Joshua Hedley jumps ahead in the country music timeline on new album Neon Blue (out April 22 via New West Records), skipping from the smooth Nashville Sound vibes heard on the 1960's-influenced Mr. Jukebox (Third Man Records, 2018) to the 1990s, when traditional country instrumentation marked undeniably fun radio hits by the likes of Joe Diffie and Mark Chesnutt.
"In the '90s, you heard steel guitar, you heard fiddle all over all the songs. It was a large piece of the puzzle in every song," Hedley said of a decade he describes as "the last bastion of country music" that matches Neon Blue's sonic aesthetic.
To best recreate the sounds of his childhood from a modern perspective, Hedley assembled an impressive cast with '90s country bonafides.
As anyone who's caught one of his sets at downtown Nashville honky-tonk Robert's Western World can attest, Hedley's beyond proficient as a fiddler. Yet for this project, he recruited Jenee Fleenor, an award-winning multi-instrumentalist who's toured with '90s country legends Terri Clark and Martina McBride.
"My area of expertise is more in line with Tommy Jackson, so I called in a hotshot to play the fiddle," Hedley added.
Fleenor spoke glowingly of the quality of country bangers Hedley co-wrote with a list of collaborators that includes Carson Chamberlain, a former band leader for Keith Whitley and the co-writer of No. 1 hits by Alan Jackson ("Love's Got a Hold on You") and George Strait ("The Best Day").
"The other day this song came on my XM radio and I cranked it up loud because it was so country and so dang good. Then I looked down to see who was singing and I was like, 'heck, that's Joshua, and I think I played on this!' Sure enough it was [the title track]," Fleenor told Wide Open Country. "Needless to say, I had blast playing on Joshua's record. His fiddle heroes are my heroes too, and when I saw that Bob Wills tattoo on the back of his hand, it made me smile so big (as Joshua says, 'I know Bob Wills like the back of my hand'). I can sure relate to that as 'Faded Love' was the first fiddle tune I ever learned."
Scotty Sanders, a steel guitarist who's recorded with Pam Tillis and John Michael Montgomery, joined Fleenor in Hedley's A-team of studio musicians.
"On this record, Scotty Sanders and I overdubbed fiddle and steel at the same time which is something I love doing so we can take some time and come up with signature parts together," Fleenor said. "The songs were great, Joshua sang his butt off and I remember saying how much it felt like a throwback to '90s country, which I think people are starved for these days so I definitely put myself in that mindset when I stepped in the studio."
Links to era-specific country music history run deep beyond Sanders, Fleenor and Chamberlain's involvement. Veteran producer Kyle Lehning (Randy Travis, George Jones) mixed Neon Blue. His son, Jordan Lehning, co-produced the album with Skylar Wilson. Jordan's wife, Lilah Lehning, sang background vocals. In addition, bassist Viktor Krauss brought the credibility that comes with a famous surname (he's Alison Krauss' brother) plus 16 years of experience on the road and in the studio with Lyle Lovett.
Hedley's personal touches go beyond country songs informed by untold hours spent playing in honky-tonks. Easter eggs in the artwork pay homage to his past collaborators and current sobriety, while a limited run of fried bologna-colored vinyl honors Robert's Western World's most popular menu item.
"I hid some little messages here in the cover," Hedley explained. "For one, that's a non-alcoholic beer. The cigarettes right there, that's sort of a tribute to 'Weird Thought Thinker.' It's shot at Robert's, where I kind of grew up playing at. If you look at the back, I'm wearing a belt that was made by Johnny Fritz, so it's a nod to my former boss. My lovely friend [Bessie Pearl Dennie] posed on the back cover here as a bartender. When I played with Justin Townes Earle, he always had a woman on his album covers. So I put a woman on my album cover to pay tribute to him."
READ MORE: Rooted in Country: Joshua Hedley on the '90s Country Sound That Inspired New Album 'Neon Blue'
Neon Blue tracklist
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" (Roger Miller cover)
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