When we meet for lunch at East Nashville's Butcher & Bee on a damp Tuesday afternoon, Joshua Hedley is wearing a camouflage trucker cap that reads "Elizabeth Cook for Sheriff." This is noteworthy, because seated directly behind Hedley, at a table with her manager, happens to be the Americana singer-songwriter herself. It's an idiosyncratic Music City moment and the two exchange hellos and quips about Cook's name adorning Hedley's noggin.
But it also illustrates just how ingrained Hedley is in Nashville's indie music community – even if he's not wearing a hat with their name on it, everyone knows him. That's because so many have played alongside the fiddler or seen him sing for tourists and discerning locals every Monday night at Robert's Western World, Nashville's best honky-tonk.
Last year, Hedley landed on the radar of Jack White's Third Man Records, who signed him as only the second country artist on the label (Margo Price was the first). "There's a deftness, a weight and not a small amount of soul in every word he sings, and you feel it, immediately and viscerally," says Third Man's Ben Swank. "He's a singular artist, and how could we not pay attention to someone like Joshua? He's been in front of Nashville all along, showing this town what is great about itself."
On Friday, Third Man released Hedley's superlative debut album, Mr. Jukebox, named after his uncanny ability to perform nearly any classic-country song thrown his way. During a recent Monday night at Robert's, he fulfilled requests for the well-known (Hank Williams) and the niche (Gary Stewart).
But save for one timeless cover song included as a tribute to his late father, Mr. Jukebox is pure Hedley – 10 songs elevated by his clarion voice and inspired not by the overplayed Outlaw trend, but by country music's lush and often dismissed Countrypolitan past. Which is why Hedley, imposing with his sleeve tattoos and big beard, laughs when some dub him an "outlaw."
"I'm making the kind of music that the Outlaw movement was rebelling against. The shit that I'm doing spawned the Outlaw movement because they hated it so much," he says, sporting a Nineties "Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox" Joe Diffie T-shirt to offset his Elizabeth Cook cap. "But people are going to say that since I'm not part of the Music City machine, I'm Outlaw country. I would love to be part of the Music City machine as long as I get to keep making the music that I want to make. Bring me in, Music Row. If the machine wants to hear sad fucking ballads about heartbreak with a lot of steel guitar and some strings, then I'll be a cog in that machine."
In a format where shiny, happy pop-country songs still maintain a foothold, that seems unlikely for now. But while Hedley, 33, isn't necessarily a fan of today's contemporary sound, he says it earns its country tag. "It's not up to me to decide what is and what's not country music," he says. "The people who are buying Florida Georgia Line records, those people are fucking country people, so I can't say that's not country music. I don't personally care for it, but nobody's got a gun to my head forcing me to listen."
"I always thought Josh was the best thing going on down on Broadway." - Margo Price
Born and raised in Naples, Florida, Hedley, at age 3, asked his parents for a fiddle ("Not a violin," he stresses, "a fiddle"). They fulfilled the request when he turned 8 and – uninterested in taking advantage of the nearby Gulf sands – he began classical lessons. "I never had time to go to the beach. I was practicing," he says.
With his parents' support, he was soon gigging around Florida and attending fiddle camps, and at 19 he moved to Nashville, where he eventually found his way to Tootsie's honky-tonk on Lower Broadway and scored work as a sideman for Justin Townes Earle and Jonny Fritz, among others.
"I always thought Josh was the best thing going on down on Broadway," says Margo Price, who enlisted Hedley to play fiddle on her latest album, All American Made. "No one carries on the tradition the way Ol' Hed does. He grew up in it, worked on his chops and earned his place in that world. Now the world gets to hear it."
As a friend and touring partner of Hedley for eight years, Fritz has seen Hedley evolve both in the studio and on the road. He enlisted him to play on all three of his albums and will call for a fiddle solo onstage with a sharp "Josh Hedley!"
"Through osmosis on Broadway he's absorbed all this music," says Fritz, who likens Hedley to a stubborn bulldog. "He hates moving around, he hates stairs, he hates doing too much. When he comes to a solo, he's listening to what's best for the song, but he's not thinking about it. He looks so pissed off, but he'll pull out this amazing solo."
Hedley exudes surliness. "At his core, he's most interested in cute, funny ridiculous cat videos on the Internet," says Fritz, "but his exterior is tough Florida cracker." He also doesn't hold his tongue on Twitter, whether he's tweeting about his love for professional wrestling (he watches Ric Flair promos to psych himself up before he performs) or why Planet Fitness sucks. A recent tweet highlight: "Anyone who doesn't like disco influences in country music probably doesn't like Ronnie Milsap. Those people can eat shit."
It's the juxtaposition of that outsized gruffness with Hedley's hidden sensitivity that makes the vulnerable, heart-tugging songs of Mr. Jukebox so affecting. "Let's Take a Vacation" mixes a crooned delivery with a "He Stopped Loving Her Today"-like recitation ("Oh honey, it's been a long time, since we last fanned the flame," Hedley whispers). "I Never Shed a Tear for You" features smooth Anita Kerr Singers-type backing vocals. And the quirky, upbeat "Weird Thought Thinker" is Roger Miller-esque in its goofiness.
But Hedley is at his best when he's playing the sad sack, as in the devastating "Don't Waste Your Tears." "Don't cry for me / you'll be better off alone," he wails. "We both tried our best, it wasn't good enough."
Even the one song he didn't write for the album is melancholy in nature: "When You Wish Upon a Star." Hedley, who arrived for lunch wearing a leather Mickey Mouse jacket and has a Mickey tattoo, is an unabashed fan of Disney World, which he and his family would visit each Christmas. He cut the song for his dad, who died in 2015 and never got to see his son's success.
For Hedley, his own wish upon a star came true when he was invited to perform on the Grand Ole Opry, where he made his debut earlier this month. Now he's tossing around two other goals in his ol' head. One is to make a record with a full symphony. The other has a tinge of irony, since Hedley, after one too many rough mornings, no longer drinks. "I would like to sing the Miller High Life jingle," he says. "The guy that originally sang it, John Shepherd, plays at Robert's all the time."
No doubt Hedley could imbue the "if you've got the time, we've got the beer" chorus with an extra shot of tear-in-my-beer sadness. He makes no bones about his stock-in-trade.
"At the end of the day, I'm writing and singing sad songs for sad people. It's all personal and it's all sincere," he says. "That's what country music is."