Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Joshua Hedley and Ian Noe

Joshua Hedley – Neon Blue

He calls himself Mr Jukebox because he has hundreds of tunes at his disposal for a gig on Lower Broadway. Following up the 2018 album of that title, Joshua releases a 12-track set which recalls the mighty country music of the 1990s. He does it in a less obvious manner than Cole Swindell, who will have a number one by shamelessly nicking Heads Carolina Tails California for his own gains.

Josha, meanwhile, is ‘working like a dog, sweating like a hog’ but he’s Broke Again on the album’s opening track. It has fiddle, a stuttering hook and a drumbeat which was all the rage in 1994, when Joe Diffie, Brooks & Dunn and the rest were topping the charts without nicking old songs to do so.

Country & Western underlines that the genre is ‘about real life: drinking, cheating, loving…I cry alone to a steel guitar’, with a wah-wah cry from that instrument, while a twangin’ guitar opens Old Heartbroke Blues (‘there’s a cowgirl on the loose’). Free (One Heart) reminds me of Joe Nichols, who also stuck to traditional sounds on his last album, as Joshua advertises himself for a new owner. It even fades out like songs in 1994 did and this gently ends the first ‘side’ of the album.

That side also includes Down To My Last Lie, an authentic country song which paints Joshua as a schmuck with lots of keening in his voice, and The Last Thing In The World. That song opens in a honkytonk, an environment where Joshua has made a living, as he calls for an end to the parade of broken-hearted punters.

The title track opens the second ‘side’ with a tale that stays in the honkytonk, with ‘Friday night loving’ making his heart turn Neon Blue. This is also the mood of Wonder If You Wonder. There follows a proud Bury Me With My Boots On, then a pair of magnificently gorgeous tunes.

One is about a couple celebrating their ruby wedding anniversary that gives lie to the saying that love cannot be Found In A Bar. The other is a waltz called Let’s Make A Memory which is about 100% George Strait. The album ends with the philosophical River In The Rain, which also fades out.

Credit goes to Joshua’s producers Jordan Lehning and Skylar Wilson, plus co-writers Carson Chamberlain (who has also worked with Billy Currington), Wyatt McCubbin and Zach Top. The album is a beautiful homage to an era that is back in fashion only because Nashville thinks it can make money by selling it again. Joshua cares more for heritage than money, although a generous tip would be welcome.

Ian Noe – River Fools & Mountain Saints

Underrated? Cult songwriter? Ian Noe (real first name Joey) seems to be among the ranks of certain roots performers who are acclaimed within the scene but not known beyond it. Dave Cobb produced his 2019 debut album, having worked with Ian’s fellow Kentuckian Chris Stapleton, while Ian opened for John Prine on one of his final tours.

This second album – distributed by Thirty Tigers who also brought John’s records out – opens with a few bars of groove and guitar which introduce the song Pine Grove (Madhouse). Ian’s vocals sound adenoidal but direct, giving us a view of life in middle America.

The tunes keep coming, each with nagging melodies, vivid lyrics and arrangements that go long on traditional instruments. Tom Barrett, about a murderer, was ‘waiting for a better time to tell her he’d be gone’, an opening line which hooks the listener like a great storyteller does. Ditto Burning Down The Prairie (‘Daddy’s on the rampage’), which kicks into an electric wigout halfway through. The title Appalachia Haze might well be a nod to Hendrix’s Purple one, but there are no electric guitar fireworks to be here.

River Fool is a John Prine-ish character song about a guy prone to strumming Creedence Clearwater Revival while he wastes the days away. The Appalachian harmonies are as appealing as the mandolin and acoustic guitar which drive the rhythm of the song.

This is proper singer/songwriter stuff, music which would work with just a mouth and a guitar but on record can be surrounded by excellent arrangements. From the jaunty Strip Job Blues 1984 to the image-heavy toe-tappers POW Blues and Mountain Saint, Ian knows how to write a folk song. Road May Flood, which segues into It’s A Heartache, is a lovely closing duo; the latter has a string section, which helps the album and Ian drift off on the breeze.

For slower songs, try the rolling guitar of Ballad of a Retired Man, the apt Lonesome As It Gets, and One More Night, where Ian gently finger-picks his guitar while brooding about those who voyage on the sea. There is a muted horn solo in the middle of that last song which I hope Ian can repeat on the road so audiences obtain the full experience.

He comes to End of the Road festival and a pair of UK dates in early September.

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