“I didn’t anticipate having a first album, or any album,” Joshua Hedley told his recent audience at Jammin Java. But now, he has two: 2018’s Mr. Jukebox and last year’s Neon Blue.
A native of Naples, Florida, Hedley got his first fiddle when he was eight. By age 10, he was playing in bars. “It’s all I’ve ever done,” he said. At 38, he’s been playing in bars for nearly three decades, and he’s learned a lot of songs. The title track of Mr. Jukebox — “a true story” — reflects on all these years playing and taking requests, especially at Robert’s Western World, a beloved (and one of the last) old school honky-tonks on Lower Broadway in Nashville, where he lives.
When he released his first album, Josh attracted press write-ups and interviews. He found it curious the lengths people went to avoid calling his work “country,” referring to it with terms like “Americana” and “neo-folk.” But Hedley has always considered himself country. (He also referred to himself as a “redneck.”) “I don’t sound like Jason Aldean,” he said, “but neither did Jimmy Rogers.” “Country & Western,” on Neon Blue, gets into this issue.
Neon Blue was inspired by the New Traditionalist movement of the ’80s and ’90s, and Joe Diffie in particular. (A reaction to the countrypolitan sound that had become popular in Nashville, the New Traditionalist movement was a return to the music roots, especially the honky-tonk of the ’50s and ’60s. By getting back to these roots, artists like Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, and Rodney Crowell made music that was closer to rock in sound and spirit.)
Joshua explored these musical concepts in his show at Jammin’ Java on June 14. “Bury Me With My Boots On,” Hedley explained, is his take on a Diffie song. “I would’ve liked to have pitched it to him,” he said, “had I known how to do that, and had he still been alive when I wrote it.” (Sadly, Diffie passed away in March 2020 after contracting Covid.)
“The Last Thing In The World,” Josh said, “is about getting drunk and being sad together at the same time. Those things go good together, like peas and carrots.” During the pandemic, Josh got sober; it’s not hard to see how, working in bars from a young get, problematic drinking was an occupational hazard. Now, he says, he doesn’t get drunk anymore (“nobody buy me a beer,” he said), but he still gets sad. Sobriety agrees with him. Compared to when I saw him last, nearly five years ago, he seemed happier and more energetic. I told him I could see the difference, and he said, of getting sober, “It was very necessary.”
As he says in a lyric in “Country & Western,” Josh sings about “real life.” “Broke Again,” he said, “is definitely autobiographical, even though I don’t want it to be.” “I wrote this song about taking a vacation,” he said of “Let’s Take A Vacation.” He joked, “You’ll be surprised how it starts.”
Stream “Country & Western” by Joshua Hedley on YouTube:
Hedley includes a lot of covers in his set, and he started with a few. “Bob Wills Is Still The King,” a tribute to the Western swing master, was made famous by Waylon Jennings. Josh continued on that theme with “Lone Star Beer & Bob Wills Music.” “Faded Love” is a country standard that’s been recorded by many artists; just last night, I heard it on a Doug Sahm album I was streaming as part of my summer listening. Later, Josh came back to the theme of drinking with a Johnny Bush song about the DTs.
Toward the end of his set — at least the part with his band — Josh played “Weird Thought Thinker,” which may be his song I find most relatable, and the title track of Neon Blue. The band left the stage and he said, “Normally, that would be the end of the show, but I’m feeling frisky.”
The ensuing solo portion of evening lasted a good while. Maybe because he’s from Florida, Disney songs sometimes come up when he’s playing; he played “Robin Hood and Little John,” from the classic animated movie that depicts the Merry Men as various animals. Someone requested “When You Wish Upon A Star,” which he recorded on his first album. “I don’t know how to play it on guitar,” he said, so he sang it a capella. He went on to explain, “I didn’t do shit on my albums,” before correcting himself to say that he played fiddle on the first. “There are better people than me, and they can be had for the right price,” he said He then added, “I can be had for the right price.”
Joshua also encouraged the audience to prompt him with the name of a country singer, and someone called out John Prine. Exhaling deeply, he played “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” recorded by David Allan Coe. Prine and his friend Steve Goodman wrote it together while they were drunk. When Prine learned Coe was recording it, he said, “Take my name off that shit.” “I don’t blame him,” Josh said. “It’s pretty stupid.”
Other requests were for Ray Price — we got a cheating song — and Lefty Frizzell. To finish out his performance, Josh played two songs of his own he hasn’t recorded. He characterized “Rounders” and “Out On The Prairie Wind” as cowboy songs.
Before Hedley took the stage, Lauren Morrow played an opening set on what we learned was her 26th birthday. “Only Nice When I’m High,” she explained, was about how, when she was pulled off the road in March 2020 while in Colorado, she and her husband, Jason, who played bass with both artists (they shared a band), got a large quantity of weed for the drive home through Kansas. “Hussle” is about working hard to make it in the music.
Watch Lauren Morrow perform “Only Nice When I’m High” live for Lightning 100 on YouTube:
Earlier this year, Lauren released her first solo LP. “I’m Sorry,” she said, is probably her favorite song on it. She also did a song about her mom, who was something of a wild child, sneaking out of the house to see the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd. When she was in high school, Lauren said, she was staying up late to grab the next Harry Potter book. “Barbara Jean” is based on a true crime story about a woman who disappeared while on a lake trip with her husband for their fiftieth wedding anniversary. The husband got remarried six months later. Lauren chose an unconventional approach to this narrative, recording it in a major key and telling it from his perspective.
The theme of making it in music, especially as a woman, was one Lauren came back to, and she dedicated “Nobody But Me” to “all my girls who are holding it down.” She made a video for the song that premiered on Rolling Stone. She also shared she’d had a meltdown recently, about, among other things, this tour, but that the video had come out just as this was happening and helped her get her bearings. After the set, I shared with her that meltdowns tend to get better — they get rarer, and they pass more quickly — as you get older. When you’re very young, you haven’t been through things yet, and they’re very scary. But, as you age, you go through stuff, and you survive it. You learn you can and will survive it, and it gets less scary. She closed out her set with “Leona.”
If you like a classic country, you can’t go wrong with Joshua Hedley. It was great to see him to do his thing, and we caught him on an especially good night. I look forward to seeing what he continues to do, and I’m excited at Morrow’s burgeoning career. They both have a lot more great music to offer.