Decades after kicking off his career as a fiddle-playing sideman, Joshua Hedley has grown into a country solo artist. He’s a rare find: a compelling singer and articulate songwriter who can truly play, too, leading his band with the instrumental chops he sharpened with years of four-hour gigs on Lower Broadway. He covers that full transition during this week’s episode of Walking the Floor, talking with podcast host Chris Shiflett – another sideman-turned-frontman – about everything from childhood violin lessons to Porter Wagoner’s supersized manhood.
Hedley makes traditional country music for the modern era. In keeping with that spirit of tradition, we’ve rounded up a few highlights from the episode, which makes its full-length premiere via the stream below.
Although his bandmates joking call him “grandpa” in the touring van, the guy started playing music at a young age.
Hedley began asking his parents for a fiddle at age 3. No one in the family knows how he became obsessed with the instrument. “My mom listened to Neil Diamond and my dad listened to Otis Redding,” he says, pointing out the lack of country music – or fiddle-heavy music in general – within the family household. “I don’t know – maybe I saw it in a Disney movie or something – but I have no clue why I asked specifically for a fiddle. Not a violin, but a fiddle. We still laugh about it, because it’s a mystery.”
Five years later, Hedley finally received his first fiddle and began taking classical lessons. He began to master the instrument via the Suzuki method. “My violin teacher knew I wanted to play fiddle, so she would learn these little fiddle tunes and then teach them to me, in addition to my classic studies,” he remembers. “It branched out from there. I knew a few fiddle tunes at 10 years old. My parents found this little local bluegrass jam and started taking me to that. The very first band I ever played with came out of that.”
Hedley’s first recurring gig involved barbecue platters, drum machines and plenty of Florida-bound snowbirds.
At 13 years old, Hedley landed his first residency. He was still living in Florida, where the population swelled with snow-phobic northerners during the winter months. It was there, at a place called Porky’s Last Stand, that he built his first audience, playing at the restaurant regularly for six years.
“It was a barbecue restaurant in the front,” he remembers, “and they had a bar in the back. The bar had a few walls, [in addition to] a roll-down, clear, plastic tarp wall. I played in a band called Hot Country. I was 13, and everybody else was in their forties. It was a bass player, a guitar player, a chick singer who was also younger. . .and then a drum machine.”
As a teenager, he’d make yearly trips to Nashville, where he would sit in with the bands playing the honky-tonks on Lower Broadway.
“We’d go into Roberts, Tootsies, and Layla’s,” he says, remembering a bygone Broadway that was still a few years shy of its modern makeover as the bachelorette capital of the world. As a result, the bands playing those bars still focused on country music rather than pop/rock covers. “You could still go to Tootises and hear a Merle Haggard song, and you wouldn’t hear ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ by Journey,” he says.
That said, Hedley’s tastes always diverged sharply from the music that was being played on modern country radio. “I knew that country radio was different. At that time, in 2004, it was the lamest of the lame. I remember thinking, ‘It can’t get worse than this.’ There was a joke that we told, which was, ‘Have you told about this new music genre? They took the best parts about country and the best parts about rap. It’s called crap.’ The fact that it would become a reality is just absurd. Here we are, 2018, and cowboys are rapping.”
The secret to playing a good gig on Lower Broadway? Make sure you’re having fun first.
“There’s a curve that happens,” explains Hedley, who’s spent more than a decade playing weekly – and often daily – gigs at Robert’s Western World on Lower Broadway. “When you start there, it’s everything you can do just to keep up. You’re playing four-hour shifts. As you play over the years, you learn how to deal with the crowd. How to work the crowd. After you’ve been playing for 13 years, it kinda becomes, ‘Well, I’m just having fun up here, and if the crowd likes it, that’s great.'”
Although he understands that Broadway doesn’t always provide the ideal listening environment – “You exist as a soundtrack for people getting shit-faced,” he says at one point – Hedley still sharpened his chops on those stages, landing a few top-tier sideman gigs along the way.
He’s served as a right-hand man for other singers, too, although he’s focusing more on frontman duties these days.
“I’ll tell you what Broadway does: it churns out touring band members,” says Hedley, whose sideman work has included a string of international runs with Justin Townes Earle, Johnny Fritz and Robert Ellis. “I don’t know if it’s this way anymore, but it used to be that pretty much anyone who played downtown had a touring gig, too, except for the singer. . .They’d go downtown to supplement their income when they were in town.”
That said, it’s less common to find a Broadway-playing frontman who breaks out of that scene, which makes Hedley’s success a rarity.
“[Playing Broadway] can become a dead end,” he allows, “because you start to make money there. It’s guaranteed money. You get into a rut. When I was 24, I was playing 14 gigs a week down there. . .It’s very much a place for the player. As an artist, it’s hard to get out of there.”
After a number of years in Nashville, Joshua Hedley has heard his share of stories. . .including the apocryphal tale involving George Jones and Porter Wagoner’s encounter in a men’s room.
“George Jones grabbed Porter Wagoner’s penis at a urinal,” Hedley tells a surprised Shiflett. “Porter was legendary for having a large. . .he was very well-endowed. It got around that maybe Porter was sleeping with Tammy. And George Jones walked up to him, grabbed it, and said, ‘I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.'”