Joshua Hedley is “a singing professor of country & western,” he declares on his raucous and witty new album, Neon Blue. It might sound like a punchline, but it’s not.
An ace fiddle player, a sharp guitarist, and a singer with a granite twang, he’s devoted his entire life to the study of this genre. Ask him about it and he’ll explain: “When all my friends went off to college, I went to Nashville. I was 19 years old playing honky-tonks and getting an education.”
His 2018 debut, Mr. Jukebox, showcased his deep knowledge of country’s history, in particular the beery ballads of the 1950s and ‘60s. His mentors were George Jones, Ray Price, and Glen Campbell, but his most remarkable accomplishment was putting his own spin on their style. Neon Blue, on the other hand, examines a very different, often forsaken era: the early 1990s. “The last bastion of country music,” says the professor, “was the early 1990s, roughly 1989 and 1996. You could turn on the radio and immediately know you’re hearing a country song. You could still hear steel guitar and fiddle. But there was a hard fork around 1996 or ’97, when country veered off into pop territory. Neon Blue asks, "What if that fork had never happened? What if country kept on sounding like country?”
Hedley has been a presence in Nashville for nearly twenty years, although you have to know where to find him. You have to brave the tourists on Broadway, bypass the three-story bars blasting Journey, and make your way to Robert’s Western World, a time-capsule honky-tonk from a different era, an oasis in a town where twang is constantly being run down by pedal pubs. “It’s the last holdout. It’s exactly the same now as it was when I started playing there seventeen years ago. It never doesn’t feel like home because it never doesn’t feel familiar.” He’s got tenure at Robert’s, playing hours long sets full of his own songs and country classics, and he hates to miss a show.
When recording Neon Blue, producers Skylar Wilson (Justin Townes Earle, Lindi Ortega) and Jordan Lehning (Rodney Crowell) corralled an all-star crew featuring some of the city’s best players, who made Hedley step up his game. The singing professor became the student, learning lessons he’ll apply to everything he does next. “I learned so much making this record. It really changed me.”