Just Country: Joshua Hedley Talks ‘Neon Blue’

Forget label, decade, or where you buy it, country music, according to Joshua Hedley, is defined by those who love it. The native Floridian’s well-received debut album Mr. Jukebox deftly embraced the clean grandeur of 1960s Nashville flair– sweeping countrypolitan compositions of heartache and booze sweetly delivered in waltz-able, drinkable time signatures– but found itself challenged by the weight of its own traditionalism. Quite simply, Hedley had made a dyed-in-the-Manuel record that critics and admirers (including this one) pigeonholed anywhere but country.

We prefaced it with “alt” or dressed it in Americana (a four-letter word for some artists)– and stacked up against country music radio of that moment (as well as this one), it felt like the right call. Hedley, on the other hand, wasn’t having any of it and with his sophomore effort, he’s left no mystery to his intentions and nothing up to interpretation.

Neon Blue resurrects the thumping twang and blue-collar holler of ’90s Nashville, an era that wrestled country music back from the outlaw fringes through high-energy, slick production. Hedley, who began playing fiddle and western swing before he was a teenager, grew up listening to the heavyweights of those days– Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Alan Jackson, and Joe Diffie– on the radio, jamming to the razor-sharp guitar licks of Brent Mason and harmonizing with the stylized choruses that today are exercising an influence on a whole new generation of artists in mainstream and independent music.

You can call it power pop-ish neo-traditionalism, Prime throwback, or whatever you want to sling at it– but to Ol’ Hed, the human jukebox of Robert’s Western World, all it is and all he claims to be is country. 

See Joshua Hedley LIVE under the neon at Grant’s Lounge on Thursday, September 8th!

AI- Neon Blue opens with a song called “Broke Again”, but to me, “Country & Western” really feels like the successor to Mr. Jukebox— pokin’ holes in the many labels that get placed on country music. But for you, all of it is just simply country music.

JH- That’s right! And it very much is almost an answer to Mr. Jukebox. When I put that record out, I’d never had any press before and I’d never done any interviews or anything like that. I noticed in all those interviews and all the reviews and stuff, nobody wanted to call that a country record– everybody tiptoed around the word country. They called it Americana or they called it Outlaw, Folk, or whatever thing that they made up that they thought would distance it from Luke Bryan or something like that. They didn’t wanna associate it with the modern sound of country music, but to me, it was a country record and it still is a country record! I don’t think there needs to be a distinction in the sound because you listen to the Carter Family and you listen to Ronnie Milsap and both of those things are country music, but they sound totally different! Jason Aldean or Carrie Underwood or whoever, sure, that can be country music. But what I do is also country music.

What’s the big separator there? I read a quote from you– I’m paraphrasing it a little bit– but that your kind of country music isn’t any less country than what Luke Bryan does. If we accept that under the heading of country music that it’s all viable, that it all lives in that same space, where is the line drawn when it comes to innovation? Because I think a lot of people, the production values of today turn them off– or the subject matter. So where, for you, does that line get drawn?

I don’t think there is a line. To me, by definition, country music is whatever country people are listening to. Whenever you go out to Juliette, Georgia, whenever you go out to the redneck bar and hear what they’re listening to, that’s country music. People go to Wal-Mart and they buy their Garth Brooks CDs? That’s country music. People go to my website and buy my records, and that’s country music too. It’s about the consumer. All these labels, really, all they have to do with is the consumer and marketing a sound to a demographic of people. People out in the country, they like good, earnest, honest music. It all boils down to what those people are listening to and that’s country music to me.

Tell me about goin’ into the sound of Neon Blue— goin’ from that full countrypolitan into this prime country, I think is what some folks’ll call it. Did that start when you first met up with Carson Chamberlain or was there another instance that made it all come together? I think you’ve mentioned goin’ down a Joe Diffie rabbit hole after his passing had somethin’ to do with it as well.

Yeah, that was the biggest catalyst for it– Joe Diffie dyin’. Much like everyone else at the time, I had a whole lot of time on my hands in 2020 to go through and listen to his catalog and it sorta spread from there into that late ’80s to mid-’90s country sound. I just got into it and it made me worry less about what was goin’ on in the world and it took me back to my youth when I didn’t have as much to think about and as much to worry about. It took me back to that time and made me feel better and that’s when I decided that I would like to make a record that sounded like that. I figured if those songs were makin’ me feel that type o’ way, then there’s a good chance they would make other people feel that way too. Comin’ outta the craziest couple o’ years in our lifetime, I thought maybe people might need that escape. Plus, I just think it’s a good sound (laughs)! I think it’s cool, not many people are doin’ it, so I figured, “I’ll give it a shot! I like to explore the many facets of country music, so I’ll do ’90s country this time!”

I think it’s a phenomenon. Over the years, you’ve seen so much of ’90s culture creeping into the popular culture of today. Country music, the aspects of that [era], you know, American Aquarium did the Slappers albums, and then Elijah Ocean just did his complete ode to ’90s country– down to usin’ some of the sampled drum beats that they used. What about you and the challenges of putting those sounds together? In Elijah’s case, he actually got Brent Mason to come and hit some o’ that heavy Alan Jackson twangy guitar. What, for you, was necessary to complete that sound?

Getting the right people in the studio. I had sort of an incomplete vision– it was a very broad idea of what I wanted– and getting together with Carson, especially, was helpful because I articulated to him what I wanted. He was such a big player in those days, he wrote a handful o’ hits in the ’90s, and gettin’ together with him and him just knowing what to do in how to get that sound and then putting a band together of people who like that music and know what to do– just pros in the studio– it just all fit together organically. We sent it off to Kyle Lehning to put the finishing touches on it– and if anybody knows late ’80s, early ’90s country, Kyle Lehning!

Did you step up more as a vocalist this time around as opposed to a player in the studio?

Yeah, all I did on this record is sing. I didn’t play any of the fiddle. I knew that to get the sound that I wanted, it was outta my wheelhouse on fiddle. I’m very much a classic country, western swing fiddler, but when Jenee Fleenor’s name came up to play fiddle, I knew that she was the right person for the job. But yeah, I stepped back in a lotta ways on this record. I had a pretty heavy hand in the sound of Mr. Jukebox. I had more of a role, not really producing it, but more of my ideas on the table. When it came to [Neon Blue], I said, “I’m gonna step back.” I came in with these songs and with an idea, “I’m gonna just sit back and let my producers actually produce this record without me bein’ over their shoulder the whole time goin’, ‘What about that? What about this?'” I wanted to do it the ’90s way from birth to finished product, and that’s sorta how you did it– you had the band in, you had the producers, and the singer came in and sang whatever they told ’em to sing. It birthed a lotta hits that way (laughs), so I figured, I’m gonna come in here and do that and get the whole experience!

Back in the day, all of those records have the same people playin’ on ’em, and a lot of ’em were cut in the same studios. The band would come in– that band with Eddie Bears and Brent Mason and Stuart Duncan and all o’ them– and set up in the studio for a week or two, and they’d set the board and just leave it! They’d leave all their stuff there, and then they’d just rotate singers through playin’ with this band! They’d just rotate singers and producers and just churn out hit after hit after hit! For me, I viewed it almost the same as bein’ another studio musician in there. I was just there to do my part, and my part was to sing songs that I wrote.

What about the difference in being a sideman– which you’ve been very capable as for numerous artists– versus being the marquee artist yourself?

Oh… It’s a lot more headaches (laughs)! You know, there’s somethin’ to be said about hoppin’ in the van and hittin’ the road for a month, and then comin’ home with a pocket full o’ dough! Now, it’s like after I pay everybody, if I break even, that’s a good tour. It’s its own thing, for sure. Some people do it, you get more notoriety that way– your name is more recognizable when you’re an artist as opposed to a sideman– and I think that’s probably a big pull for a lotta people. I just enjoy it. I just enjoy singing and there’s a certain amount of ego stroking that happens when you’re standin’ in the center of the stage, which I’d be lyin’ if I said I didn’t like that! But it is what it is. I liked bein’ a sideman and I like bein’ a frontman. It’s harder bein’ a frontman– there’s a lot more work involved. It’s especially hard bein’ a frontman without a manager (laughs) when you have to do all of the behind-the-scenes work as well as the on-stage work! I have a big respect for people out there bookin’ their own tours and managin’ their own careers. I never had to do that before this record, so respect to those people– that’s some hard work!

Talkin’ about notoriety… Rolling Stone just released their “100 Greatest Country Albums of All Time”, and Margo Price’s Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is on there. You, of course, play fiddle on that album. I know your relationship with your own press, but I was curious to find out how you felt about being a player on what is now considered one of the best country albums of all time.

It’s pretty cool! I didn’t know that she got that! I’m gonna have to shoot her a text or somethin’ and congratulate her! To me, that was just a buddy callin’ me to play on a record. It’s cool that it’s considered one of the best of all time– that’s pretty crazy! But she deserves it! Talk about somebody who’s put in the hard work! I don’t know that she’s ever at home! I don’t think she’s ever here! She seems to always be on the road! She’s definitely loggin’ some hours and she deserves all the good press that comes her way if you ask me!

You’re gonna be on the Billy Joe Shaver tribute album that New West is puttin’ out with Margo doin’ “Ragged Old Truck”. I have not heard that track yet, but I’m excited to hear it ’cause I’m a huge Billy Joe fan! Tell me about movin’ to New West and that relationship.

It came outta nowhere, really. I had made Mr. Jukebox, and for whatever reason, I made that record for Third Man and that’s all they wanted to do and that was it. I fulfilled my obligation to them and it was like, “Okay, well, that was a cool thing that I did, and now it’s back to regular life and playin’ downtown and whatever!” I sorta had all these… I had amassed a fanbase! Which is not something that I had before! And I was every day getting messages and DMs and mentions and whatever social media stuff, people askin’ me when I was gonna make another record, and at the time in 2020, it had been a couple years since I put one out.

I decided I’m just gonna address that and tell the truth, tell people I’m not with Third Man Records anymore and if you ask me when I’m gonna put another record out, the answer is, “I have no idea. Maybe never.” ‘Cause I didn’t think that I was gonna get to put one record out, you know? I kinda counted myself lucky to be able to have that experience at all! It was definitely not in the playbook for me, and I just tweeted out this response to everyone, “Thanks for asking, but I don’t know. I have no idea if I’m gonna put another record out.”

George Fontaine and John Allen at New West saw that tweet, and George sent me an email, said, “Hey, would you like to put a record out with us?” And I said, “Hell, yeah, let’s go! I’m ready!” And then immediately, I was like, “Oh, no! I don’t have any songs! I haven’t written a song in four years!” (Laughs)

It’s wild– I sat on that information! They asked me in 2020 and I signed the contract in early 2021 and I was just like, “You know what?” I’m like an old school internet troll, “Let’s just sit on this and not tell anyone and just let people think I’m done making records for a while, and then maybe a few months before we put it out, we’ll tell everyone.” So it’s almost like a sneaker shock drop, “Let’s just let the troll keep goin’ for a while. I like it!” (Laughs) I wanted to surprise people!

You’ve immersed yourself now in countrypolitan, you’ve immersed yourself now in neo-traditionalism– what’s next? To me, it seems the next obvious step would be ’90s, early aughts alt-country, especially if you continue on with a label like New West.

I don’t know? I think the move for me is always gonna be straight-up country. That’s what I love. I like some o’ the alt-country stuff– Jayhawks and such– but for me, the thing that I love is just country music. I could go backwards? I’m definitely gonna go backwards, regardless, ’cause I think the ’90s is the end of what I like in country music. I could take it all the way back to the ’50s and do some stuff with no drums and sock rhythm and takeoff guitar and no pedal steel. I could take it all the way back to the ’30s, I could do a western swing record… I don’t know what’s next but I do know it’s gonna be country!

You said western swing, and I saw that you had mentioned that there’s a cover project that you have on your mind. I don’t know if you’ve started it, done anything, or if it’s just in the planning stages, but I wondered if perhaps that might not be somewhere in the western swing realm.

No. I won’t divulge too much information on that ’cause I don’t want somebody else to do it first, but it would be more in the ’70s realm of country music.

I’ll let my imagination wander then!

(Laughs) I do have a cover record that I made when I was fifteen, though, that I’d like to put out that’s all Bob Wills!

I saw that you had done that! And that was all self-released? So you still have all o’ that?

Yeah! It took some digging, but I found somebody in my hometown that still had it, and she sent it to me! So I got it! I don’t know what I’m gonna do with it. It’s on CD, so I have no idea what to do!

You should put it out!

It’s not a master or anything, it’s just a CD!

Sounds like a job for Ray Kennedy!

It’s pretty wild! My voice sounds better than I thought it was going to. I’d only been singing in public for like two weeks when I made that record. It was originally supposed to be an instrumental record. I made it with Buddy Spicher and his sons were gonna sing some on it, and then I thought, “You know what? I’m gonna sing it instead!” The record is great! I think I might’ve been a better fiddle player then than I am now (laughs)! At that point, that’s all I was doin’ was playin’ fiddle, so my chops were a lot better! But yeah, I’d like to put it out!

Tell me ’bout the show comin’ up– you’ll be at Grant’s. This is gonna be a full band show or are you gonna be doin’ your Robert’s [solo-style] gig?

It’s a full-band show. It’s actually funny that mentioned Elijah Ocean because I’m pretty sure he’s playin’ bass on this run!

Oh, fantastic!

Yeah! I got a good band, cats who are down to play country music and tour around. I got a guy named Gabe Tonon– he’s thirty years old, plays the hell out of a big 335 archtop Gibson– a guy named Leo Grassl on steel guitar, who is probably the best young steel player that I’ve heard. You know, there’s not a lot o’ cats under eighty that play steel guitar (laughs)! He’s younger than I am, and he’s killin’ it, man! He just practices all day, every day, and that’s what you gotta do! Findin’ guys that are willing to put that kinda effort and that kinda work into their craft is a rarity these days. People just wanna play the shows, they don’t wanna put in the work that goes with it. I managed to find a band o’ dudes that are willin’ to put the work in too, so it’s been very cool tourin’ around with them.

Neon Blue is available now from New West Records and through all major digital platforms! Don’t miss Joshua Hedley LIVE at Grant’s Lounge on Thursday, September 8th! GET TICKETS NOW!

Thee Aaron Irons is a music commentator & radio personality for 100.9 The Creek where he hosts Americana Madness weekdays from 10am-3pm and Honky Tonk Hell, a Rockabilly/Rhythm & Blues retrospective that airs every Sunday afternoon at 1pm. He lives in Macon, Georgia with his wife and daughter.