Beyond his considerable skills as a guitarist and singer, Jedd Hughes is also a case study in making and cultivating the right connections. The handsome, 22-year-old Australian has just released his first album, Transcontinental, on MCA Records. It features some of the artists who've given his career an assist along the way, among them Terry McBride who produced the album and co-wrote most of its songs, and Patty Loveless, who once employed Hughes as her lead guitarist.
Raised in the south Australia town of Quorn, Hughes won his first talent contest when he was 8 years old. When he was 12, he represented his home country in the International Music for Youth festivals in France, Belgium and Sweden. He moved to the U. S. when he was 18 to study in the music curriculum at South Plains College in Levelland, Texas, a school whose former students include country thrush Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks and Lee Ann Womack. Here he met McBride, who was conducting a workshop for aspiring musicians. Hughes enrolled at the college in 2000 and remained there for three semesters before decamping to Nashville.
In Nashville, Hughes linked up with McBride again, and the two began writing songs and recording demos to pitch for a record deal. Not long after he arrived in Music City, Billy Thomas, another McBride & the Ride alumnus, alerted him to the fact that Loveless was looking for a guitar player. "I spent a few weeks really concentrating on learning her records," Hughes says, "and then went and auditioned." He passed the test.
Hughes joined Loveless' band just in time to accompany her on the 2002 Down From the Mountain Tour, an all-acoustic spinoff of the surprisingly successful O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack album. For a guy who had idolized American bluegrass stars from afar, this was an especially heady experience.
"Oh man! It was like the most incredible education in roots music and bluegrass you could ever wish for," he exclaims. "Hanging out with Ricky Skaggs and Del McCoury every day -- and Ralph Stanley -- and getting to listen to them play every night was quite incredible."
Some of the demos Hughes and McBride recorded after the Down From the Mountain Tour was over ultimately ended up as tracks on Transcontinental.
"What happened," Hughes explains, "was that we cut six demos in November of 2002. We kept those tracks for the [album] ... and then cut the other half of the record last year in September and October."
McBride, who had recorded for MCA in the early 1990s in McBride & the Ride, was instrumental in getting Hughes an audition for the label.
"Terry was friends with David Conrad, who was the head of A&R [for MCA] at the time," Hughes says, "and we arranged to go over and play David some of the stuff." A guitarist himself, Conrad liked what he heard. Hughes signed with the label in early 2003.
As testimony to his skill, Hughes plays lead guitar on all the Transcontinental tracks. He and McBride wrote 10 of the 11 songs on the album in league with such co-writers as Tommy Lee James, Josh Leo, Jennifer Kimball, Al Anderson, Billy Burnette and Bruce Robison. Loveless sings harmony with him on "Soldier for the Lonely," and Alison Krauss chimes in on "The Only Girl in Town," which Hughes says is a Beatles-inspired number. Although a relative newcomer to songwriting, Hughes does have one cut -- "Brass Bed" -- on Josh Gracin's new album. He co-wrote it with McBride and Brett James.
Gram Parson's "Luxury Liner" is Transcontinental's only cover tune. "I'm such a Gram Parsons fan," Hughes says, "and I wanted to record one of his songs. I wanted something up-tempo and that seemed to fit the bill." Earlier this summer, he performed on the Parsons tribute concert in Los Angeles and will appear on the DVD made of the show.
Bluegrass-tinged "High Lonesome" was Hughes' first single from the album. Next up, he says, is the slow and wistful "Time to Say Goodnight (Sweet Dreams Baby)."
Hughes has also performed and recorded with Rodney Crowell. His favorite guitars, he reports, are a Brian de Gruchy model from Australia, an Epiphone John Lennon Casino model and a 1968 blonde Fender Telecaster.
This year, Hughes has been touring as an opening act for Gretchen Wilson, Brad Paisley and Hank Williams Jr. He's done some solo shows as well and says he has at least 50 more dates scheduled between now and year's end.