Joshua Hedley Champions Real Country Music on ‘Neon Blue’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Photo credit: Joshua Black Wilkins

Joshua Hedley is a devout student of country music. “When my friends went off to college, I went to Nashville.” He has played the honky-tonks since he was 19, and his debut album Mr. Jukebox (Third Man Records) showed that he absorbed a lot playing in those honky-tonks. 

While Mr. Jukebox was recorded with friends, his new album Neon Blue (New West Records) was recorded with Nashville session players with a specific exploration in mind. Of the new album, he said,  “The last bastion of country music was the early 1990s, roughly 1989 through 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 never happened? What if country kept on sounding like country?” 

If there is a thesis statement for that question, it’s in “Country & Western”. At the beginning of the song, Hedley names some labels like “Americana troubadours”. He counters that by singing “I’m what they simply used to call country music.” He’s right about that. When you hear the pedal steel, the honky-tonk piano, and the fiddle, there’s no doubt that you’re hearing a country song, and a good one at that. He goes on to sing, “I studied all the legends and learned from what they done. No, I’m not trying to rewind time. I’m just doing what I love.” It’s clear that he not only studied the legends, but also learned a fair amount in how to craft a song.

“Let’s Make a Memory” is a great example of how Hedley can craft a song. He begins the song by suggesting a waltz with someone to an old favorite song. It would be enough that this is a song ready-made for slow dancing with someone in a dark bar. However, he also paints a vivid picture with the lyrics that describe enjoying the dance and then moving to a corner table to talk for a while. Plus, it’s hard not to sing along when he sings, “Let’s make a memory we’ll never forget. One that will make you smile when it runs through your head. I believe it will be one we won’t regret.”

It’s not just the melodies that are country. The themes of these songs have been found as long as people have been singing country songs. He sings about being heartbreak in “Old Heartbroke Blues”. He sings about being broke. And if no country album is complete without a cheating song, he covers that base in “Down to My Last Lie”, a song full of regret for “the last time I’ll hold her.” The themes are familiar, but Hedley brings his own style to them.

It’s pretty safe to say that Hedley succeeded in making an album that is unmistakably country. These songs are fueled by pedal steel, fiddle, and Hedley’s ability to tell a story. Whether he sings a boot-stomper like the title track or a slow ballad, he makes you want to get your boots on and do some dancing.

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