Neon Blue

Joshua Hedley

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Neon Blue Review

by Mark Deming

Just because you enjoy visiting the past doesn't mean you can't move forward. On Joshua Hedley's 2018 debut album, Mr. Jukebox, he delivered what sounded like the best country album of 1963, a brilliant, soulful evocation of Nashville's golden era that hit a sweet spot between countrypolitan polish and honky tonk heart. For his second full-length release, Hedley has made a bold move into the future, and 2022's Neon Blue would have been all over country radio in 1990, a time when acts like George Strait and Randy Travis were scoring hit after hit with a refined but sincere brand of Nashville traditionalism and Garth Brooks was starting to take a souped-up, pop-infused variation on those themes to an audience that would soon pack stadiums to the rafters. The sort of listeners who cherish the memory of pre-Urban Cowboy country music (and were among Hedley's earliest adopters) probably consider this an era they'd prefer not to revisit, but if anyone can convince folks of its value, Hedley's the man to do it. At a time when bro-country and Auto-Tune are still staples on country radio, Neon Blue sounds like a breath of fresh air, the perfect soundtrack for a cold beer at the corner bar after a long day of work, and it speaks of love, heartache, and ordinary life with unpretentious smarts and impressive craft. While Hedley's tropes are easily recognizable, they're expressed with an open heart and the unaffected honesty that the best country songwriters can communicate, and his vocals are the perfect fit for the material, expressive and with just enough twang and texture to give them warmth and personality. (When Hedley name-checks George Jones in "Bury Me with My Boots On," he sounds like a guy who has actually been listening to the Possum this morning.) The production (by Jordan Lehning and Skylar Wilson) is clear and uncluttered, with a team of first-class pickers adding just the right swells of fiddle and pedal steel to reinforce the emotional peaks of the tunes, and the love songs like "Let's Make a Memory" and "Found in a Bar" are every bit as eloquent as the cash-strapped anthem "Broke Again" or the rowdy breakup celebration of "Bury Me with My Boots On." Mr. Jukebox was the work of a country songwriting prodigy who has a brilliant understanding of Nashville's past, and Neon Blue confirms Joshua Hedley's got plenty more good ideas up his sleeve, and isn't holding back in terms of what he considers great music.

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