Until recently, Joshua Hedley has spent most of his career supporting artists such as Justin Townes Earl and Jonny Fritz with his fine fiddle playing. Now, thanks to a contract with Jack White’s Third Man Records, Joshua is front and centre with his debut album, Mr. Jukebox.
Marty Duda spoke to Joshua Hedley recently, interrupting the Country singer as he was watching wrestling reruns. Listen in as they discuss the current state of Country music and how to wrangle 50 + hats.
New Zealand audiences will be well-acquainted with Mr Hedley…he’s been here a number of times both as a sideman and playing his own tunes. Now, Joshua returns to Auckland’s Tuning Fork on July 15th as a headliner and bandleader.
MD: You were just in Auckland in October and you’re comin’ back, and in the interim you released your album.
MD: I know you were playing a few tunes from it when we saw you last time. You were solo before, so you’re coming back with a band, is that right?
JH: Yeah, I’m coming back with a full band.
MD: Excellent, tell me a little bit about them.
JH: Yeah, myself included, I got a six-piece band. I got keys and guitar and steel and I play fiddle. It’s a fun time, it’s a good honky tonk show. I’m excited to bring a full show to New Zealand for the first time.
I get in the van and I do the tour but I don’t get paid at the end anymore…everybody else does! Everybody but me gets paid.
MD: Is it much of a mind-shift to be the front man, instead of a sideman, which you’ve been for a number of years? You were playing fiddle for all sorts of folks and now you’re running the show. So what is it like when you’re on the road, is it a different experience for you?
JH: Um, yeah, definitely a different experience. I have people to be responsible for now. As much as it doesn’t feel like that, I have employees…that’s a weird thing. I’m responsible for helping people feed mouths and keep a roof over their heads and stuff. I’ve never been responsible for anybody but myself before. Before it was just get in the van, do the tour and get paid at the end. Now it’s the opposite. I get in the van and I do the tour but I don’t get paid at the end anymore…everybody else does! Everybody but me gets paid.
MD: Something’s not right there, I don’t know. You may be doing it wrong.
JH: (laughs) That is just the climate of the music industry these days.
MD: Do you see that changing at all?
JH: Oh yeah, it’s definitely changing. I made strides as a sideman and when I jumped ship and decided to be a frontman I started from square one again. So I’m just building it back up. But it’ going pretty well, I’ve got no complaints.
MD: Cause the album came out two months ago and I see you played at the Grand Ole Opry a few times. Do you feel like you’ve been embraced by the tradition Country organization?
I met Jeannie Seely I said, “I’m a huge fan and Leaving And Saying Goodbye is one of my favourite songs” and she said, “Oh that’s great! Are you gonna cut it?”
JH: Yeah, you know, obviously the Americana world welcomed me with open arms, and that’s great, but I’m really trying to sing my teeth into the mainstream country world and trying to get some twin fiddles back on mainstream Country radio. That’s my goal. I’m not trying to change anything, I’m just trying to add to it…trying to get some traditional Country music back into the ears of the younger generation. I’m excited to weasel my way into that world. It’s going to have to be through the back door but…I can get in there.
MD: It seems like you’re making some strides that way anyway. I think I saw a picture of you with Connie Smith at some point. That must have been pretty exciting.
JH: Yeah, I’ve been getting to hang out with some of my idols…Connie Smith and Jeannie Seely and Gene Watson and I just had a good long talk with Bobby Bare on Sunday. So, it’s been really cool to actually talk to the people that inspired me to do this thing. These are the people that I listened to growing up and when I was learning about Country music. These are idols of mine and I get to hang out with them now. It’s pretty cool!
MD: Do they try to offer you any kind of advice? What is the conversation like between you?
You know, anytime a 33 year old is playing music that normally 63 year olds play, you’re gonna get some side eyes from people.
JH: Umm, you know, we just kinda talk. We talk about music and I basically ask them about songs of theirs that I like. When I met Jeannie Seely I said, “I’m a huge fan and Leaving And Saying Goodbye is one of my favourite songs” and she said, “Oh that’s great! Are you gonna cut it?”
MD: Still hustling, that’s great!
JH: (laughing) Yeah!
MD: I’m curious, because you were coming from the Americana side of things over to the more traditional Country, were they at all suspicious about your motives? Did you run into anybody who was like, “Hey, are you taking the piss or are you actually, genuinely into this stuff?”
Instead of bitchin’ about there being no cheatin’ songs, just write one!
JH: I think that’s just a given that that’s gonna happen, and it has, for sure. Sorta the main theme, even before any of this happened, I’ve been making a living playing classic Country music for old folks for a long time and anytime I got a gig somewhere new, all the older regulars are just like, “You know, I wouldn’t know about you when I first saw you with all those tattoos and your bald head, but we really like you now.” I’m like, “Well, thanks!”
You know, anytime a 33 year old is playing music that normally 63 year olds play, you’re gonna get some side eyes from people. Like, “What’s he doin’, is this for real?” That is understandable; trust me, because I do it. I do it to people all the time. I’m like, “Mmm, what do they know about Merle Haggard?” But, you know, I do know a lot about Merle Haggard and I do really like Country music.
MD: So there!
MD: And when you’re writing these songs, cause these songs song like, a lot of them, like they could have been taken right out of the mid-1960s, do you have to have an awareness of almost finding the line between authenticity and, say, parody?
JH: I try to stay away from things that might come off that way. Honestly, I just try to write songs that I think Harlan Howard would have wrote or I try to write songs that I think Ray Price would like to cut if he were still alive. I stick to the classic themes…I stick to heartbreak, drinkin’…you’ll never hear me write a song about the way things used to be…like, “Boy, I wish I could hear…”, I hate the whole song that’s like, “You don’t hear no cheatin’ songs no more”. Well, instead of singin’ about that, why don’t you just write a cheatin’ song? Instead of bitchin’ about there being no cheatin’ songs, just write one! You have a pen, you know, you wrote this song. You know what I mean? Instead of singing about the subjects, I just sing about subjects. I don’t know if that makes any sense at all.
MD: Yeah, I thin k I know what you mean.
JH: You know what I’m sayin’.
MD: So when you’re talking with someone like Bobby Bare, are you kind of thinking in the back of your mind, “Well, maybe I could get him to sing…”, since you’re writing the kind of songs that he used to cut all the time back in the day. Is it a two-way street, as far as that goes?
JH: Oh, man, I would love that. I’d love to do some kind of song swap with him where he cuts some of mine and I cut some of his, because he’s still a great writer. Yeah, I’d love to write a song for Bobby Bare, it would be amazing.
MD: And I wonder if being affiliated with Jack White and Third Man Records, is that an asset? After all, he did the Loretta Lynn thing a few years ago.
I think the audience that’s listening to Chris Stapleton is an audience that is fed up with the same old crap…you know, the same old stuff coming out of music now. I think that they are wanting more artistry in their music and less marketing.
JH: I think it’s an asset in a lot of ways. The label itself has such a cult following that its guaranteed that people are going to hear my music because they just want everything…they trust Jack’s opinion and they buy everything that Third Man puts out. That’s definitely got an advantage. I think it just also has an advantage in the sense that it allows me to reach an audience that classic Country music has generally not reached before…a younger audience. You know, there’s not a lot of 25 year olds out there listening to Eddie Arnold. Because they bought my record, maybe they’ll find a YouTube video of me singing Cattle Call or something. Maybe it’ll entice them to go buy an Eddie Arnold record.
MD: Do you see what you’re doing as appealing to the same audience as someone like Chris Stapleton?
JH: Absolutely. I think the audience that’s listening to Chris Stapleton is an audience that is fed up with the same old crap…you know, the same old stuff coming out of music now. I think that they are wanting more artistry in their music and less marketing. And myself and Chris included, it’s about the song for us. Neither of us are winning any beauty contests, that’s for sure. We both look like homeless mountain men. I think we appeal to the same audience as people who are starting to want something more in their Country music.
MD: I imagine people may wonder how much input Jack White had in the making your album. Was it just a matter of him asking you…how much interest did he take, how much hands on work did he have on it?
JH: Man, none. He found my EP I made for New Zealand and Australia, the Don’t Waste Your Tears EP, and he liked it. Basically, he just cut a cheque and said, “Make more of that.”
MD: Nice one!
JH: He facilitated me to make the record that I wanted to make when I made that EP. I couldn’t afford to make the record that I wanted to make when I made that EP. I was playing at Roberts and doing two tours a year. I couldn’t afford a string section on that budget. I think he just, based on what he heard on that EP, he just trusted me to make a record that he wanted to put out.
MD: Very cool.
JH: Yeah, he let me have free reign, creatively…everything from the songs to the band to the studio to the cover art, everything. The videos all came out of my brain.
MD: Speaking of your brain, I think I noticed on Twitter somewhere along the line that you’ve managed to accumulate over 50 hats.
George Jones shirts and Mel Tillis ball caps and stuff like that. Even if I know it’s not going to fit, so that nobody else can have it.
JH: Yeah! They’re all sitting on my guest bed right now. I’m doing some house cleaning before this big tour. I just took them all out and put them down and said, “Man, that’s a shitload of hats!” I dusted them off and set ‘em out and now I’m trying to figure out what to do with them when they’re not on my head.
MD: I see Moby is selling off his record collection so maybe you could sell off some of your hats…make them like a special merch thing.
JH: (chuckles) Maybe, yeah, I don’t know. Most of the 50 are ball caps. Several years ago I started stockpiling any sort of vintage Country singer merch that I came across…George Jones shirts and Mel Tillis ball caps and stuff like that. Even if I know it’s not going to fit, so that nobody else can have it.
MD: (laughs) I don’t think you see a lot of Mel Tillis headgear around here in Auckland.
Joshua Hedley and his band play Blue Smoke in Christchurch on Saturday, July 14th and Auckland’s Tuning Fork on Sunday, July 15th. Click here for tickets.
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Released: 20 Apr 2018