SPOTLIGHT: Joshua Hedley Brings Back Country Bangers on ‘Neon Blue’
Photo by Joshua Black Wilkins
EDITOR’S NOTE: Joshua Hedley is No Depression’s Spotlight artist for April 2022. His new album, Neon Blue, comes out on April 22 via New West Records. Look for more from Hedley all month long.
Joshua Hedley, it seems, was born to play country music.
“When I was 3, I asked for a fiddle. Not a violin, a fiddle,” the 37-year-old torchbearer says from his home in Nashville a few weeks before the April 22 release of his new album, Neon Blue. “My parents said, yeah, you’re 3 years old. Ask when you’re older.”
He did — when he was 8. He took classical violin lessons, but “the teacher knew I wanted to play fiddle tunes. So she would teach herself fiddle tunes, and after the classical lessons she would teach me.”
Hedley is mystified at what drew him to country music at such a young age — his parents didn’t listen to it. All he knew is he was hooked, and “pretty soon it was bluegrass music, Bob Wills, Merle Haggard, and off to the races.”
In his native southwest Florida, he says, “I started sitting in with older bands at American Legions, and by 12 I was playing every weekend in bars. I was basically a professional.” He left at age 19 for Nashville, where he has been playing honky-tonks for the last 17 years.
“When I say I’ve never done anything else, this is quite literally the only thing I’ve ever done.”
Or, as he puts it in “Country & Western,” his statement of purpose on Neon Blue: “I’m what they used to simply call country music.” He also calls himself in that song a “singing professor.” But part of the joy of his music is that he never delivers it with any ain’t-I-the-real-deal or more-authentic-than-thou self-consciousness. He’s extremely well-versed in the music, but he always puts his own stamp on its traditions. He did that first with his 2018 debut, Mr. Jukebox, and he’s done it again with Neon Blue.
Becoming a songwriter and recording artist was not something Hedley had envisioned for himself when he moved to Nashville in 2004. He had first visited Music City in 1996, when he started attending a nearby fiddle camp run by renowned fiddler Mark O’Connor. “I’d take my fiddle and try to sit in at the bars on [Lower] Broadway,” he says. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I just had a need to play on Broadway.”
And that’s what he ended up doing, becoming a regular at places like Robert’s Western World. He also toured with the likes of Justin Townes Earle and Jonny Fritz. The latter, along with singer Nikki Lane, eventually pushed him to expand his horizons. “They said, ‘You need to be doing more than this.’ Jonny loved the songs.”
For a tour of Australia, Hedley says, “I needed something to sell at the merch table, so I made an EP. Jack White heard it and offered me a record deal.”
The resulting album, Mr. Jukebox, on White’s Third Man Records, harks back to the vintage sounds of ’50s and ’60s country, from barroom honky-tonk to strings-kissed balladry.
“I was heavily influenced by what I was listening to at the time,” Hedley says, from early Willie Nelson to the countrypolitan productions of Owen Bradley. “I wanted to make a record that no one else was doing.” While peers leaned toward the Outlaw sounds of the ’70s, “I really like the things the [original Outlaws] were rebelling against.”
Neon Blue has a different provenance. It’s inspired by the best of ’90s country, artists such as Alan Jackson, George Strait, and Brooks & Dunn, who stayed faithful to country traditions but did so with radio-ready appeal.
“It started when Joe Diffie passed away” in March 2020, Hedley says. “I started listening to him and that sparked a deep dive into ’90s country. A lot of my fan base is about the same age as me. This is what was on the radio when we were kids.
“I made Mr. Jukebox for myself. This time I said, let me make a record that I think people will enjoy. After the last couple of years we’ve had, let me make a fun, party record for people to blast on their boats this summer. There are no string sections on this record. They’re what I call country bangers.”
Well, there is the cheater’s lament “Down to My Last Lie,” and some broken hearts, and the set ends with a reflective take on Roger Miller’s “River in the Rain,” the only non-original. “It wouldn’t be country music if there weren’t some sad songs,” Hedley acknowledges.
But starting with the bar-burner “Broke Again” and through numbers such as “Neon Blue” and the sing-along “Bury Me With My Boots On,” the set is full of sure-fire crowd-pleasers.
Even the making of Neon Blue differed from that of Mr. Jukebox. To start, all the originals are co-writes — out of necessity, Hedley says.
“I never did a lot of that before,” he says. “When I was approached to make a record, I had no ideas, no songs.”
He connected with Carson Chamberlain, the late Keith Whitley’s steel player, who had written songs for Jackson and Strait, among others. He helped Hedley unlock his muse.
“He was the perfect guy to write this record with. He brought in two young songwriters [Wayne McCubbin and Zach Top] and we clicked,” Hedley says. “It was pretty easy to write these songs.”
That’s a Nashville establishment method of songwriting, and so was the recording itself, which this time featured studio pros. It’s a system Hedley gained a new respect for: “It’s a streamlined process. They’ve got it down to a science.”
The album features plenty of fiddle and steel, but none of the fiddling is done by Hedley. Instead, the playing is done by Blake Shelton’s fiddler, Jenee Fleenor, the first woman to ever be named the Country Music Association’s Musician of the Year.
“For ’50s fiddle, ’60s fiddle, I’m your guy. I knew I wasn’t the guy for this job,” explains Hedley, who also plays guitar (but not on the album). “As soon as Jenee Fleenor’s name came up, I said get her in. … I wanted to try to get the best on this record, and she crushed it.”
Sticking With Sobriety
On the cover of Neon Blue, Hedley is sitting at a bar in front of a longneck. It’s a St. Pauli Girl non-alcoholic beer, he says.
Hedley has been sober for two years after falling off the wagon in late 2018.
“I recognized it was a problem a long time ago,” he says. “But I was a slave to authenticity. I thought that’s what I had to do to be the real deal.” But then Hedley, who developed health problems related to his drinking and drugging, realized something about the heroes he was emulating: “They either got sober or they died. I knew I needed to get my shit together or I would die.”
Hedley’s debut record deal with Third Man came shortly after he got sober the first time. He’s not sure how much his relapse led to his losing that relationship, but “being a drug-addicted alcoholic was not helping the situation.”
Then, shortly after getting sober again, he got his current deal with New West Records. He figures there must be a message in there somewhere.
It would seem to be tough for a recovering alcoholic and drug addict to be in bars so much, but Hedley says it’s not a problem for him: “It’s something I have to do. I don’t have the luxury of staying out of bars. That’s where the work is.”
So now, he says, “instead of 15 Jack and Cokes and half a bag of cocaine, I drink about five Red Bulls.” And he’s continuing to make some of the best and most inspired country music you’ll hear today.
As he puts it in “Country & Western”: I’m not trying to rewind the past/ I’m just doing what I love.”