipulation that classical violin lessons were part of the deal. Hedley says his quest for country continued, however. “My classical teacher knew that I wanted to play fiddle music, so she taught herself fiddle tunes, and after my classical lesson, she would teach them to me.”
Mastering the basics, Hedley soon began a self-study in the most acoustically-perfect location he could find. “Somehow or somewhere, when I was about 10, I got a hold of some country music, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and Merle Haggard,” Hedley says. “After that, it was on. I had a Bob Wills double CD set with all of his hits on it. I would take my fiddle into my parent’s bathroom, close the door, listen to the CD, and learn all the Bob Wills and Joe Holley fiddle parts. I taught myself these old Western swing songs but had nowhere to play them.”
The lack of places to play soon changed as Hedley’s skill on the fiddle progressed. By the age of 12, he was landing paying gigs. “I had been doing my bathroom Bob Wills thing long enough to develop an ear for improvisation,” Hedley says. “My parents started taking me to sit in with bands at the VFW halls and bluegrass jams, and I started playing in country bands around town. I was playing almost every weekend, making money.”
Fortunately for Hedley, his parents supported his career choice, bringing him to Nashville in 1996 to attend the Mark O’Connor Fiddle Camp. He spent a week studying technique with the renowned fiddler and violinist and then another week hustling sit-in gigs on Lower Broadway. Annual summer trips to Nashville continued, and by the time he was 19 and ready to move to the Music City, he already had a regular gig lined up as a sideman on Lower Broadway. “That’s when my education really got started,” Hedley says.
Working with several different bands on Lower Broadway, Hedley was an apt pupil at the university of honky tonk. Although he had little interest in becoming a headliner, he was wise enough to identify an opportunity when it came his way.
“I had joined Brazilbilly [the house band at Lower Broadway’s Robert’s Western World], but I got let go because they had two fiddle players and decided they only needed one. I said, ‘Okay, if I’m getting let go from this gig, I want you to give me one of my own,’ and they did. I started playing with a three-piece country trio on Wednesday afternoons.”
Despite moving to the center of the stage at Robert’s, Hedley says he had no interest in pursuing “stardom” further. He continued to work in Justin Townes Earle’s road band and eventually moved over to backing alt-country troubadour Jonny Fritz.
“I played with Jonny for seven years,” Hedley says. “Towards the tail end of that time, I started writing songs. I wrote ‘Weird Thought Thinker’ [a song that would eventually appear on Hedley’s Mr. Jukebox] and played it for him. He loved it and asked me to play it at his shows. I started writing more, and one song turned into two, and then those two turned into me opening for Jonny. We were touring in Australia, and people would come to the show and ask where my CD was. I figured I better have something to sell, so I made an EP called Don’t Waste Your Tears.”
The EP features four songs written by Hedley and was cut at Jeremy Ferguson’s Battle Tapes Recording in East Nashville in 2016. The self-released EP sold well enough to pay for itself. However, of more importance, it brought attention to Hedley as both a singer and songwriter, especially when a copy ended up in the hands of Third Man Records co-owner Jack White.
“I had done some session work with Jack on some of the Third Man ‘Blue Series’ singles,” Hedley says. “Initially, they wanted to release the EP on vinyl, which was great, but I came back with more songs, so they signed me to a one-album deal, and that’s where Mr. Jukebox came from.”
Recycling two songs from the EP, Hedley cut the remainder of the album at Battle Tapes, working with the same musicians. Recorded in an independent studio far from Music Row with a group of fellow Lower Broadway players then released on the label owned by one of Nashville’s biggest rock stars — Mr. Jukebox might seem to be pure rebellion against the current mainstream slate of Bro-Country. But there’s an ironic twist: it also served as a counterpoint to the standard-issue alt-country rebellion of the time.
“[Mr. Jukebox] was born out of two things,” Hedley says. “I was heavy into early Willie Nelson records and Owen Bradley’s productions from the late sixties, and also hearing the traditional revival that was going on when everyone was sticking around that ’70s outlaw movement sound. I wanted to turn the dial back a bit. I wanted to do something different. So I decided to go full countrypolitan.
For Hedley, that meant taking a deep dive into a period of country music that is often overlooked and undervalued — the late 1960s when mainstream Nashville (and West Coast) studios were producing records that perfectly balanced honky tonk authenticity with big strings and pop vocal backings. Whether he’s channeling the epic heartbreak majesty of pre-Billy Sherrill George Jones in the song “Counting All My Tears,” the sophisticated country introspection of cardigan-sweater era Willie Nelson in “Let’s Take a Vacation,” or capturing the big Bakersfield emotional sweep of Wynn Stewart in the album’s title track — Mr. Jukebox delivered the goods with multiple replays.
"We made a ’90s country record the ’90s country way, and it turned out exactly the way I wanted it to."
“I wanted people to like it, but it was also very much scratching an inch for me,” Hedley says. “I wanted to see if I could recreate that timeless sound. In my opinion, we pulled it off, and people really seemed to like it. My whole life just changed. It was pretty wild.”
Amongst these externalities, Hedley dealt with an internal upheaval of the spiritual sort. “I got sober a few months before I made Mr. Jukebox,” Hedley says. “I knew I had to do it. I knew I was an alcoholic for a long time, but I was also a slave to authenticity, which was total bullshit. I felt I had to drink because that’s what all my heroes did — like I was a poser if I was out there singing drinkin’ songs and not drinking. It took its toll on me. You can build a legend as a drunk, but you can’t maintain anything, and if you want to talk about authenticity, here’s some: all those guys either sobered up or they died.”
While embracing sobriety was the right move, sticking with it one day at a time is the more significant challenge. “I got sober in 2017, and I stayed sober for a little while. Made Mr. Jukebox and started touring on that. I could blame the stress of the road or whatever, but in actuality, I just caved and started drinking again. Now I’m on round two, two years clean.”
The start of Hedley’s second round of sobriety coincided with the pandemic’s arrival. While it meant his opportunities to tour were curtailed, it gave him time to think about the direction for his follow-up record, Neon Blue.
“I don’t want to make the same record twice,” Hedley says. “Just like Mr. Jukebox was influenced by what I was listening to at the time, this one was too. When Joe Diffie died, I went down a YouTube rabbit hole of his songs, and that turned into listening to all the hits from the ’90s. I’ve always revered that era of country. That’s what was on the radio when I was a kid, and it was a turning point. The last great era of country music where you could turn the radio on and immediately know you were hearing a country song because there was fiddle and steel on everything.”
Hedley was ready to go when an offer to record a new album materialized from New West Records. He knew the sound he wanted and how to achieve it. “I made Mr. Jukebox in a home studio with my buddies, and I pretty much wrote every song on it,” he says. “On this one, I had a different approach. I didn’t just want to make a ’90s sounding record. I wanted to do the whole Nashville thing.”
First up was writing a batch of new songs. Doing the ’90s-Nashville thing meant heading for the writer’s room with some cowriters. “First up was Carson Chamberlain, who wrote hits in the ’90s for George Strait, Dean Dillon, and Alan Jackson,” Hedley says. “He called in a couple of other guys [Wyatt McCubbin and Zach Top], and we did three-way writes because when you get three good writers in a room, you have to try not to write a good song. Every song on this record was probably written in 30 minutes or less.”
With the songs in hand, Hedley cut the record in the heart of Music Row at the historic Ronnie’s Place studio, using the cream of the current crop of Nashville studio musicians. “We made a ’90s country record the ’90s country way, and it turned out exactly the way I wanted it to,” Hedley says.
The result is an album that checks off all the touchstones of early ’90s country, from honky tonk stompers (“Broke Again,” “Wonder If You Wonder,” and the album’s title track, “Neon Blue”) to heartbreak weeper singalongs (“Old Heartbroke Blues”). It also delivers some classic country shuffles (“Country & Western” and “The Last Thing in the World”). Of course, there are confessional ballads — “Free (One Heart)” and “Found in a Bar” — before closing with a perfectly chosen cover tune (a magnificent rendition of Roger Miller’s “River in the Rain”). While it’s an album sure to please any fan of ’90s country, it also may surprise the most diehard hat act hater.
“I wanted to make a fun record, especially given the last couple of years of bullshit we’ve all been through,” Hedley says. “There’s so much feel-good party music that came out of that era of the ’90s that I knew that’s what it had to be.”
“I understand some people’s reaction, though,” Hedley continues. “You couldn’t have made me listen to a Shania Twain record in 1996 — gun to my head, pay me a million dollars — it just wasn’t going to happen. But looking back on it now, ‘Whose Bed Has Your Boots Been Under?’ is a 4/4 shuffle. There ain’t nothing more country than a 4/4 shuffle. As I get older and learn more about music and appreciate more aspects of music, going back and listening to the ’90s stuff with a better education on how it was made is great, and
I love it.”
That ability to love the past and yet constantly reappraise and revise his passions for it may be the key to Hedley’s ability to wander the vast landscape of more than a century of country music and bring something new to each era he’s visiting. It’s the difference between being stuck in the past and creating an alternative present when the emotional lushness of countrypolitan or the “party on, country dude” fun of hat acts can both thrive in the 2020s.
With Neon Blue dropping on April 22, Hedley is eager to get back on the road, although he’s the first to admit that it will take some adjustment after two years at home with Robert’s as his primary stage.
“We just played South by Southwest a few weeks ago, and I was sitting in the van after a show, and it dawned on me — I’ve not played outside a 10-mile radius of my house in two years,” Hedley says. “I had forgotten how to play for an entire audience who’s paying attention. I’d forgotten how to talk between songs — all of it. It’s different from being the background music at Robert’s, but it’s coming back, and I’m excited to get out on the road again.”
As for the future, Hedley takes his self-declared position as a “singing professor of country and western” seriously by refusing to be stuck in the ’90s, the ’60s, or any particular stylistic period. “I have ideas galore,” he says. “I want to do an old-school duet record where it’s just me and one other person, like a George and Tammy or Dolly and Porter or Conway and Loretta. I want to do a ’70s honky tonk record. I want to do a Mel Street cover record. I even want to do a hard jazz instrumental record. So there you go.”