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On The String: How Joshua Hedley Earned His Honky Tonk PhD

Josh Hedley

Joshua Hedley planned only on being a fiddle-playing sideman. That he’s now one of the most talked-about and persuasive traditional country singers in roots music comes as quite a surprise - to him. But lucky for us. His voice, which projects canon-like from his new album Neon Blue, is grounded in the chesty resonance of Merle Haggard, with touches of Willie’s late arriving phrases and the smoky curls of George Jones. But in the end it sounds like nobody but Josh Hedley. He’s something of a rarity these days too. 21st century Nashville and Americana music, replete with raspy earnest folk singers, needs a classic country larynx like Hedley’s. But he had to be persuaded to be that guy.

“I didn't move to Nashville with the idea of quote, unquote, making it you know? I moved to Nashville to play on Lower Broadway, because at the time, I was mostly an instrumentalist,” says Hedley in Episode 206 of The String. “I did sing, but I was not a frontman. I didn't have the confidence to have a rapport with the audience. That wasn't my bag. I was there to play fiddle and sing harmony. And that was what I did for a long time.”

It’s hard to rebut Hedley’s common sense. In his former life, his obligations came to a close every time he went home at the end of a shift at Robert’s Western World or came home from a tour. He didn’t have to think about boxes of unsold CDs, ordering the right merch or how to pay a band. “It's burdens galore,” he says of his new role, pointing to an immediate challenge as we interviewed in early March. “Even right now, (I’m) trying to figure out how the hell I'm gonna take a full band down to South by Southwest to play like seven free shows. How do I do that? Like these are the things that nobody thinks about.”

“Is it worth it?” he stresses? “Sure.”

This journey began in Naples, FL where as a three-year-old, for reasons he still finds inscrutable, Joshua began begging his parents to play fiddle. It took a few years of lobbying, but at last he got going on Suzuki violin lessons, and by some lucky break, he was with a teacher who took it on herself to learn traditional fiddle tunes so she could teach them to Josh. It worked, because by the age of 10, no kidding, he was on stage with a country/bluegrass band. By age 12 he had a regular stint, working weekends and growing up and making his plans to be a professional fiddler. His Nashville connections were enabled by yearly stays at the Mark O’Connor Fiddle Camps held out at Long Hunter State Park in the summer. By age 19, Hedley was living in Music City, landing jobs on Broadway.

Neon Blue

“I've been down there since 2004, steadily,” Hedley says. He’s on the Robert’s calendar even now playing Fridays during the lunch shift. “And, man, the change has just been unbelievable. I remember I had to play like 14 shifts a week to pay my rent.” It's indeed hard to remember that before a decade ago, there just weren't many people downtown on nights out. And while the entire atmosphere of Lower Broad has changed dramatically, making it a lot easier to make good money, the feeling in Robert’s, by far his favorite place, has stayed the same. It’s still one of Nashville’s great cultural assets.

Hedley got closer to the realities and possibilities of original songwriting and fronting a band when he spent some years touring with Johnny Fritz and the late Justin Townes Earle. He told me that Fritz especially, and his friend the artist Nikki Lane, urged him to make his own music and record an album. Most persuasive was Jack White’s Third Man Records, at the time the home of Margo Price, which wanted to release his debut Mr. Jukebox, which came out in 2018. That got Hedley noticed nationwide and he stepped into his new role, not to mention some fine Nudie-inspired western suits.

Where Mr. Jukebox tapped the Robert’s friendly, shuffling sounds of the 1960s, the new Neon Blue adapts to a different era - the early 1990s, when country radio was banging to the twang of Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, George Strait and Joe Diffie, for whom Hedley seems to have a particular fondness. The album opens with the whimsical, stuttering “Broke Again” about the second oldest source of the blues, money or the lack thereof. Track two might best sum up Hedley’s mission statement here at 37 years old, in which he asserts himself as a singer of “real life, like drinking, cheating and loving,” and as a “singing professor of country and western.”

I don’t need to see a diploma; Hedley’s earned his advanced degree in honky tonk studies.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's music news producer and host of The String, a show featuring conversations on culture, media and American music. New episodes of The String air on WMOT 89.5 in Middle Tennessee on Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. Twitter and Instagram: @chavighurst.