Jedd Hughes describes life with transcendental precision: a sleepless night in Modesto; a childhood on the edge of the sprawling Australian desert; an old friend whose wit is still razor-sharp, finally at peace. Listening to Hughes, you don’t just picture a place or a person. You experience them.
It makes sense, then, that Hughes’s technicolor world has often felt too formidable for three verses and a chorus. He couldn’t settle for making music that was anything but all of him, and so we waited––waited on the kid legends befriended and believed in––to find a way to capture the smoky stories and sounds that danced and beckoned to him, just out of focus.
The wait is over. In the summer of 2019, Hughes will release WEST, his years-anticipated solo album of his expansive roots-anchored rock-and-roll. Hughes’ easy tenor and masterful guitar playing are worthy companions to his songwriting that transports listeners to dark corners and astral visions, evoking desperation, restlessness, and poignant recognition. The record is a triumph, both personally and professionally. “I came over here to make my own music––that was my dream,” Hughes says. “I started suppressing that dream when things went wrong. Then to make my own music, I had to figure out what that even was. I had to get some confidence, to try it again, and believe in myself.”
From the outside looking in, it can be difficult to see that things went wrong at all. A long list of musical giants that jumps generations and artistic bents have long-since counted Hughes as a trusted collaborator and inspiration, including Patty Loveless, Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller, Vince Gill, Ryan Bingham, Sarah Jarosz, the late Guy Clark, Jim Lauderdale, Brandy Clark, and more. He toured as a guitarist with Crowell and Harris off and on for years, and became one of Nashville’s most sought-after players. “Yesterday, I played a session with Emmylou, Buddy Miller, and Sam Bush,” he says. “I was just sitting in the room, thinking, ‘How the hell did I get from the middle of nowhere to moments like these?’”
For Hughes, the middle of nowhere was Quorn, Australia, his tiny hometown hugged by the Flinders Ranges, the Mars-red mountains that stretch into the Outback. “Everything seemed so much bigger,” Hughes says. “The sunsets were so drastic. Because it was so far out, there was no ambient light. There was no sound other than these epic 10,000 cockatoos flying over in massive flocks to the gum trees at sundown. You’d hear them coming from miles away. It only rained a few times a year. So anytime it rained, it was like, ‘Oh my God. It’s raining! Go! Watch the rain!’” He laughs.
Hughes picked up the guitar at about 7 years-old––his father encouraged him, and his home was filled with music. His parents loved hardcore and outlaw country––Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings––and his older brother loved Led Zeppelin and 90s grunge. Hughes loved it all. At age 8, he had a revelation. “I saw a guy named Bill Chambers playing an old Fender Telecaster, and it was just the greatest thing I’d ever heard,” he says. “That was when I decided I was going to take guitar a lot more seriously.” He dropped out of high school at 16, began touring as a guitarist with an Australian country singer, and never looked back.
Paid in cash that he stashed in his freezer, Hughes saved up enough money to make it to Levelland, just west of Lubbock, Texas, where he attended South Plains College. Then, masquerading as a tall, lanky hit songwriter, fate stepped in. Terry McBride came down from Nashville to conduct a workshop at South Plains. Impressed with Hughes, McBride encouraged him to move to Nashville and promised to help in any way he could. “I came to Nashville in 2002, in the middle of March,” Hughes says. “It was still cold. I was terrified. I was so broke.”
Hughes had to find a job. McBride made good on his promise and arranged for Hughes to audition for a spot as acoustic guitarist and harmony singer for Patty Loveless. Hughes nailed it. His first gig in Nashville was at the Grand Ole Opry with Loveless, then Merlefest the following weekend. He played with Loveless for two years, writing songs with heavy hitters whenever he was home. A record deal with MCA followed, and his debut album dropped in 2004. “It all just kind of fell into place, which is funny, because it all fell out of place just as quickly as it fell into place,” Hughes says. MCA merged with another label, the inherited staff was fired, and just like that, he was dropped.
Hughes tried to rally. Friend and mentor Rodney Crowell took him out on the road as a guitarist, and Hughes signed a new deal with Capitol. But the record he made for them was never released, and Hughes asked out of his deal. He continued to play with others. “All the while, I was daydreaming of making my own music, but didn’t know how to do it––didn’t have the confidence to do it,” he says. Tired of a Nashville that had burned him twice, he sought refuge in Los Angeles. “I was just so lost and disenchanted with the whole thing,” he says. “I didn’t know myself––didn’t know what all those years of trying had meant. I never thought I’d come back. I remember driving away, thinking, ‘Thank God that’s over.’ But then things got worse in LA,” he pauses and laughs, sounding a bit sad. “Because I wasn’t dealing with anything.”
But Hughes stopped running. He returned to Nashville and dug in. “I got sober and have been now for over three years,” he says. “As I did that and started to work through some of those things that were lingering in the back of my mind, I started to write songs that I liked again. The first one was called ‘Animal Eyes.’” A windfall ensued, and the songs haven’t stopped coming. “I just found this little nugget of confidence and a piece of music I believed in and had fun playing,” he says. “I started to feel like maybe I could play my own music again––which doesn’t seem like it would be a hard thing, but for me, it really was.”
Ultimately, that’s what Hughes is, most of all: a storyteller. “I hope these stories in these songs resonate with people,” he says. “I hope people listen to it as a record and can see some of the things I saw.”