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If you’re the kind of country music fan who’s ever wished someone like Ray Price or Buck Owens had recorded just one more great song, Joshua Hedley’s Mr. Jukebox is cause for celebration. But if you’re looking for someone to push the country envelope or put a twist in your twang, this ain’t your record.
While Mr. Jukebox qualifies as Hedley’s debut, he’s spent the past 20 years studying late 50s and early 60s country-and-western classics. A veteran of Nashville’s Lower Broadway music scene, he’s also backed up and collaborated with some of Music City’s finest. Several such studio-ace peers—like pedal-steel guitar master Eddie Lange and pianist Micah Hulsher—give the record a nicely polished feel. And producer Jordan Lehning freshens up the mid-60s template heard on Mr. Jukebox with a more inviting midrange all the while spotlighting the band’s propulsive rhythm section. The results come across like a really good remaster of the classic sound, adding emotional energy and a firmer foundation to the crowd-pleasing melodies.
Steeped in alternating countrypolitan lushness and Bakersfield honky tonk, the set combines the singer’s supple, bourbon-smooth voice with the steel guitar and piano-based arrangements. Hedley isn’t shy about saying he believes country music was “perfected” in the mid-60s. Here, he remains uninterested in experimenting with that formula. What makes his fundamentalist vision entertaining is he and his band mates’ passion, authenticity, and skill.
On the break-up tune “This Time,” Hedley’s delivery feels so heartfelt, you can easily overlook that the composition’s ironic heartache owes a debt to George Jones’ classic “She Thinks I Still Care.” His clever wordplay and use of a string section on numbers like “Weird Thought Thinker” recall the charming combination of humor and sophistication that made Roger Miller famous. The vocalist also stretches his emotional range on “Counting All My Tears,” a lonesome weeper that might make you think it’s last call at an empty bar. On the downside, Hedley slips into pastiche on the derivative “These Walls” and “Let’s Take a Vacation.” Those missteps aside, Mr. Jukebox laudably honors the spirit of an important era in American music.
Sonically, Mr. Jukebox ranks as one of most rewarding new vinyl releases I’ve heard in 2018. The pressing is absolutely quiet, the dynamics lively, and the imaging sumptuously holographic. Third Man Records also includes a slick insert with lyrics, extensive credits, and layout graphics that match the Nudie suit theme of the jacket photos. The only room for improvement at its price point would be vinyl-friendly nylon inserts for the record sleeve.
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