They call him Mr. Jukebox and apparently if you catch him playing in downtown Nashville he more than lives up to his nickname. But right now Joshua Hedley is in the international spotlight following the success of his debut album which is called, surprisingly enough, Mr. Jukebox. Hedley is the latest of what one might call a new wave of country stars – Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price, Austin Lucas and Jason Isbell – who are exploring country music’s roots and restating them in their own particular fashions.
Hedley’s album is a bona fide country album which is steeped in the traditions of the 1960’s Nashville sound with its strings and backing singers along with a healthy dose of honky tonk numbers. It’s music he’s been listening to and performing for years and after a lifetime of playing in local bars in Nashville along with being an in demand fiddle player, touring with Justin Townes Earle and Jonny Fritz, Hedley has stepped into the limelight with a sure grasp of what makes a true country song. Possessed of a fine lugubrious voice and able to wring out all the emotion from a broken heart on a song such as Counting All My Tears, he nails the glory days of Nashville before the country outlaws opened the doors to a more raucous scene. And while he told Rolling Stone magazine that he writes, “sad songs for sad people,” there are some more upbeat moments on the album as on the honky tonkin’ title song while Weird Thought Thinker is a fantastic amalgam of syrupy strings and hard bitten lifestyle lyrics.
Those of us in the UK will have a chance to see and hear Hedley bring these songs to life as he sets out on his first headlining tour of Europe in September ending with a slot at The Long Road Festival. Just back from a lengthy tour of Australia last week he took some time out to speak to Blabber’n’Smoke and we kicked things off by asking him about his preparations for the upcoming tour.
Well right now I’m just chilling, taking some rest time as I’m just back from Australia and we had some travel mishaps on the way home. But I’m looking forward to the tour, the next few months are going to be crazy as we’re doing Europe and then back to the States for shows up until November but you guys will get me at my freshest as we start off with you. We’ll be working hard at putting the set together. I like to say that it’s the set which makes the show. Any Joe Shmoe can get up there and sing songs but you got to give the people a show. Anybody can listen to the record at home so I like to give them something to watch as well so we’re working on making it a really good show so it will be something to see along with a great bunch of country music.
I see you call your songs country music. You don’t like any of the labels that are thrown around these days such as Ameripolitan.
It’s just country music to me. That’s what is was called when I was growing up and when people first started to take notice of me when I was singing Ray Price songs, they all said I was singing country music. All I’m doing now is write songs that I would pitch to Ray Price if he was still alive. If he was still alive I wouldn’t be a performing artist, I’d just be writing for him.
You’ve really honed in on that Nashville sound on the album without falling into a nostalgia trap as it’s really fresh and vibrant.
Definitely. I think the sound of my record was heavily influenced by what I was listening to at the time and I was listening to a lot of mid sixties music, I’ve already mentioned Ray Price but also early Willie Nelson, Billy Sherrill, Tammy Wynette and stuff like that. As a result I had that string section sort of in my head. The next album should be interesting because I’ve been listening to all kinds of stuff. I think it’s a product really of how long I’ve been learning all these songs all my life. When I started to write that was just what I knew how to write.
I was wanting to ask you about your reputation as a human jukebox, Mr. Jukebox in fact. Is it true you can play just about any request that’s thrown at you?
Yeah, pretty much. I’ve got my touring band but I also have a band that I’ve been playing with downtown for a long while in Nashville. We do a honky tonk thing at Robert’s Western World, basically a covers show. I love to do it and in fact I’d be doing it today if they weren’t closed for renovations. We have three singers, me, my guitar player Kevin and our bass player Bill and between the three of us on a Monday night we can pretty much sing you any pre Garth Brookes song.
Has anyone requested a song you couldn’t do?
Not at Roberts but sometimes I like to do it when I’m on tour. I’ll go on stage by myself and ask, “Who’s your favourite country singer? ” and normally I’ll get someone like George Jones or Merle Haggard shouted back but over there in Australia recently they were shouting out all kinds of crazy shit that isn’t in my repertoire. I mean stuff that really is a bit too new for me, things like Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams, the eighties and nineties harder edged stuff. I reckon I’m going to have to learn how to do Guitar Town.
Up until now most folk would probably know you as the fiddle player for Justin Townes Earle and Jonny Fritz amongst others while when you’re in Nashville as you say you’re a fixture at Robert’s Western World playing for the locals and tourists in what presumably is an excellent bar band. So what set you off on writing your own songs?
It’s a weird story really, it all just kind of fell into my lap. I’d written some pretty shitty songs when I was younger and a little bit angstier. I thought of myself as some kind of Ryan Adams character and I’d a lot to say for someone who hadn’t done too much living. Later on I was pretty content being a fiddle player and touring around, that life was kind of tailor made for me to pretty much skate through as easily as possible. It’s there in the words to Weird Thought Thinker where I sing, “I’m a little bit lazy,” I mean that’s true. I liked that life a lot but then I just had this idea for a song and I wrote Weird Thought Thinker and I played it for Jonny and he really liked it. He liked it so much he started having me sing it at his shows and so I found out that other people liked it too. So I thought, well, maybe I’ll try writing songs again and see what happens. I wrote a couple more which were alright but once I quit drinking that changed everything, it really opened up everything. It was like it opened a part of my brain which had been locked up and I just suddenly could write songs and they just kept on coming. I must have written 20 songs in two months whereas usually I would write a couple of songs in 20 months.
The album’s released on Jack White’s record label, Third Man, their second country signing after Margo Price.
I’ve been working with Jack for a long time, I’d played fiddle on a couple of their Blue Series records and then I sang harmony on Hurtin’ on a Bottle on Margo’s first album. I’ve know Margo for years and she called me and asked if I wanted to sing on her record. It took me longer to drive to the studio than it did to play the session and I didn’t think any more of it but next thing there she is playing on Saturday Night Live!
Well Margo’s done really well but I believe that you have also had some special achievements such as playing at the Grand Ole Opry.
Yeah, I’ve played it four times now. It’s been incredible. The first time I can hardly remember, it was just a blur. They say you’ll always remember your first time there but for me it was the second time. At the back of your mind you’re thinking, “Well I got to play at the Opry, they might not call me again but at least I got to play it once,” so when I got that second call it meant that they liked me and that was special getting asking again. To do it four times is just amazing. It’s just something I hadn’t ever thought would happen.
Finally I just wanted to ask, given that you said that you’d be happy just writing songs for singers such as Ray Price, is there any particular song from back then that you wish you had written?
Well if we’re talking about Ray Price there’s a song which Bill Anderson wrote for him, City Lights. Bill was like only 17 or 18 years old when he wrote that and to be able to write a song like that at that age is pretty enviable. So yeah, that’s the song I’d have liked to have written.
Here are the UK tour dates including an appearance in Glasgow courtesy of The Fallen Angels Club. All other dates are here
MON 3 SEPTEMBER – The Old Blue Last London, UK
TUE 4 SEPTEMBER – The Crofters Rights Bristol, UK
THU 6 SEPTEMBER – Admiral Bar Glasgow, UK
FRI 7 SEPTEMBER – The Sage Gateshead, Hall 2 Gateshead, UK
SUN 9 SEPTEMBER – The Long Road Festival Lutterworth, UK
And here’s that Ray Price/Bill Anderson song…
photography by Jamie Goodsell