By Jonathan Bernstein
When director Wayne Price traveled to East Nashville earlier this decade for the filming of his documentary “Heartworn Highways Revisited” about the city’s rapidly growing Americana/roots music community, Joshua Hedley was still best known as the fiddle player for oddball country weirdo Jonny Fritz. Still, Price left Nashville with a strong hunch that Hedley could, one day, become a star in his own right.
“Everyone in town loves the guy and knows he’s the real deal,” Price told me in 2015. “If he ever wanted to go forward with being a front man or a solo artist, he’s going to be the guy. He’s that talented.”
Three years later, Hedley is poised to become the latest breakout in Nashville with his debut album, “Mr. Jukebox,” out today. Hedley is just the second country singer, following Margo Price, to sign with Jack White’s Third Man Records.
Hedley, 33, is part of a larger Nashville community of younger artists mining largely outdated historical country styles. But unlike the majority of his peers, who tend to gravitate towards the hard-edge ’70s sounds of Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard, Hedley’s “Mr. Jukebox” is a love-letter to the 1950s and ’60s heyday of country tunes dressed up like ornate pop.
Countrypolitan, the genre was nicknamed. Hedley’s album is a studied exercise in country formalism, richly produced with full string sections and choreographed backup vocals (or “oohs and aahs,” as he calls them).
“I just love that Nashville sound, which gets a bad rap,” says Hedley. “Prior to it, you had these hillbilly singers, who then suddenly just started making this real cinematic-sounding, lush music. I wanted to try to recapture that.”
Joshua Hedley is a proud ambassador for country music in all its forms, “everything from Jimmie Rodgers to Ronnie Milsap.”
“I’m definitely a student of the game,” says Hedley, who for years has spent his Monday nights in town playing cover gigs at Robert’s Western World on Lower Broadway. “I’ve been playing in bars since I was 10 years old.” He says his debut album sounds the way it does simply because he happened to be listening to early Willie Nelson and Ray Price albums when he was writing the "Mr. Jukebox."
After moving to Nashville from his native Florida at the age of 19, Hedley settled into years of alternating between playing honky-tonk cover gigs and touring as a sideman fiddler player for Fritz as well as a session player for artists like Justin Townes Earle, Nikki Lane, and Langhorne Slim. During that period, he made a few amateur recordings, including a 2009 EP called “Green Eyes” (“I had a lot to say about nothing”), but apart from writing one or two songs that he’d play during Fritz’s sets, for the most part he remained on the sidelines.
During those years, Hedley was also drunk.
“I never really wrote anything because I was shitfaced all the time,” he says. But once he sobered up, songs suddenly started pouring out of him. Toward the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017, he wrote nearly 20 songs in two months, the results of which would end up comprising “Mr. Jukebox.”
“I started getting ideas where I had never had ideas before.”
In a genre whose definition is constantly redrawn and debated, Hedley is a true believer in the open-ended cross-pollination of country music, rather than strict border walls. If there’s one point he wants to communicate, it’s that he plays country music, plain and simple. He isn’t so much trying to reclaim the genre from its mainstream associations as he is carving out space for the type of country music he plays — under the larger umbrella that country music has taken on as it continually modernizes and evolves.
“People want to call me anything they can besides a country singer; it’s like that’s a bad word now,” he says. “Nobody wants to say: This is country music. It always has to be something like Americana or outlaw or new folk troubadour or some shit like that. Naw, man, I am making country music. And yes, Luke Bryan is also considered country music, but so is this. There’s room for everybody. So, don’t make up some new name to call it because you don’t like what Jason Aldean’s doing. What I’m doing is still country music, and it can coexist. It’s not a bad word. It’s what I am. I’m a country singer.”
What Hedley is not, despite his tattoos, burly beard, and hip Third Man credibility, is an outlaw. When he recorded “Weird Thought Thinker” for his upcoming record, he decided to cut the verse that name-checks outlaw heroes like Billie Joe Shaver and Kris Kristofferson. “I try to buck that whole outlaw thing,” he says. “I am definitely not an outlaw. I don’t live like an outlaw, and I make the sort of music that the outlaw movement was rebelling against.”
After almost 15 years in Nashville, Hedley is finally ready to make good on Price’s prediction and share his own music with the world.
“There is nothing comfortable about jumping into the main spotlight and putting your art out for people to judge. It’s not a comfortable feeling,” he says. “I thought that I was just going to tour with Jonny [Fritz] and play at Robert’s forever. I loved doing it, and it was something I knew I could do. It was like job security: OK, I am good at this thing, and I can keep doing this, and everything will be fine. But if I try to do this other thing, I don’t know how it’s going to work, and it might not work out, and I guess ...”
Hedley pauses for a moment, then concludes, “I was just afraid to do it.”