With the release of his highly anticipated debut album Mr. Jukebox via Third Man Records, Joshua Hedley will embrace the role he was born to play: this generation’s classic country champion. An accomplished fiddle player, Hedley felt inexplicably drawn toward the instrument as a child. He got his hands on his own fiddle at age 8, and by 12, he was playing with middle-aged pickers at the VFW. At 19, he moved from his native Florida to Nashville, where he became an in-demand sideman at Robert’s Western World and other bars, and ultimately, a well-respected frontman.
Armed with an easy croon and prodigious fiddle playing, he became known as the Mayor of Lower Broad. 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. Hedley didn’t start writing his own songs until he was about 28 years-old. So on the backend of his 20s, he finally started writing, eventually 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.
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. “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. “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. He penned shuffling “These Walls” about FooBar, a beloved East Nashville dive Hedley lived near before it shut down.
“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.”