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“It’s so bizarre when I think about it. Everything just happened.” Joshua Hedley is taking a moment to reflect, not just on the past couple of eventful years, but on his entire life––a life that feels predestined, driven not by the one doing the living, but by the music he has to make. “From the very beginning––asking for a fiddle when I was three––everything just happened,” he says again, laughing a little. “It’s almost like I had no say in it at all.”
Hedley sounds both wryly amused and awestruck. He often does. Self-deprecating but confident, unambitious but hard working, subtle but virtuosic: Hedley is a living paradox. He’s also a hell of an accomplished fiddle player. Now, with the release of his highly anticipated debut album Mr. Jukebox via Third Man Records, he’ll embrace the role he was born to play: this generation’s classic country champion.
In interviews, Hedley has said that he feels no need to try to improve upon perfection, which he believes that Nashville Sound pioneered by giants like Chet Atkins already achieved. So instead, he channels it, like a golden-era honky-tonk medium. “Classic country is like a suit. Nothing about a men’s suit has changed in like 100 years,” he says. “Classic never goes out of style. Something can’t be a throwback if it’s never been out of style.”
A Florida native, Hedley felt inexplicably drawn toward the fiddle as a child. He first asked for one at age 3. His mom listened to Neil Diamond, and his dad listened to Otis Redding––they didn’t see the request coming. But when he asked again five years later, they were struck by the longing’s staying power, and at 8 years-old, he finally got his hands on his very own instrument. “When I was 10, I started trying to find little jam sessions. On Sundays, they had country music jams at the VFW or American Legion, so I learned some fiddle tunes and sat in.” At 12, he joined his first band. His bandmates were in their 40s. “I was a sideshow, you know,” he says with a laugh. “Come see the child fiddle player.”
Around the same time, Hedley visited Nashville with his parents. He knew then that’s where he belonged, and at 19, he made the move. He began sneaking in Robert’s Western World not long after arriving, too young to drink legally and too wild to care. He still remembers his first gig in the now legendary spot, where he’d eventually become a featured performer––and the bartender who threw him out. He was 20, and before he played the gig with the Travis Mann Band, the bartender warned him not to drink. “Of course, I did,” he says. “Of course, she caught me. Luckily it was the end of the night. I think I only missed a couple of songs.”
Hedley went on to become an in-demand sideman at Robert’s and other bars, and ultimately, a well-respected frontman. Armed with an easy croon and prodigious fiddle playing, he became known by peers as the Mayor of Lower Broad. Then he hit the road to perform with artists including Jonny Fritz, Justin Townes Earle, and more, while the 2015 documentary Heartworn Highways Revisited featured Hedley prominently. “I never really wanted to write songs––never really wanted to do anything other than play at Robert’s,” he says. “That’s what I’d envisioned for myself. My goal was to pay my electric bill and bar tab playing music without having to hold a regular job. I didn’t move to town with some grand delusion of ‘I’m going to be famous one day.’”
But friends such as Fritz and Hedley’s then-girlfriend knew he could––should––do more. So at about 28 years-old, he started writing. About four years later, he got sober, unlocking a flood of clarity and creativity. The heartbreaking, distilled, defiantly classic country that poured out of him became Mr. Jukebox, a salve and beacon for 60s honky-tonk devotees everywhere. But make no mistake: Hedley’s music is not mere homage. It’s vigorous, bold, and new. “It’s not a throwback,” he says. “It sounds new because it is new, and it sounds the way it sounds because it’s the only thing I know how to do. I can’t write a song that sounds different.”
Album opener “Counting All My Tears” carves out the collection’s gloriously tear-jerking territory from the jump. As “oooooohhhs” and “aaaaahhhs” serve as spine-tingling harmonies––a classic-country flourish carried throughout Mr. Jukebox––lonely piano is joined by a familiar cast including steel and of course, fiddle. Powerful and smooth, Hedley’s baritone sweeps listeners away as he delivers his side of a sad conversation.
“Mr. Jukebox” is a swinging nod to those beloved machines––both inanimate and breathing––that dependably play a lot of songs for a little money. It’s impossible to listen to the tune and not smile thinking of Hedley’s years logged in cover bands on Nashville’s Lower Broad. Lush strings kick off the sauntering “Weird Thought Thinker,” which features harmonies that evoke both bass walkdowns and angels. An ace fiddle intro opens “Let Them Talk,” a carefree ode to being in love and not worrying about who knows it.
With forlorn yearning, “Let’s Take a Vacation” pleads for one last lovers’ getaway to try to remember what’s been lost. Hedley delivers a masterful recitation over crying steel, soft harmonies, and rich supporting strings. “I wrote it about a girl who I was seeing, who was my ex-girlfriend who I was trying to make current girlfriend again. When I got the mix of the record back, she was in the car with me. I gave her some earbuds and told her to listen. I couldn’t hear what song she was hearing. Then, she just kind of turned red and started giggling, and I knew that she was at the recitation. And I knew that it worked,” he says, laughing.
Hedley penned shuffling “These Walls” about FooBar, a beloved East Nashville dive Hedley lived near before it shut down. “I was really broke and really drunk,” he says. “I had no heat in the winter and no AC in the summer, so I’d get to FooBar about an hour before they opened because I knew the bartenders.” He’d stay all day and night, then stumble home. “I spent a lot of time in there. It’s all the best and worst parts of me.”
“This Time” paints a vivid picture of leaving that’s both proud and blue. Simple and brilliant, “I Never Shed a Tear” sounds like a standard, but just like all but one track on Mr. Jukebox, it’s a Hedley original. “You’re trying to say as much as you can in as few words as possible,” he says. “Trying to convey an emotion to make people feel their own emotions.” Hedley’s ability to capture feelings is on spellbinding display in album standout “Don’t Waste Your Tears,” a soaring, gut-punching vocal performance. The final track is the only cover: a goosebumps-inducing version of “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Hedley picked the song to honor his dad, who passed away about three years ago without seeing the record deal, glowing press, and peer admiration Hedley’s earned. “We spent a lot of Christmases at Disney World,” he says. “When I was searching for a cover song, it dawned on me that my dad didn’t get to see any of this happen, but he always wanted it.”
When asked what he hopes listeners get out of Mr. Jukebox, Hedley doesn’t hesitate. “I just want people to remember they have feelings, and that they’re valid,” he says. “Not everything is Coors Light and tailgates. There are other aspects of life that aren’t so great that people experience. They’re part of life, part of what shapes people. And that’s worth noting.”