JOSHUA HEDLEY HANDS tell his story for him.
In the grand tradition of southern men of a certain type – great romantics, brawlers, inmates, tragedians (sometimes all of them at once) – he has Texan swing king Bob Wills tattooed on his left hand and his right hand, currently blank, is “reserved for Merle Haggard”.
“But I do have the intro to [Haggard’s] Swinging Doors, the chord changes in the Nashville numbers system, on my knuckles: 11, 44, 15, 11,” says Hedley, once of Naples, Florida, but a Nashville resident for nearly 20 years. “People asked me every day what that means, and I’m like, listen, I could explain it to you and you still would not understand, so just don’t worry about it.”
Do these tattoos make them fighting hands or loving hands?
“These hands, I don’t do much of either of those with ‘em,” he laughs.
Not sure that I would recommend putting that on his online dating profile.
“Mostly they just play guitar and fiddle these days. But traditionally they’ve been more loving hands than fighting hands, for sure.”
And Hedley has a lot of love to go around, especially given he survived the two lost years since his debut album, Mr Jukebox, by taking drugs and alcohol off the menu and replacing them with a new recording contract and a fresh batch of songs. It’s just that the object of his affection may come as a bit of a shock.
While Mr Jukebox was a love letter to the golden age of the “Nashville sound” and the strings-tears-and-suits countrypolitan favoured by George Jones, Ray Price and a young Merle Haggard, the new disc, Neon Blue, bends it’s tight blue jeaned knee to a period that has for some time being marked as the day the (country) music died: the 1990s.
Yep, big twangin’ songs to dance, drink and dry some tears to, played and listened to in tight jeans, boots and full-bodied hair.
As I asked when first hearing Mr Jukebox, is this man serious? In the ‘90s some of us (okay, I) were quite prescriptive in our country music listening, horrified by the rock aesthetic, pop overlay and manufactured core as country music went from second-tier to market-dominating. I’d listen to Dwight Yoakam but not Garth Brooks, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Patty Loveless but not Reba McEntire and LeAnn Rimes, Alan Jackson, Dixie Chicks or George Strait, but not Toby Keith, Shania Twain or Brooks & Dunn.
Sometimes I think making those choices, as wrong as they might have been, is pretty much the basis of country music fandom. You’re this type of county fan, or you’re that kind of country fan, and those twains were never going to meet. Given the love fest for at least early ‘90s country that is this new album, did Hedley ever fall into that trap?
“I was a lot more selective when the stuff was on the radio. I was a lot younger but I was already pretty well versed in classic country music, and I already was pretty firmly set in my beliefs of what I liked,” he says. “I was a Merle Haggard guy, George Jones, Bob Wills, Dolly Parton – early Dolly; I hadn’t grown to appreciate 9-to-5 Dolly quite yet, but Dolly and Porter [Wagoner] I loved all that stuff.”
Even with his own hard rules though, the young Hedley wasn’t immune – to borrow a line from Dwight Yoakam – to the lures of Babylon.
“I remember I loved Blue by LeAnn Rimes when that came out. First of all, I think I was 12 and she was 14, so I was in love with her, period. And then here she is singing this, like, Bill Mack song that was written for Patsy Cline, though she never got to record it before she died, and I’m thinking I can’t believe this is on the radio right now,” the older Hedley says.
“I did not much care for … let’s say, Shania Twain was not my cup of tea back then. But as I got older and grew to learn more about music and how it’s made and production and all of this, paired with how bad radio country got after that, going back and listening to [Twain’s] Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under? is like a treat. That’s a 4-4 shuffle my man, it doesn’t get more country than a 4-4 shuffle.”
Fair call, I concede, that’s a good’un. Before things went to shit with Man! I Feel Like A Woman. Hedley won’t go that far but he does say of the country music landscape soon after Whose Boots… “if I’d known how bad it was going to get, I wouldn’t have complained about it as much at the time.”
Word. Or indeed, Preach!
“You go back and Garth Brooks was heralded as the guy who fucking killed country music back in the day, and now you go back and listen to it and, if Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old) was any country-er you’d be scraping it off the bottom of your shoe.”
“It’s country-er than cowshit is what they say. That is a country and western song: it’s got fiddle, it’s got steel guitar, and the ‘90s was the last time you really heard fiddle and pedal steel in every song on country radio.”
Not just buried deep in the mix as a barely registered nod to the roots, as soon became the norm, but actually as a featured instrument.
“Yeah, that was the last bastion of when you could turn the radio on and go, yes this is a country song, without even thinking about it.”
The narrow window Hedley defines as the last time mainstream, radio-made country music sounded like country music is the late 1980s to the mid ‘90s, though he is at pains to point out that he is not objecting to the many strands of influence into country music. After all, when his beloved countrypolitan broke barriers in the 1960s, it was labelled not-country, maybe even anti-country, for its pop leanings by any number of purists and establishment figures.
“Country music has always taken cues from pop music, throughout its entire history. It seems like around ‘96, ‘97, it veered more off into that direction as you got bands like Rascal Flatts doing Life Is A Highway and I don’t see how anyone could listen to that and say one thing about that that is country,” says a more animated Hedley. “What is country about that song? Nobody can answer that question because the answer is, nothing, except for what radio station it’s been played on.”
Listening to Neon Blue today – without prejudice, as Cuban heel boot/tight blue jeans-loving George Michael might say – any sane person would wonder what about this modern honky tonk would be difficult to get your head around as a country fan. And yet these are sounds that are quite alien to the vast majority of mainstream country radio and TV, in Australia as much as the USA, with its glossy rock/pop sound and a lyrical crop rotation of beers, blondes, buddies, and pickup trucks.
Mind you, Hedley does mention a pickup truck in the very first song on his album.
“I do drive a pickup truck. I said pickup truck [in Broke Again] for two reasons. One, because it’s an instinctively country trope, but also because it is the vehicle that I drive,” he chuckles. “When I say running out of gas in my pickup truck, that’s because I just put $20 worth of gas in my truck because gas is like almost 4 dollars here right now. It’s both traditionally country in theme and true to life in practice.”
It’s true to life for the man who describes himself on this album as “a singing professor of country and western”, and who doesn’t wink at you when declaring that real life is “drinking, cheating and loving”.
“Exactly. I’ve done two out of three of those things, but I won’t say which ones,” he declares. “Country music has always revolved around a theme – I don’t want to say clichés but they are clichés – that have run throughout its history and there is a fine line to walk there to where you can reference these themes, these clichés, where you can use them artistically or you can use them as hot button buzzwords and just fill in the blanks around them with connector phrases and then you have a top 40 song.”
Not in any way like a Keith Urban song ok? It’s awfully unfair to suggest this sounds like the Australian’s whole career of pretending he grew up with pickup trucks instead of utes, Friday night lights football instead of Sunday rugby league, and Buds instead of XXXX. And Hedley isn’t having a go at Our Keith, though I may certainly be doing it.
“I would much rather hear Keith Urban singing about utes, that’s cool to me,” Hedley says. “Who is that guy with The Boys In The Bush? I love that guy. At least he’s singing about Australian things.”
Lee Kernaghan represent!
Let’s keep in mind that while there will be some, ahem, older folk enjoying the reminiscing when they hear the sound and style of this album – Hedley’s favoured zone is 30 years ago after all, which is positively ancient – there will be an audience for whom this will be brand new and who might be talking about loving the “classic country sounds”.
“I have some Gen Z friends who are hosting early 2000s country dance parties. I’m like, early 2000s? What the fuck? I’m 37 but in my brain I’m 87, and I’m like, what on earth could you find appealing about that?,” he says. “To me, that was arguably one of the worst times for country music, or really, music in general. There’s always going to be some old fuddy-duddy who doesn’t like it, I’m that fuddy-duddy when it comes to Rascal Flatts: I’m not going to get into it.”
With Rascall Flatts and the Urban types in his sights, in case you think Hedley’s quiet crusade takes him into the other revivalist/traditionalist camps he is adamant that he is nothing and nowhere like Americana. Whatever that is.
“It’s funny to me, and I’ve got nothing against Americana, but you ask somebody what Americana is and they don’t have an answer. To me what it is, it’s a catch-all term to describe music that doesn’t get played on the radio,” he says. “If I decided that my next record is going to be all Hank Williams covers, is that record country or Americana? The songs are undeniably country but because I’m putting it out in 2022 and 37 not 87, it’s going to be Americana.”
So is he making … oh wow, we’re saying it out loud … country music?
“I’ve been doing this my whole life and I’ve always thought of myself as a country musician. I play country music, that’s what I’ve done my entire life. When I put out Mr Jukebox and people started interviewing me and people started writing about me, that was one of the first things that stuck out, people’s aversion to calling what I do country music. They would say things like ‘outlaw folkster troubadour, Joshua Hedley’, or ‘Americana stalwart, Joshua Hedley’.
“What is this? Why, why are you doing this? I have painstakingly put every ounce of my being into making a copy of a 60s country record, why is this not a country record? It is a country record.”
Bemused, maybe even annoyed he might be, but this is still a polite man.
“I don’t have any animosity towards Americana or people labelling me as such: you can call me whatever the fuck you want,” country music singer Joshua Hedley says. “I’ve been called much worst things then Americana.”
Neon Blue is out now.