Growing up on the edge of the South Australian desert, Jedd Hughes felt trapped in the middle.
On one side of his house, his dad would spin records by early American country musicians, and one ear soaked up the Nashville twang that’s still so prevalent in the music he makes today. On the other side, his brother blasted classic rock and heavy metal, filling up his other ear with the siren song of the guitar he’s worked his whole life to master.
“It was a good place to be, because I was around it and sort of immersed in a lot of music really early on,” Jedd told me this week. I interviewed him for the musicians-in-recovery blog I do for my other job (shameless self-promotion: You can read those stories at www.thetiesthatbindus.org), but on Aug. 7, fans of country superstar Vince Gill will get two opportunities to see Jedd, providing they get to the concert on time: He’s the opening act, as well as a member of Vince’s band.
In fact, he told me, the opportunity to open a show for Vince is a rare one, but Gill sort of backed himself into a corner with his support for Jedd’s new solo album, “West,” which will be released Aug. 30.
“Vince doesn’t traditionally have an opener, because he just loves to play so much,” Hughes said. “Even the soundchecks can go for an hour to an hour and a half of playing. It’s incredible. But last year I was talking to him, and he was poking and prodding and asking what I was doing and about my musical aspirations, and I told him I was slowly working on this record.
“He really encouraged me and was really happy for me, and he told me, ‘That’s what you should be doing. You’re an artist, so you should be making your own music. That’s why you came (to Nashville). So when I finished the album, I called him up and said, ‘Hey man, you’re the one who said I should be doing this! Would you give me 20 minutes to open up for you? And to his credit, he said, ‘Absolutely. Get out there.’”
For those who may remember Hughes from his solo career when he first got to Nashville, “West” undoubtedly will come as something of a surprise. Case in point: He’s only released one song from the new record, the haunting and poignant “Animal Eyes,” the opening lines of which — “crawling out of the morning, shedding dead skin” — were encouraged by Rodney Crowell, to whom Hughes also has loaned his guitar talents.
“He called me up and asked what I was doing, and I told him, ‘I’m just crawling out of the morning,’ and he said, ‘Hey — that’s a line in a song,’” Hughes said. “So I wrote it down, and I just chipped away at that song and wrote and rewrote it. And when it was finished, I just felt like I had something that I liked, which I hadn’t had in 10 years or longer.”
More like 15 years: Hughes migrated from Australia to Texas, where he went to college; country singer-songwriter Terry McBride (of McBride and the Ride), who was a friend with one of his instructors, took a shine to him and encouraged him to move to Nashville. There, McBride helped introduce Hughes to the right people, and he eventually landed a deal with MCA Nashville, which released his debut album, “Transcontinental,” in 2004. It’s jarring, almost, for Spotify to transition from “Animal Eyes” to “High Lonesome,” one of that record’s singles, but it was a different time, and Hughes was a different man.
“Not long after it came out, literally like a couple of months, MCA merged with Dreamworks, and everybody that was working on my record got let go, and the new people didn’t have a lot of interest in my project,” he said.
A subsequent deal with Capitol led to a record that was never even released, and Hughes, disheartened and growing more reliant on the bottle, resigned himself to work as a sideman and studio musician. He’s worked with a number of top-tier artists, from Sarah Jarosz to Patty Loveless to Crowell and Emmylou Harris, and after relocating briefly with his family to Los Angeles, he sobered up, returned to Nashville and dealt with some mental health issues that opened the door to this next chapter of his career.
“I started to get into this groove of putting my son to bed and then feeling like I had a few more hours of productivity left in me at night,” he said. “I would just go sit in a spare bedroom, and I felt like writing, but I didn’t know what to say, so to take the creative pressure off myself, I just would sit in a room and play guitar a little bit.”
Crowell’s suggestion stuck, however, and “Animal Eyes” became the foundation stone for “West.” According to the album’s press release, “At the heart of ‘West’ is a group of stories, told by an excellent storyteller. Hughes’s masterful guitar playing is always present, as an accent, but never covering up a character or plot, allowing his tales to blossom and thrive.
“I wasn’t convinced I had or wanted to make a record, but I slowly collected things, added some things and assemble some kind of musical statement,” he said. “I became interested in my own writing voice again.”