The “Singing Professor” further burnishes his country credentials on second album.
Following Joshua Hedley’s critically acclaimed 2018 debut ‘Mr. Jukebox’, released by Jack White’s Third Man Records, comes ‘Neon Blue’ – as much a sophomore record as an encyclopaedia of country. Hedley’s breakout debut showcased his deep knowledge of country music history, in particular the beery ballads of the 1950s and ‘60s. ‘Neon Blue’ takes his forensic attention to the origins of the genre to an even deeper level, this time focusing on the often forsaken era of the early 1990s.
“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?”
The era may often be dismissed as slick or overproduced, but Hedley finds something exciting in that sound. ‘Neon Blue’ plays up the inventiveness of the lively production. It’s a record steeped in the culture of saloons, with barrooms playing a prominent role in most of the record’s 12 songs. Hedley meets a cowgirl at the Broken Spoke; he surveys the crowd at the honky tonk and asks to be buried underneath a barroom floor with his boots on. He may be drinking his sorrows away, but he also discovers love underneath the warm neon glow, pining for crushes and singing about an old couple who found love in a bar.
Hedley has been a presence in Nashville for nearly twenty years, and a scholar of the genre for longer still. ‘Neon Blue’ represents a fine addition to the canon of country music, and a record on which future professors of the genre may look back on themselves.