Third Man Records signee and country traditionalist Joshua Hedley was seemingly born with enough talent, resilience and luck to make it as a career musician. A stage performer by middle school and a veteran of the Nashville bar scene as a teen, things always clicked once he started emulating Ray Price, pre-outlaw Willie Nelson and the Nashville Sound.
Hedley’s road to the album Mr. Jukebox, out April 20 on Third Man Records, began as a toddler with a downright random item on his holiday wish list. Although his grew up in Florida with parents only interested in hearing oldies on the radio, young Joshua picked out an old-time instrument that’d set his life’s course.
“For whatever reason, I wanted a fiddle when I was 3,” he says. “Specifically, a fiddle. I don’t know why I knew what a fiddle was, but I did and I wanted one.”
Classical lessons followed, with Hedley’s teacher catering to her young student’s developing interest in country music.
“My violin teacher knew I wanted to play fiddle, so she’d teach herself these fiddle songs and then show them to me and then teach me to do it along with my classical training,” he says. “Pretty soon after that, I discovered Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. That really opened me up to learning about different kinds of country music.”
Hedley wasn’t from a musically-inclined family like label mate and former bluegrass picker Lillie Mae, and the kids at school likely didn’t know Ray Price from Ray Stevens. To take that next step and become a stage performer, pre-teen Hedley found mentors and band-mates through a local country music association in Naples, Fla.
“They’d have jams at VFWs and American Legions on Sundays,” he says. “I’d go to those. I was 10. I knew a few fiddle tunes, and I’d go sit in with these bands and play with guys in their 40s and 50s. Once I got a little better at improvisation, I ended up joining a couple of bands. I was like 12 years old, playing at the bar.”
Hedley moved to Nashville at age 19 after years of playing there in the summer. By then, he’d developed both the playing skills and the social network to land a gig playing at Tootsie’s.
Each step of the way, Hedley improved not just as a musician but as a singer with a smooth baritone voice. Just as his musical taste points back to the 1960s, his voice might be the closest thing out there to the crooner-quality chops of a Jim Reeves or an Eddie Arnold. This talent also started rearing its head when Hedley was knee-high.
“Since I was a kid, I was picking out harmonies in Everly Brothers songs in the car,” he says. “My mom said she knew that I was a singer driving to pre-school, listening to these Disney tapes I had, because I’d tell her to stop singing. She can’t carry a tune in a bucket. She said she knew I was going to be a musician when I was 2 or 3. I had an ear for it.”
Before Third Man came calling, Hedley was quite content playing his shifts at Robert’s Western World and touring here and there with Johnny Fritz and Justin Townes Earle.
“I never moved here with the idea that I’d ever be famous,” Hedley says. “I just didn’t want to get a regular job. Pay the bills and play music was my goal. I don’t care if it all goes away tomorrow. I’ll go back to my Monday night at Robert’s.”
Each step in Hedley’s journey prepared him for the next. For example, the album title doubles as a nickname given to Hedley because as a bar band veteran, he can play seemingly any old country song on request. Just as Hedley wanting a fiddle as a little kid seems like fate now, his album’s title track came out of nowhere.
“I dreamed that song, which I always thought was total bullshit when songwriters said they dreamed a song,” he says. “‘Oh yeah, it’s just a good story.’ But I really dreamed the chords and the melody. I woke up at 5 a.m. out of a dead sleep, and I cut a little demo of it to my phone. I knew right away that I was going to call the record Mr. Jukebox as soon as I wrote that song.”
Since he doesn’t need his spare cash for the literal jukeboxes he’s replaced on Lower Broadway, maybe Hedley should play powerball or something. After all, some combination of fate and good fortune always seems to lead to something greater for Third Man’s newest country singer.