How would Joshua Hedley follow up “Mr Jukebox”, his old school mid 20th Century inspired debut album? Cait Watters finds out…
The future of country music is in the past – at least that’s how I feel after listening to Joshua Hedley’s superb new throwback album, Neon Blue.
As a listener of all genres, I’ve always had a soft spot for the past, be it anthemic 80s pop or mid century jazz. The 90s in country is another glorious period, and I always appreciate seeing today’s artists show it the appreciation it deserves. I felt destined to like this album.
‘The last bastion of country music,’ says Hedley, ‘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?”’
Don’t get me wrong, I am fond of some of the poppy lands that Hedley talked about when discussing this album but that fondness is in moderation. It’s easy to be disillusioned with how formulaic a lot of the modern genre has become. From breaking away from this sort of sound, returning to the more ‘classic’ country sound, Neon Blue feels like a breath of fresh air.
There’s a fear that a project with such determination to be a certain way could come across as gimmicky. I never got that impression with this album. ‘I’m a singing professor of country and western,’ Hedley declares on ‘Country and Western’ and it very much feels like this. Hedley isn’t some tribute act wearing a cheap cowboy hat at some hotel. He’s the real deal, the time he’s spent plying his trade in his residency at Robert’s Western World evident.
There’s some nice storytelling on this. Really nice. ‘Down To My Last Lie’ is the cheating song, told from the cheater’s perspective. He feels guilt, knows what he’s doing is wrong and that he should end things with his lover but it’s not as simple as that. He’s fallen for this girl and feeling a connection that he simply doesn’t from the relationship he’s being unfaithful to. It paints the narrator’s conflict wonderfully.
‘Free (One Heart)’ follows, and it seems as if this may be a continuation to the tale of cheating, with a heart that’s now available for loving once more, something that he feels presents a challenge to a prospective lover. There’s depth to this one, comparing that heart to an old car, ‘a fixer upper, been used and abused but it’s ready for a brand new start’. There’s potential to explore that idea more, absolutely, but we don’t really get that, just one more verse and the chorus over and over. Yet that works for me, as it adds to the whole idea of vulnerability and the difficulty to open up to somebody new…or maybe I’m over analyzing it but, hey, it’s a great song nonetheless.
It was ‘Found In A Bar’ that captured my heart with a sweet, heartwarming tale and premise. ‘Old man holding her hand walking down the street like two teenage kids,’ Hedley sings about an older couple that catches his eye. He can’t help but ask the older gentleman about their story, finding out that forty years ago they met in, like the title suggests, a bar. Hedley then tells his own girl this, inspired by how love can be found in the most unremarkable of places. There’s a fine line between sweet and sappy with love songs but this one masterfully navigates its way to the sweet side. I really like it.
I went into this album aware it was a conscious decision to make something that sounded like yesteryear. Towards the end of my first listen of the album – by the time I hit ‘Let’s Make a Memory’, a tender little slow dance number, beautifully arranged with some lush background vocals that pair perfectly with Hedley’s own rich voice – I had completely forgotten that. This isn’t a gimmick. This is just great music, and it avoids clichés – that’s why it works.
There’s so much potential for cliché with what he’s trying to achieve. The title track, ‘Neon Blue’ alone could easily be one but it’s not, instead making reference to the genre’s reputation of heartbreak (‘Drinking double shots of whiskey while the jukebox sings, another song about heartache and an old bar stool’) and incorporating and inverting it into a fun, toe tapper of a track. The fiddle, guitar and keys are popping on this and it’s glorious. The elongation of the ‘blue’ in the chorus is fun. The urge to go to a honky tonk is always there but it just got that much stronger after this one.
There’s a great cover of Roger Miller’s ‘River In The Rain’ to close things out. It’s an 80s song, brought into today through the 90s, skipping everything in between. Some might say Hedley is living in the past but I disagree. He’s just living in his own world, putting out the music that he wants to. And long may he continue to do just that.
Country professor Joshua Hedley is offering a course in country with this twelve track release, and it’s a course well worth the study.
Joshua Hedley – Neon Blue – Tracklist
1. Broke Again
2. Country & Western
3. Old Heartbroke Blues
4. The Last Thing In The World
5. Down To My Last Lie
6. Free (One Heart)
7. Neon Blue
8. Bury Me With My Boots On
9. Found In A Bar
10. Let’s Make A Memory
11. Wonder If You Wonder
12. River In The Rain
Photo – Joshua Black Wilkins