When Joshua Hedley hits the stage shortly after 9.30 this evening it’s to croon the almost jazzy supper club-sounding ‘Nightlife,’ the loose nature of which has him effortlessly accompanied by his backing band, the Hedliners. A slight surprise perhaps but the song then effortlessly segues into more familiar territory with ‘Weird Thought Thinker’, the latest single from his debut album and a song that surely sums up where he’s at now.
If the autobiographical title track of the album ‘Mr. Jukebox’ epitomised the early period of Joshua Hedley’s musical career – a time in his life when the regular four hour sets he played to drunken tourists in Robert’s Western World on Nashville’s Lower Broadway turned him into a veritable human jukebox – ‘Weird Thought Thinker’ by contrast captures the literal progression he’s made since with his recent success making for an itinerant lifestyle that sees him regularly traversing the globe: “I got rambling fever down deep in my bones/ From backroads and byways to places unknown/From wasteland to Graceland or wherever I roam…” But all the while he’s out on those heartworn highways he’s never truly alone while he has his musical heroes – Ray Price, Webb Pierce, Chet Atkins, and Ernest Tubb – to accompany him.
An in demand Nashville player – Hedley was an 8 year old fiddle playing child prodigy – it’s surprising how rapidly he is developing into a songwriting force seeing as he only took up the pen aged 28 but songs as good as ‘Counting All My Tears,’ ‘These Walls’ and ‘This Time’ already sound like country standards. What might also surprise a first time audience is the extent of his sardonic sense of humour, allied to a love of wrestling. Apparently, back in April he was struggling with how to fit in a Wrestlemania event in New Orleans shortly before a trip to London. Humorous asides include, “You all having a good time? We’ll fix that..” and a story about how following a trip to Amsterdam he pulled out a roach instead of a guitar pick at the airport. The comical as well as the musical hits keep on coming. His introduction to ‘Let Them Talk’, “I wrote this song about a woman that doesn’t exist anymore” isn’t intended to describe someone recently deceased but is instead a humorous way of describing a former girlfriend who’s no longer a part of his life.
When Hedley played a semi-secret show at the Betsy Trotwood back in April of this year he finished with an extended encore of some 30 minutes’ duration based purely on audience shout outs. This demonstrated his almost encyclopaedic knowledge of trad country along with his impeccable singing chops – a rendition of a Micky Newbury number which stretched his honeyed baritone to the max proving particularly memorable. At the point in his set tonight when he’d normally give his band a rest and perform an extended solo set, he hands off instead to an old friend propping up the bar – Ags Connolly – who gets the opportunity to play three numbers of his own.
Hotfoot from recording a session on Bob Harris Country, the heat in the upstairs room at the Old Blue Last causes a degree of discomfort for Hedley which is particularly galling, “A bald head just means there’s nothing to catch the sweat,” he says. Meanwhile he precedes the balladic ‘Let’s Take A Vacation’ with, “I wrote a song about taking a vacation. Just because I’m a writer doesn’t mean I have to be clever.” It’s a song that effortlessly mixes the traditional with the modern and has a ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ George Jones-style spoken recitation section.
He skedaddles quickly down the stairs almost immediately on conclusion of the inevitable finale, ‘Mr. Jukebox’ which has a fair number of the audience singing along, the sweat box nature of the venue perhaps proving too much to merit an encore. But we’ll forgive him. A fiddler, a gypsy and a wandering soul he may be – but it’s also rare to find someone who’s a compelling singer, capable of writing his own material, while also being a consummate musician. Although 1965 may represent the high water mark for country music where Joshua Hedley is concerned, his modern take on the genre is sure to attract more followers in future. “Classic country is like a suit. Nothing about a men’s suit has changed in like 100 years. Classic never goes out of style.” Amen to that.
Special thanks to ‘Texas Joe’ Walters for use of his photos