Josh Hedley and His Band

Rebecca Varidel
21st Nov 2022

Australia's favourite Nashville honky tonk hero Joshua Hedley returns to Australia this month on the back of his sophomore album Neon Blue which was released in April on New West Records to universal acclaim in country circles. Accompanying Joshua on his latest headlining Australian tour will be down under debutante Emily Nenni, who comes from the Bay Area via Nashville, and who'll be here on the heels of her own second album On The Ranch which was out the first week of November.

It only seems like yesterday that Joshua Hedley, in Australia playing fiddle for Justin Townes Earle, was dragged to the mic on the main stage at the first ever Out On The Weekend Festival in Melbourne. Everyone involved in Justin's band had told promoter BT of Love Police what an incredible singer Joshua was, and BT wanted to hear it for himself. The next year, 2016, Joshua was back in Australia on his first solo tour anywhere ever. A deal with Jack White's Third Man Records was just around the corner, followed by his brilliant debut Mr Jukebox.

Of course, BT and the Out on the Weekend audience only found out what the regulars at Lower Broadway Nashville honky tonk haven Robert's Western World had known for a decade or so. Joshua Hedley is the real deal.

Joshua Hedley is “a singing professor of country & western,” he declares on his raucous and witty new album. It might sound like a punchline, but it’s not. An ace fiddle player, a sharp guitarist, and a singer with a granite twang, he’s devoted his entire life to the study of this genre. Ask him about it and he’ll explain: “When all my friends went off to college, I went to Nashville. I was 19 years old playing honkytonks and getting an education.” Hedley’s breakout debut Mr Jukebox showcased his deep knowledge of country music history, in particular the beery ballads of the 1950s and ‘60s. His mentors were George Jones, Ray Price, and Glen Campbell, but his most remarkable accomplishment was putting his own spin on their style. New album Neon Blue, on the other hand, examines a very different, often forsaken era: the early 1990s.

“The last bastion of country music,” says Hedley, “was the early 1990s, roughly 1989 through 1996. You could turn on the radio and immediately know you’re hearing a country song. You could still hear steel guitar and fiddle. But there was a hard fork around 1996 or ‘97, when country veered off into pop territory. Neon Blue asks, What if that fork never happened? What if country kept on sounding like country?”

The era may have been dismissed by traditionalists at the time as slick or overproduced, but Hedley finds something exciting in that sound. Neon Blue plays up the excitement of bigger-than-life choruses, the relatable emotions of those sad-eyed ballads, and the inventiveness of the lively production. Hedley says, “The sound is modern, but it’s still discernibly country.” Neon Blue songs would sound right at home on a playlist between Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places” and Alan Jackson’s “Chattahoochie,” and at times you can see a thousand lighters held high during an encore. After making Mr. Jukebox with a close group of friends, Hedley decided to record his follow-up with professional session players — a Nashville tradition. “All the players on this record are the people who are playing on Top 40 hits. They’re the professionals playing two or three sessions a day, and it was crazy to see them work…I came in with skeletons and they put flesh on them. They made them into human beings,” Hedley shares.

Of course, Hedley is still playing Robert's Western World, and Robert's is still a time-capsule honkytonk from a different era. “It’s the last holdout. It’s exactly the same now as it was when I started playing there seventeen years ago. It never doesn’t feel like home because it never doesn’t feel familiar.” He’s got tenure at Robert’s, playing hours-long sets full of his own songs and country classics, and he hates to miss a show. In 2018, after he opened for Jack White at Bridgestone Arena (by far the largest venue in town), he was back at Robert’s right across the street playing to a boot-scooting audience the very next night. In honor of this truly unique oasis, an extremely limited version of the vinyl edition of Neon Blue was pressed on “Robert’s Fried Bologna” color vinyl in tribute to the late-night sandwich favorite being served up to Robert’s patrons nightly.

Joshua Hedley's touring partner Emily Nenni also knows Robert's Western World well, having spent years sharpening her chops there and at the smoky double wide trailer Santa's Pub. And like Joshua, Emily has a unique approach.

“What I love about country is the songs can be very honest and vulnerable, yet they’re beautiful enough to make you cry,” Nenni notes.

“My music is sweet and sad, but I don’t take myself too seriously. It’s old school honky-tonk with a slightly different flavor.”

JOSHUA HEDLEY & HIS BAND, and Introducing Emily Nenni Australian Tour '22 (VIC, NSW, QLD)