Album Review – Joshua Hedley’s “Neon Blue”

He’s known as Mr. Jukebox. Some also consider him the Mayor of Lower Broadway—a moniker he’s earned from his long-term residency at Robert’s Western World in Nashville. He’s the fiddle-playing, honky-tonk singing, country music lifer originally from Florida named Joshua Hedley, and he knows the in’s and out’s of country music more than most from having devoted his life to hours upon hours of performances on the Robert’s Western World stage.

With his 2018 album Mr. Jukebox, Joshua Hedley put on a veritable clinic of classic country music making in the modern context, throwing it back to the Golden Era of country in a way that got everything so eerily correct, from the tone of the guitars, to the inflections in the turns of phrases, to the stitching on his Nudie suit. It was certainly a niche project, and more imitative than original. But it underscored Hedley’s mastery as an interpreter of older country music.

Four years have passed since, with some fans becoming restless for more of Hedley’s classic country crooning, but he’s thrown a curve ball by contemporizing his approach in those four years by some four decades on his new album Neon Blue. As Joshua Hedley explains, the 90s were really the last era when a listener could turn on the radio and distinctly hear the difference between the country station and everything else. So that is the era he’s embraced this time.

90s country also happens to be really hot at the moment as both the beneficiary of the 25-year retro/nostalgia cycle, and the era many listeners are seeking refuge in as modern country continues to underserve the public. Just as expertly attentive and intentional in getting every single detail to the era exactly correct as his previous record, Joshua Hedley delivers a transportive and immersive experience on Neon Blue like few others, spiriting the listener to a country music era decidedly cooler than our current one.

Simply put, Neon Blue is a blast of a listen. It’s not just the nostalgic joy you get from songs like “Neon Blue” and “Broke Again” that come straight out of the Alan Jackson and Brooks & Dunn era, it’s the type of simple, almost innocent sentimentality found in the writing of songs like “Free” and “Found in a Bar” that bring an immediate fondness to this music touched by memory and just a hint of melancholy.

And though the 90s had a distinct sound that was born off the picking of guys like guitar player Brent Mason and steel player Paul Franklin, it was also the last era when you’d hear a country song that sounded like it could have been written many years previous. So when it comes to songwriting, “90s country” really encapsulates a much broader era of influence.

Aside from the pure songwriters of our era such as Arlo McKinley or John R. Miller, those best at making modern country music understand that country is inherently cliché. As opposed to fighting this, they embrace it, work within that limitation, and exploit it for the entertainment value and insight that can be found there. That’s one of the many things Josh Hedley does on Neon Blue that makes this album not just another throwback country record. It’s patently self-aware, and smart in how it approaches otherwise overused, and overwrought themes.

On Neon Blue, Josh Hedley proves he’s not just “Mr. Jukebox,” or a perennial Lower Broadway entertainer. As he sings on the second track on this record, “I’m a singing professor, of Country and Western.” Deeply studied and truly gifted to express the host of styles that comprise the broad and omnivorous 90s country era, Joshua Hedley has made himself into a modern country marvel, capable of taking up any piece of music from any country music era, and making it sing.

Bravo, Mr. Hedley.

1 3/4 Guns Up (8.5/10)

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

Purchase from New West Records

Purchase from Amazon

© 2023 Saving Country Music