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Joshua Hedley – ‘Neon Blue’ review

Joshua Hedley‘s debut album, 2018’s ‘Mr. Jukebox’, was very strong, and his sophomore effort, ‘Neon Blue’, is even better. Where the former explored the sounds of the ’60s and ’70s, the new album fast forwards to the neotraditionalist country sound of the ’90s. Hedley manages to capture the essence of his influences, while not sounding beholden to them and making himself completely distinctive.

I’m not someone who is overly familiar with neotraditionalist country. My familiarity with country music comes by way of Americana, alt-country, and folk. I definitely wasn’t listening to this music at the time it was coming out, and it’s not something I’ve deliberately sought out much of. Some of the artists I listen to from this period – Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, and Rodney Crowell — fall into this category, but it’s not a category of music I look for other artists in to listen to.

After hearing ‘Neon Blue’, that may change. This is an excellent album, and it shows me that there’s definitely something in this music worth exploring and really getting to understand. I certainly understand the problems with streaming, but the beautiful thing about streaming is that it makes it possible to do a lot of exploration, in a way that wasn’t possible before. I think I might just go about exploring neotraditional country music.

Getting to the meat of the album, the songs are great. Hedley worked with cowriters on this album, and the results show the wisdom of that decision. ‘Broke Again’ mines solid, steady country territory, but it does it skillfully, and part of what’s great about what’s going on here is the nodding to other parts of the album. It’s a cherry on top that really makes this an attractive sundae. ‘Country & Western’ is a bit of a thumb in the eye to the all the jargon and terminology that surrounds “what they used to simply call country music,” and I think Hedley is probably right to reject Americana. He’s just plain country.

In ‘Old Heartbroke Blues’ and other songs, we got any number of references and allusions to the rich history of country. This is an album that comments on its genre, on itself, and its place in the genre. When Hedley talks about a being a kind of “professor,” there’s really something to that: he’s giving us, in the form of a set of songs, a commentary on the history and state of the genre. More of these iconic images and references appear in ‘The Last Thing In The World’.

The album pivots from here to a suite of songs that, while they may or not be strictly connected, are telling a related story. ‘Down To My Last Lie’, ‘Free (One Heart)’, ‘Neon Blue’, ‘Bury Me With My Boots On” and “Found In A Bar’ are songs about love, heartbreak, death, and bars, in a way that’s all very related. Hedley’s adult life, as he’s written about, has been dominated by his playing in the honky-tonk Robert’s Western World. This part of the album represents a more concrete, grounded side of country music, one less interested in interrogating concepts and more interested in the genre’s sincere engagement with its classic themes. It’s to the albums credit that it balances these halves, and that they play off of each other exceedingly well.

‘Wonder If You Wonder’ doesn’t feel quite as integrated as the rest of the tracks, but it’s still very strong and not out of place. The cover of Roger Miller’s ‘River In The Rain’ is finely done and well chosen, hitting the perfect to close the record. Hedley demonstrates his strengths as an interpreter as much as a performer of his own material.

This is a terrific album, with a lot of original ideas, strongly written, well played, just solidly done all around. I know that Hedley got sober in the last few years, and like it has for many artists, this choice has really payed off in terms of his art, and I strongly recommend the results.

Joshua Hedley
Credit: New West Records

Track list: 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 Record label: New West Records Release date: 22nd April 2022 Buy ‘Neon Blue’ now

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