The album cover for Joshua Hedley’s Mr. Jukebox is a handsome and tasteful example of giving a modern record a vintage look. It features the song titles in plain font in the upper right-hand corner, a retro-futuristic Third Man Records logo and a simple shot of Hedley—a native Floridian, top-shelf fiddler and longtime Nashville scenester—sitting in a turquoise, animal-themed Nudie-style suit. The only thing that doesn’t quite look decades old are the knuckle tattoos peeking out from Hedley’s jacket sleeve.
Ah, the knuckle tattoos. A conspicuous hint at some punk influence on Mr. Jukebox, Hedley’s debut full-length album?
Not even a little bit. Hedley, who has been playing at well-known Music City bars for years, is on record as a country purist: “It’s important to exercise your creative muscles, but for me the genre of country music was perfected in 1965 and anything after that, albeit good, was experimentation,” he told Rolling Stone a couple years ago. “When it comes to making country music, my mantra is, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’”
Mr. Jukebox ain’t broke. In fact, it’s as pure a country record as any you’ll hear, one that comes from the smooth gospel-tinged side of the genre more than the hardcore twang side. And that’s just as well, as the former offers more opportunities for Hedley to showcase his voice, a buttery baritone he commands with impressive control.
With his voice as centerpiece, Hedley spends all of Mr. Jukebox exploring the basic forms of his chosen field. Most of these songs are about love, or more precisely, the end of love. “Counting All My Tears” is a classic heartbreak ballad built on a subdued piano part and embellished with choral vocals. Harmonica and tic-tac bass color “These Walls,” a paean to a stumble-home bar by “a man who can’t move on” from a woman. In “This Time” and “Don’t Waste Your Tears,” on the other hand, it’s the man who’s ending the relationship. But that’s where the similarity ends: the former is a twangy traditional country song, while the latter is one of the album’s highlights, thanks to its heavy dose of steel guitar and high string-section drama.
Elsewhere, Hedley tries out one happy love song, a fiddle-driven honky-tonker called “Let Them Talk,” and a road song, “Weird Thought Thinker,” which waltzes through a wonderland of strings, steel guitar, sprightly piano and sumptuous backing vocals. And then there’s the title track, which slyly pays tribute to both jukeboxes and the reliable hit-machine humans who entertain tourists in Nashville’s Lower Broadway dives every night.
The song’s got it all: sweet fiddle chop, a shuffling drum beat, reverbed electric guitar, cheerful piano, silky steel guitar, walk-around bass lines and Hedley’s flawless croon floating across it all. Mr. Jukebox is proof you can take Hedley out of the country bar, but you’ll never take the country bar out of Hedley.